In a survey last year, Chinese travelers said they were most interested in visiting Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea.
But they’re not going there – at least not yet.
Flight restrictions, visa issues and entry requirements designed just for them complicate matters for Chinese residents willing to travel abroad.
According to Ctrip, Trip.com Group’s Chinese-language booking website, Chinese travelers preferred Southeast Asia for trips during the Lunar New Year holiday, which ended in early February.
Travel bookings by Chinese outside the mainland are up 640% over last year’s holiday season – and according to Ctrip data, the top destinations were Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai, Manila and Bali.
Overseas hotel bookings by travelers from mainland China have also quadrupled year-on-year, according to Ctrip. However, one place stood out — Bangkok, where “hotel bookings increased more than 33-fold during the holiday season,” according to Ctrip.
Top spot for tour groups
Thailand is also currently the top choice for Chinese tour groups, said Thomas Lee, Trip.com Group’s senior director of international business operations.
Ctrip’s first group tour kicked off Feb. 7 with travelers to Bangkok and the nearby beach city of Pattaya, Lee said.
The second most popular place for group travel is the Maldives, followed by Egypt, he said.
China resumed group tours organized by travel agencies on February 6. Travel to 20 countries is allowed, including Southeast Asian countries Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Laos, as well as the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Hungary, Cuba and Russia.
Group trips to Japan, South Korea and Vietnam are not yet allowed.
Why Thailand is popular
One of the main reasons Chinese tourists choose Thailand is the ease of access for them, Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said in Squawk Box Asia on Monday.
“At the end of the day, we were able to open our country with very minimal restrictions,” he said.
He said Thailand has “tried every possible way to ensure that our Chinese tourists, as well as tourists from around the world, will be able to come to our country to spend their holidays.”
The day after China relaxed its borders in early January, Thailand announced that all incoming visitors must be vaccinated to enter the country.
But within days, Thai authorities abandoned the rule amid growing Chinese anger at countries that imposed new rules on Chinese residents.
Charnvirakul said Thailand’s policy U-turn has to do with science, not a fear of upsetting Chinese travelers, adding that “more than 75% of our population has (Covid) antibodies from both vaccination and infection.”
He said of the 30 million tourists Thailand expects this year, 12 to 15 million could come from China.
“Chinese tourists are very important to our tourism industry,” said Charnvirakul.
The Chinese aren’t the only ones choosing Thailand as a holiday destination.
Russia was Thailand’s seventh-largest tourism market in 2019, but as of November 2022, Russian visitors ranked third in tourist arrivals, after travelers from Malaysia and India, according to Reuters. At the end of 2022, one in four visitors to Phuket was Russian, said Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, according to a Reuters article.
Russians saw their tourism opportunities minimized in 2022, when many countries stopped flying to and from Russia after the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Currently, issues with visas are the number one concern for customers,” said Lee of Trip.com Group.
Chinese travelers have been blocked from getting visas to places like South Korea and Japan after both countries halted processing over concerns about the recent rise in Covid-19 in China. South Korea announced last week that it would resume issuing short-term visas to Chinese travelers, according to Reuters.
Elsewhere, Chinese residents face long waits to apply for visas due to high demand. Before the pandemic, visa applications to enter the European Union were processed in a matter of days, but now applicants can expect waiting times of up to two months, according to the SchengenVisaInfo.com website.
Aside from visas, Chinese travelers also worry about getting sick, Lee said.
Because of this, group tours are mostly booked by travelers from the “post-90s and post-80s,” he said, referring to Chinese generational terms for those born in the 1990s and 1980s, respectively.
The price shouldn’t be a problem
Soaring travel prices may be less of a concern for some Chinese travelers.
A report released by Morgan Stanley on February 7 shows growing demand for high-end and luxury hotels among Chinese consumers.
Interest in luxury hotels jumped from 18% to 34% in 2022-2023, while “mentions of budget hotels and mid-range hotels generally declined,” according to the report.
More travelers expect hotel stays to be their top travel expense, from 17% in 2017 to 20% in 2023.
Travelers may need to be ready to open their wallets, even in places like Thailand, which has long been popular with backpackers and budget travelers.
Average hotel booking prices in Bangkok rose by around 70% at the end of January, according to Ctrip.