Chinese Travel Is Set to Return. The Question Is, When?

“If we want to hire 100 people today, we can’t do that because we’re not sure,” he said. “I don’t know, maybe in the next two months the Chinese government says, ‘We’re closing the border again.’”

With its economy heavily dependent on tourism, Thailand lost out on tens of billions of dollars in spending by Chinese tourists over the last three years. The Chiang Mai office of the Tourism Authority estimates that the city, known for its stunning Buddhist temples and heavy dependence on tourism, will welcome back about 600,000 Chinese visitors this year who will spend about $230 million — about half of the total from 2019.

The real numbers won’t start until the second quarter, people in the Thai travel sector say. Many Chinese tourists traditionally come to Thailand on group tours (they made up about half of the Chinese visitors in Chiang Mai), and the Chinese government is not letting tour operators restart their businesses until Feb. 6, and then only under a pilot program with about two dozen countries, including Thailand. For now, only independent Chinese tourists who can afford the expensive airfare are taking trips.

But not everyone is keen to welcome back group tours. Even before Covid, operators in Thailand and China saw a reversal of the group tour trend and a shift toward more tech-savvy Chinese travelers armed with booking and experience apps taking trips on their own.

Over the last decade, while the overall numbers of Chinese tourists rose, group tours dwindled amid a crackdown on cheap so-called zero-dollar tours in Phuket, the 40-mile long island on the Thai peninsula’s west coast. Often illegal operations dodging taxes, the tours typically were controlled by Chinese investors who owned buses, hotels, restaurants, spas and gift shops, siphoning off tourist spending from locals. They were known for pressuring guests to buy overpriced souvenirs at the shops they controlled.

“I don’t think that we will have more of the big tour groups,” said Nantida Atiset, a hotel owner in Phuket and the vice president of the Phuket Tourist Association. “I think they will come back, of course. It’s just a matter of how big they will come back.”

In London, another popular destination for Chinese travelers, more than 300,000 people visited Chinatown last week for the first Lunar New Year parade since the coronavirus, but few Chinese tourists were present.