CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AP) — Just a handful of Chinese visitors were posing for photos and basking in the sun this week in the market and plazas near Chiang Mai’s ancient Tha Phae gate, one of many hotspots tourists who are still waiting for millions of Chinese travelers to return.
Beaches and temples in destinations like Bali and Chiang Mai have been the busiest since the pandemic hit three years ago, but are still relatively quiet.
Still, Chanatip Pansomboon, a soft drink vendor in Chinatown in Chiang Mai, a scenic riverside town in northern Thailand, was optimistic. He thinks that with the steady increase in the number of flights from China, it is only a matter of time.
«If a lot of them can come back, that will be great because they have buying power,» Chanatip said.
The expected recovery group tours from China is likely to bring in many more visitors. For now, only individual travelers who can afford to pay, with flights costing more than triple what they normally do, are venturing abroad.
This includes people like Chen Jiao Jiao, a doctor who posed for photos with her children in front of the red brick wall of Tha Phae Gate, fleeing the humid cold of Shanghai to enjoy the hot sun and cool breezes of Chiang Mai during of his first vacation abroad since the virus surfaced in China in early 2020.
«After three years of the pandemic and a harsh winter, it is now opening,» Chen said. «For us Chinese, the first choice is to visit Chiang Mai because it’s hot and the people here are very warm.»
In 2019, 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited Chiang Mai, generating 15 billion baht ($450 million) in tourism-related revenue, money sorely lacking in the region as countries close their borders to most trips.
Group tours are due to resume from Feb. 6, but the number of tourists coming will depend on the number of flights operating, said Suladda Sarutilawan, director of the Chiang Mai office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. She said the hope was for around 500,000 to 600,000 Chinese visitors this year.
Of course, more Chinese would like to visit, said Li Wei, a Shanghai businessman, as he toured the ancient wall with his extended family of seven.
«Since visas and flights have not yet returned to normal, maybe tourists will come in the next three months,» Li said.
Far to the south, on the tropical Indonesian island of Bali, shops and restaurants – some decorated with festive red lanterns and red and gold envelopes used for Lunar New Year cash gifts – were still relatively empty.
Bali’s first post-pandemic direct flight from China arrived on Sunday, bringing 210 tourists from the southern city of Shenzhen who were greeted with marigold garlands and dance performances.
«Before COVID, we worked with travel agents who dealt with Chinese tourists every day who brought us guests from China, but since they closed there are far fewer guests,» said Made Sutarma, owner of a seafood restaurant in the Jimbaran area of Bali.
After three long years of almost no customersNyoman Wisana, the general manager of a Chinese restaurant, said he was «very happy» to see Chinese tourists returning.
Fewer than 23,000 Chinese tourists visited Bali from January to November last year and only a quarter of the island’s 80 tour operators that mainly cater to Chinese customers are operating, said Putu Winastra, president of the Bali Association of Indonesian travel and travel agencies.
«We’re actually very concerned about that,» he said.
Indonesia is developing programs to attract more Chinese tourists, including considering launching direct flights from major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, he said.
Those who visited this week seemed elated after enduring many months of tight pandemic controls that put international travel out of reach for nearly all Chinese.
«I feel very good since I haven’t been overseas and haven’t come to Southeast Asia for vacation for the past three years,» said Li Zhaolong, a tourist enjoying a day at the beach. «Bali is a very beautiful place, so I’m very happy to come here.»
Closer to home, casinos in the Macau gambling enclave and popular tourist spots in Hong Kong, a former British colony, drew larger-than-usual crowds but were still empty compared to days before. COVID-19. Normally, places like Hong Kong’s scenic Ocean Park and Wong Tai Sin Temple, with its Nine Dragon Wall, would be packed with visitors from the Chinese mainland.
Leo Guo, who works in the travel industry, brought his wife, daughter, sister and parents for a week filled with visits to Hong Kong Disneyland, Victoria Peak and the Star Harbor, and of course, shopping.
«For mainland Chinese, Hong Kong is a special city different from other Chinese cities,» Lee said. «It’s a destination of choice for us.»
Further afield in Australia, Sydney-based travel agent Eric Wang said the high cost of travel still seems to be keeping Chinese people away, even as Chinese airlines increase flights.
Chinese accounted for almost a third of all tourism spending in Australia before the pandemic, with more than 1.4 million visitors in 2019. Australia, like Japan, the United States and some other countries, requires that visitors from China take COVID-19 tests before Departure. But Wang, who works for CBT Holidays, a company specializing in travel to and from China, said he didn’t see that as a serious obstacle.
«It’s more about the airlines, because flights haven’t returned to normal yet, so airfares are five times as expensive,» he said.
Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok. Sigit Purwono in Bali, Indonesia, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Alice Fung in Hong Kong and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
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