Neither Thai nor Chinese tourist operators were surprised at the two governments' decision to discuss waiving visas for both sides' visitors on Friday.
“Waiving visas is inevitable because the number of Chinese tourists to Thailand is really big,” said Vichit Prakobgosol, honorary director for the Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association and chairman of CCT Group, a travel service consultancy.
Lower costs and more convenience will encourage more Chinese tourists and investors to visit Thailand, said Vichit, whose company estimates it will receive 300,000 Chinese tourists this year.
Vichit said he believed about 5 million Chinese will visit Thailand next year if such a policy can take effect in 2014.
China is now the biggest source of tourists to Thailand, with about 3.22 million Chinese visiting in the first eight months of 2013, up 88.42 percent over the same period of 2012, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
If 2 million Chinese tourists come to Thailand per year on a 15-day visa that costs $25, Thailand could earn more than 1 billion baht ($32 million) a year in visa fees alone, according to the Bangkok-based TTR Weekly.
Wang Dong, a Chinese businessman in Bangkok, said what’s more important than saving money is the time saved, with better scope for business.
“The Thai visa is not as difficult or expensive to get as many other countries, but for a frequent visitor who lives in a small city, I have to hire a travel agency to help me mail my documents to the consulate in Shanghai. It’s troublesome,” said Wang.
Currently, only the Thai embassy in Beijing and consulates in seven other big cities including Shanghai and Guangzhou can process visa applications in China.
The young generation nowadays enjoy spontaneous and independent trips. A visa exemption will give them another excuse to do this, said Zhang Guangrui, director of the tourism research center with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Song Meidan, a manager of a Beijing-based travel agency, echoed Zhang’s views, but added the package tour business will benefit less from the policy because Thailand already offers visas on arrival and China’s newly released tourism law has dampened the booming trend.
China’s first tourism law that took effect on Oct 1 bans travel agencies, which heavily rely on package tours, from offering rock bottom prices but adds hidden costs such as mandatory shopping outings.
In response, travel agencies raised tour package prices and lost many potential clients.
“One reason for Thailand’s popularity among the Chinese is its low cost. If it was as expensive as a trip to Europe, which do you think people would choose?” Song asked.
However, Vichit said most Chinese still prefer group tours when they travel to a country for the first time.
“Only 20 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand over the past two decades, while 400 million Chinese can afford to travel overseas now. For Chinese in second- and third-tier cities, package tours are still the top choice,” he added.
Kanjana Boonsopa, a Thai hotel staff member in Bangkok, said she would like to see more Chinese visitors. “It’s good for business,” she said.
Chutinunta Agukrikul, marketing director of the Bangkok-based Central Department Store Ltd, said, “We would certainly welcome even more Chinese shoppers to our store.”
Pu Yue, production manager of Ctrip’s tourism department, predicts more than 20,000 Chinese travelers will visit Thailand using its services this year. The agency does not feel pressure regarding supply because the tourism industry is optimistic that Thailand’s tourism resources, such as flights and accommodation, will continue to grow.
Vichit from Thai CCT Group said Thailand has to better prepare itself to welcome more tourists through such methods as developing high-speed trains and strengthening security and sanitary works. “Waiving visas is not just a technical procedure but shows a high-level of trust and friendliness between two countries, which will make the two peoples feel comfortable in each other’s country,” he said.