For years, Thailand welcomed legions of Chinese tourists to its golden beaches, shopping districts and striking temples.
That came to a screeching halt during the Covid pandemic, as China virtually sealed its borders.
Now, the Southeast Asian nation is back on the welcome wagon — and telling the world it’s open for business.
Three government ministers headed to Bangkok’s international airport earlier this week to personally greet the first group of Chinese tourists to arrive after China lifted travel restrictions.
Passengers touching down from the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen were presented with flower garlands as they walked by a banner that read: “China and Thailand are one family. Amazing Thailand always warmly welcomes our Chinese family.”
Bill Barnett, founder and managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a hospitality consultancy in Phuket, said the move underscored the economic significance of Chinese tourists, who were embraced with “arms wide open.”
In 2019, Thailand was the most-visited international destination by Chinese travelers, welcoming around 11 million tourists — over a quarter of the country’s overseas arrivals. Only Hong Kong and Macao, two special administrative regions of China, received more Chinese visitors.
Speaking to reporters at the airport Monday, Thailand’s deputy prime minister and minister of public health, Anutin Charnvirakul, said it was important to send a strong signal to revive its economy.
“The arrival of tourists from China, as well as from countries around the world, to Thailand is expected to increase continually. This is a good sign for Thailand’s tourism sector,” he said.
“If every Thai person welcomes these tourists with warm hospitality, and we also take good care of our health, it will accelerate the economic recovery after our suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic for three years.”
China scrapped its quarantine requirements on Sunday after three years, prompting businesses around the world to prepare for the return of the world’s largest outbound travel market.
In Thailand, that’s been no exception, with travel companies beginning to reactivate Chinese social marketing campaigns and increase staffing, according to Barnett.
“Hotels now are scrambling. They’re trying to get Chinese-speaking staff, they’re trying to get Chinese salespeople back on onboard,” he said. “I think we’ll start seeing salespeople start to organize sales trips back into China.”
The Golden Dome Cabaret Show in Bangkok is usually a must-see for Chinese tour groups.
“I am happy to hear the news that China has opened its country,” CEO Boonchai Tongprasert told CNN, adding that his team was also anticipating a pickup in business.
Boonchai said his income was completely wiped out during the worst of the Covid crisis.
His vibrant theater went from receiving up to 4,000 Chinese visitors a night to roughly 100. After dipping into personal savings to help pay his staff, Boonchai suspended operations for two and a half years, only reopening last September.
But the influx of business is also being met with apprehension. Many Thai people remain concerned about the risks of Covid-19 outbreaks as more tourists come back, Boonchai said.
Barnett, too, warned there was a massive “fear factor” in local communities about whether the virus would spread as inbound travel recovered.
Balancing economic needs with local concerns will be a key challenge for Thailand in the coming months, he said.
The government is also facing calls to help restaff the travel industry.
Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said labor shortages were top of mind for many businesses as the sector gradually comes back to life.
The “tourism sector has been heavily damaged,” he said. “Those who had gone out of business, probably have changed their professions. And I am not confident if they would come back.”
Wittaya Chaimongkol, a cabaret dancer who has worked with the Golden Dome troupe for nearly 15 years, said she was excited about the return of Chinese tourists.
“I was missing the show very much,” she told CNN. “After two and a half years, I am now seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”
— CNN’s Sandi Sidhu, Jennie Chen and Lilit Marcus contributed to this report.