The decline of Chinese tourism was primarily caused by Zero-dollar tour shams fueled by illegal travel agencies: the cost of the packages was derisory, but once the Chinese arrived in Thailand they were forced to pay exaggerated prices for food, lodging, and souvenirs. The same thing happened in Hong Kong, where Chinese tourists were literally imprisoned in shopping malls and only allowed to leave after purchasing a minimum quantity of souvenirs and other knick-knacks. Over the last few years, there were even many deaths caused by scuffles and brawls.
Zero-dollar tours offered packages at extremely low costs that opened Thailand’s doors to even the worst Chinese farmers; with everything included they didn’t spend a cent more. For these people, buying a 40 baht snack at 7/11 was the top. Zero Dollar tours primarily revolve around illegal agencies without licenses or permits that obviously offered terrible products in terms of housing, food, and transportation. Note that Thai laws prohibit foreigners from working as tour guides within the country, but there are various Chinese agencies that act in this role without visas and permits; every now and then they get arrested. In August, five of these agencies were closed in Bangkok.
The ramifications for several operators who rely on this business from China were notable; several Thai-registered airlines are suffering financial crunches due to the drop in tourism, as reduced liquidity is hampering their ability to continue operations. Naturally, these groups as well as numerous travel agencies decry the crackdown, reporting that 70% of tour groups have cancelled their plans. In fact, as of August the number of Chinese passing through Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok dropped to 4,000 from 13,000 per day.
Some are quick to point out that other factors are at play, and the recent decline could be more complex. Particularly, the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) believes that the slowing Chinese economy and recent passing of His Majesty the King are adding to the industry’s woes. In any case, many businesses connected to tourism are scrambling to find means of staying afloat during this— perhaps permanent— lull.
For a country like Thailand, tourism is an essential component of its economy. While in full swing, people are quick to judge and deride Chinese tourists, often complaining about their manners. There is certainly a degree of validity to these claims, but these recent events highlight the importance of the Chinese travel demographic. One can’t help but wonder why the Thai government was so quick to cut off the hand that fed it, even if the food wasn’t its top choice.