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(September 4, 2018) New mindsets needed at Suvarnabhumi - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Warning: Cheap packages tours to Thailand from China for the coming Mid-Autumn Festival (third week of September) and National Day (first week of October) are nearly fully booked. However, some major tourist agencies in the posh Chaoyangmenwai Street still hold out hope that Thailand will waive visa fees for their holidaymakers once again.

Some of the tour operators cited past precedent. Visa-free waivers and visas on arrival (VOA) have been key measures to increase incoming tourists, Chinese or otherwise. There are no statistics on VOA fees collected at the airports. VOA is under the purview of the Royal Thai Police Immigration Bureau.

Last time, tour operators in the Chinese capital did not know that the temporary measure cost Thailand billions of baht in lost revenue. Last year, an average of 30,000 Chinese arrived in Bangkok every day. They paid lump sums for visas without refunds. Truth be told, the number of Chinese visitors rises and falls naturally depending on the seasons and holidays in China. The low season is in July and August. Obviously, whenever accidents, disasters or other negative events are publicised, immediately after arrivals from the country decrease. But these incidents result in only a short-term impact.

In fact, relative low cost and proximity are the two real attributes behind the influx of Chinese tourists to Thailand over the past decade. After the Chinese film Lost In Thailand was screened in 2013, the numbers grew further. The comedy introduced key tourist attractions to its Chinese audience. This year, the figure may well hit 10 to 11 million. Last year, a total of 130 million Chinese travelled abroad.

Although a growing number of independent Chinese travellers are coming to Thailand, most still prefer to join package tours, coming in large groups from the same provinces, communities or vicinities. They feel good travelling among friends and acquaintances as they can help each other without feeling embarrassed or intimidated. Most importantly, they can speak the same language and dialect. Truth be told, not every Chinese speaks putonghua, the standard Mandarin. When they travel with a group which speaks the same dialect, they feel more at ease.

In addition, according to some salespeople at department stores or duty-free shops in Thailand, before Chinese tourists purchase any item, big or small, cheap or expensive, there are loud exchanges of comments about what to buy or not to buy. Sometimes, they are so loud that some Thais think they are arguing. In fact, they are not. After these exchanges die down, it means they have agreed on their choice of purchases. They also tend to buy particular brands agreed among themselves. Diversion can cause endless gossip among their travelling companions.

Some of these tourists are travelling outside China for the first time so they choose to go to nearby places which are not so different, normally Asian countries. That explains why Thailand ranks top among foreign destinations ahead of Japan and South Korea. It is interesting that only Thailand has been constantly trying to lure the Chinese tourists. For instance, to obtain a single-entry tourist visa for a 30-day period, there is no need to buy health insurance, which is a normal basic requirement for all foreign visas. The recent Phoenix boat incident in Phuket was indicative of the lack of first-aid responders that would come to the rescue. The question of increasing safety measures is becoming an issue as more and more Chinese visit Thailand. In addition, signs on board and warnings should be in putonghua in all the places where they visit.

Recently, Suvarnabhumi International Airport set up special lanes for Chinese passport holders, a dramatic move to single out one group of tourists. It is aimed at easing congestion in the check-in area. The measure appeared to be working as of last week. But it still contributes to the mismanagement of space and officials directing the flow of incoming passengers on particular days. The airports are often too rigid while operators on the ground do not have the authority to change the flow of people, especially during rush hours as they must wait for instructions. Better management and extra immigration officials could cut back on waiting times. Frequently, half of all immigration booths are not occupied.

It is still uncertain whether the special lanes for Chinese passport holders will be permanent fixtures or not. If they are, it could be problematic. As of last week, the Asean lane, which has been on and off for the past three years, made a return with three special lanes, following recent internal reviews for no reason. The Asean charter stipulates that all members should have Asean lanes at international entry points to promote people-to-people contact as part of the community-building process. Just for the record, Thailand recently set up special a "Women's Lane" for reasons beyond any understanding except for publicity to show gender equality efforts.

In the 1990s, Thailand was the first member country to implement an "Asean Lane", when the country chaired Asean under then prime minister Barnharn Silapa-archa. For several years, Don Mueang International Airport maintained a similar lane, before later giving up. Apparently, lots of passengers had no idea that this "Asean lane" was designated for visitors from the region. The recognition of this measure among tourists from Asean has not yet reached a level of automaticity but is increasing, as is their awareness of the Asean charter, which went into effect in 2008. Despite Thailand chairing the grouping next year, lots of officials still do not understand the content of the charter.

In fact, in order to engage the Chinese tourists, additional language training for tour operators/agencies, interpreters and others related professionals is extremely urgent. Taxi drivers, public officials and other officials should understand some Chinese. Basic conversation can help ease anxiety and suspicion, enrich personal ties and increase mutual trust. Most importantly, it might help to avoid many of the misunderstandings that currently occur.