Chinese tourists and investors drawn by Thailand’s abundant sunshine, sensational beaches, northern highlands, easy going ways, great food and glitzy shopping malls almost on their doorstep are coming in throngs that grow more numerous and less manageable every year.
Yet, the Thai government has rolled out the welcome mat with the introduction of a new14-day visa on arrival, a policy that to be fair also applies to citizens of 18 other countries, reports Maxmilian Wechsler
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) predicted in January that the number of Chinese visitors would reach 10 million this year, but that was revised downward in March to 8.8 million.
A recent article on The Economist website warns: “Cracks are beginning to appear in China: capital outflows have surged, bankruptcies are occurring more frequently and bad loans in the banking sector are rising. It is all but certain that more pain lies ahead, though quite how much and how it will play out are matters for debate.”
Some Thais may be hoping for the worst if the slowdown means more Chinese will stay home, fearing that if they continue to arrive in ever greater numbers it could lead to a clash of cultures. Some also question the economic benefit of the tourism boom to Thailand. Unlike Westerners, the Chinese tourists filling up regular and charter flights to Thai international airports tend to stick together in large groups arranged by tour companies based in China.
Moreover, they often stay in hotels and eat in restaurants owned by Chinese investors. There are signs that some are breaking away from the herd-like mentality as recently more and more affluent Chinese are making the trip to Thailand by road in their own private vehicles. These overland travellers can be found in every type of lodging, from the cheapest guesthouse to five-star hotels, swish apartments and upmarket condominiums.
Total visitors to the Kingdom last year was a record 29,881,091, according to official Thai government figures. After China’s 7.9 million visitors – almost a quarter of the total number – Malaysia had the most arrivals with 3,423,397, followed by Japan with 1,381690, South Korea with 1,372,995 and Laos with 1,233,138.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of Chinese visitors to Thailand are true tourists, while a significant number of arrivals from neighboring ASEAN countries represent people who may make many border crossings in a year for work or to visit friends and family in Thailand. This seems obvious when you consider that the entire population of Laos is about seven million. Outside Asia, the United Kingdom claimed the highest number of Chinese visitors with 946,919, followed by the United States (867,520) and Australia (805,946).
Thailand is not the only country in ASEAN seeing large numbers of Chinese tourists. In 2015, Cambodia reported 694,712 arrivals, a 24 percent increase from 2014, while Vietnam had close to 1.8 million arrivals, Singapore had about 1.5 million, and Indonesia around 1.4 million. South Korea was the second most visited country with almost six million arrivals.
Meanwhile, about 2.6 million Chinese visited the US while both Russia and Australia had more than one million Chinese visitors in 2015. According to the China National Tourism Administration, 120 million Chinese nationals travelled outside the country in 2015 and spent US$194 billion. The agency also said that 2015 was the third year in a row that China topped the list of international outbound travelers. A recent report released by the World Travel & Tourism Council, claims Chinese tourists spent US$215 billion last year.
The German research institute Society for Consumer Research reported that Europe remains the most popular destination for Chinese outside of Asia, followed by North America. The institute also said 50 percent of China’s international tourists are aged 15-29, 37 percent are 30-44, and 10 percent 45-59.
Not all the same
According to the expat general manager of a large hotel on Sukhumvit Road, Chinese visitors can be divided into three groups. “The first are wealthy folks who stay in first-class hotels and spend a lot of money on food and shopping. They make reservations through well-known online travel agencies. The second group consists of middle-class Chinese, mostly couples. They also go through reputable tour agencies that get them 20 to 40 percent discounts on rooms.
The third group is made up of mostly rural Chinese who don’t have much money to spread around. They buy into cheap tours called ‘zero-dollar’ group packages that are offered in China. These outfits make sure that all profits and expenses are repatriated. The tourists buying these packages are the ones getting the publicity for behaving badly. This doesn’t apply only to Thailand; it’s the same in every country they go to.”
THE Chinese are known to be a smart, hard-working and innovative people, responsible for bringing into the world such wonders as acupuncture, mechanical clocks and the Great Wall. Unfortunately, the Chinese genius is sometimes applied to criminal ends.
Along with the influx of law-abiding Chinese tourists to Thailand, the criminal element is sure to follow. In fact, Chinese gangs are already involved in various criminal activities in the Kingdom, including the narcotics trade, smuggling, prostitution, loan sharking, counterfeiting, gambling and financial crimes and scams. Here is a partial list of high-profile crimes recently attributed to Chinese nationals in Thailand with some widely publicized in the local media:
• Several men, their faces covered with masks, attempted to rob a gun shop in Bangkok’s Wang Burapha area using BB guns and knives on the morning of March 4 this year. One robber was killed and three were injured and arrested. Other members of the group were later arrested elsewhere.
• On March 3 the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) announced the seizure of 900,000 counterfeit sunglasses of several well-known brands in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Two Chinese suspects were arrested. If genuine, the sunglasses would be worth about 130 million baht, DSI officers said.
• On January 4 the Crime Suppression Division arrested five Chinese tourists after they used fake credit cards and passports to buy gold and jewelry in Bangkok. A total of 182 fake cards, six electronic card readers, and other items were seized. They allegedly caused damages of up to 180 million baht to businesses and genuine credit card holders in China.
• A Chinese couple was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport on September 10, 2015, on suspicion of stealing a six-carat diamond worth 10 million baht from the Gems and Jewelry Fair at Impact in Muang Thong Thani. They replaced the genuine stone with a fake and the woman swallowed the diamond. Three days later it was retrieved from her body after a short operation at Police General Hospital. Four other suspects allegedly belonging to the same gang were later arrested.
• Not surprisingly, Chinatown is the preferred hangout for Chinese criminals in Bangkok. They feel safe because they can easily blend with the local population. Most lodgings there do not report their tenants to the Immigration Bureau as they are supposed to. Meanwhile, it is also possible to witness the exchange of bundles of thousand-baht banknotes for goods at wholesale shops in Chinatown and some locations in the provinces. No receipts are issued and no tax is paid. It’s a very simple and effective form of money laundering.
A European restaurateur said he was contacted by a Chinese tour agency wanting to arrange a lunch buffet for groups of around 100 people on a regular basis. “I refused because the price per person they offered wasn’t worth the effort, and even if it had been profitable the negatives exceeded the positives. They would drive away my regulars because they don’t like noise. My staff wouldn’t want to clean up after them either. My brand name would go to hell.”
The hotel manager said most tourists of modest means pay a Chinese company what they believe will be the entire cost of the tour, which includes accommodation and food. These are the ‘zero-dollar’ tours. “They stay at ‘recommended’ hotels or apartments and eat at ‘recommended’ restaurants, some of which are owned by Chinese investors.
“When they go shopping they are herded into coaches and taken to dubious shopping venues,” said the hotel manager. Another expat described one such place. “You can see many coaches parked there almost every day. The Chinese groups are directed to the place. No one else is allowed entrance, but I have snuck in. They sell all kinds of cheap stuff, including counterfeit Gucci bags that are actually manufactured in China and smuggled into Thailand,” said the man with a hearty laugh.
But Chinese tourists can also be found in Bangkok’s most exclusive mega malls. A Thai worker at a fast food outlet at Siam Paragon said they are usually among the first customers when the mall opens at 10am. “They like to eat at places like McDonald’s or Burger King or the food court there where food is even cheaper. After they finish eating they just walk around, take photos and window shop. Of course, some buy shoes, clothes or fragrances like tourists from other countries do. They are not the ones from ‘zero-dollar’ groups.”
A sales girl at a shop selling Thai fashion ware at Siam Centre said Chinese customers comprise around 10 percent of the shop’s clientele. She added that they choose their purchases carefully and spend a lot of time inside the shop. A cashier at Big C on Ratchadamri Road said Chinese tourists often come in and buy clothes, shoes and personal items like cheap cosmetics that are on sale.
The TAT claims that Chinese travelers in Thailand spend on average 6,400 baht per day, higher than the 5,690 baht average for all tourists. The business people we contacted assert such a high figure is impossible.
Last February, the Nation newspaper quoted Pornchai Jitnavasathien, president of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association, as saying Chinese nationals were investing in long-term leasing of apartments and hostels that are converted into accommodations for Chinese groups visiting Chiang Mai. Mr Pornchai claimed these places operate without permits and are located outside the usual hotel and shopping zones popular with foreign tourists, and managed solely by Chinese staff.
According to the business association there are currently 12 locations where Chinese investors lease apartments and hostels used to accommodate Chinese tourists. What’s not clear is whether the staff at these establishments have work permits and if they provide the Immigration Bureau with information on foreign guests as required by Thai law.
The alleged rudeness of Chinese tourists in Thailand has sparked a predictable backlash. YouTube is awash with videos depicting Chinese behaving badly in the Kingdom, cutting in line at the airport and restaurant buffets, showing disrespect at religious sites and generally creating a public nuisance. One notorious video shows tourists walking away from a buffet line with shrimps piled high on their plates. Later the video depicts empty tables with most of the shrimps uneaten. Other YouTube clips show tourists urinating in public, spitting on the street, talking loudly in public places and washing clothes in airport toilets and then drying them across seats in waiting areas.
Chinese tourists have been accused of everything from buying quantities of ivory in Thailand to refusing to give up their seats for small children and the elderly on the BTS. Many complain that Chinese tourists make no attempt to communicate with locals, even shopkeepers. It should be admitted, however, that Thais are sometimes very cool toward Chinese tourists and this might cause them to have a bad attitude.
The latest phenomenon to cause public concern is the caravans of Chinese recreational vehicles (RVs) coming into Thailand through Laos. The RVs are easily recognizable for their blue license plates with Chinese characters. Thai motorists say the Chinese drivers don’t respect traffic laws and often cause accidents by driving, for example, on the left side of the road as they do in China. Reports on social media say the tourists park their campers inside temple grounds and sleep and cook food there, leaving their rubbish behind. Then there are the tourists who rent motorcycles and travel around three-on-a-bike without helmets, insurance or Thai driving licenses.
Some hotels in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai are said to be reserving separate breakfast rooms and floors in an apparent attempt to segregate big tour groups and avoid complaints from other guests.
Thai tour agencies and guides are understandably upset over the ‘zero-dollar’ tours that effectively cut them out of a very large slice of the tourist market. In October 2014 a group of Thai tour guides protested outside the Immigration Bureau headquarters in Bangkok to demand action against Chinese tour guides operating illegally in the country. In June last year a group calling itself United Thai Guides rallied in Pattaya to protest inaction of the local police against illegal tour guides. Petitions were submitted to the Pattaya police chief and mayor. In January this year tour guides in Chiang Mai protested outside the provincial hall, and in April other groups submitted petitions to the minister of Tourism and Sports in Bangkok and to local authorities in Phuket.
This is not a new issue. Thai tour guides have been trying to drive out foreign competition for years, partly because it deprives them of opportunities to exploit foreign tourists with pre-arranged deals and commissions. Like the Korean, Russian and Vietnamese and other tour agencies before them, the Chinese claim that they must employ their own nationals because there are just not enough Thai guides who can speak their language. That reasoning doesn’t satisfy the local agencies who are adamant in their demands that the laws prohibiting foreign tour guides in Thailand be enforced.
One policeman who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity confirmed that it is illegal for foreigners to work as tour guides, but added that collecting enough evidence to make an arrest is not easy. “We have to conduct surveillance on a group that speaks a language we don’t understand. We have to show that the guides are taking money for their services and not just being helpful. The tour guides have become careful not to expose themselves,” said the policeman, adding that the bosses of tourism agencies that employ foreign guides should be arrested as well.
On April 10, government spokesman Major General Sansern Kaewkamnerd said a serious approach is needed to solve the problem of ‘zero-dollar’ tour groups and that he was seeking help to prevent groups from operating in Thailand after the government had received many complaints about them. He said that some tourists from China, South Korea, Russia and other countries are being victimized. They are tricked into buying cheap tour packages in their own countries, but once they arrive in Thailand they find their expenses are much greater, and they are handed off to other agents. The tourists are also subjected to scams run by the agents who apply pressure to try to get them to buy expensive and sub-standard goods.
The Major General said the shady tours were generating around 305 billion baht annually, most of which goes to foreign agents rather than the Thai tourism industry. He pledged that the government and the Tourism Council of Thailand will determine reasonable prices for tour packages to Thailand and provide the information to countries where the ‘zero-dollar’ tour agencies operate.
Taking action against tour groups based in China is not as simple as it may seem. As Maj Gen Sansern’s comments imply, it risks opposition from wealthy investors from China and their Thai associates who have poured vast sums of money into the tourist infrastructure built to accommodate and apparently bilk the millions of Chinese tourists who come here annually. Another possible result of an aggressive crackdown on the Chinese tour companies is that they might decide to take their business elsewhere, especially other ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia that are actively courting Chinese tourists. The TAT won’t be happy if arrivals from China start dropping, although many ordinary Thais might be.
ALL the fuss over the ‘Chinese invasion’ of Thailand seems a bit strange when one considers the vast influence of the Chinese people and culture in the country for hundreds of years.
Thai-Chinese make up at least 14 percent of the population and some estimates are much higher. A very high percentage of the country’s doctors and other highly skilled professionals are Thai-Chinese. They operate most of the small businesses in the country, and every town, no matter how small, has at least a few prominent Thai-Chinese business owners. They also own many very large corporations, hold top managerial positions and control financial institutions. The contributions of Thai-Chinese to the culture, economy and development of Thailand are literally too numerous to mention.
Chinese migration to Siam goes back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 17th century. It increased in the 18th century after the defeat of the Burmese by General Taksin, who was himself Thai-Chinese. Like the kings of Ayutthaya before him, General Taksin encouraged trade with China and welcomed Chinese settlers to Thailand. In response, large numbers of Chinese came and over the years their natural business inclinations placed their descendants in the upper rungs of Thai society. Another secret of their success is that daughters of wealthy Chinese merchants often marry with Thai officials to create a “perfect union” of money and power.
The Chinese migration to Thailand continued well into the 20th century and includes those who came from southern China to escape poverty and communists. Among these are the ancestors of the top five on Forbes’ 2015 list of Thailand’s Richest:
1. Dhanin Chearavanont and family – net worth US$14.4 billion
2. Charon Sirivadhanabhakdi – net worth US$13 billion
3. Tos Chirathivat and family – net worth US$12.3 billion
4. Chalerm Yoovidhya – net worth US$9.6 billion
5. Krit Ratanarak – net worth US$4.7 billion
The combined net worth of the five richest is $54 billion at the current exchange rate – about 1.9 trillion baht or roughly 70 percent of Thailand’s fiscal budget for 2016. Forbes says on its website that the collective wealth of Thailand’s 50 Richest, made up mostly of Thai-Chinese, is more than $100 billion. Forbes didn’t say how this stacks up against the net worth of the rest of Thailand’s some 68 million citizens.