Thailand says that the number of tourists went up last year after coronavirus restrictions were lifted, but they were still a long way below what they were before the pandemic.
In 2022, there were 11.81 million tourists in South East Asia, up from just 400,000 the year before.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand also thinks that the number of visitors will double this year, reaching 25 million.
But those numbers still need to be much higher than the 39.8 million tourists who came to Thailand in 2019.
From the beginning of June, each visitor from outside the country will have to pay 300 baht ($9.20 or £7.40).
Thailand now wants to have 80 million tourists every year by 2027.
In 2019, tourism income made up more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). However, it was only 1% in 2021. GDP is an important way to see how well or badly an economy is doing. It measures all economic activity.
The Thai government wants to spend more than $150bn on tourism by getting more than twice as many people to visit as before the pandemic.
In a Facebook post, the government’s Public Relations Department said, “Once this goal is met, tourism could bring in 5tn baht for the country in 2027.”
The news release also said that Thailand plans to improve “tourism safety standards” to deal with the growing number of tourists.
This month, the country said it would require visitors to Thailand to show proof that they had been vaccinated against COVID-19, but then quickly changed its mind.
Since China no longer has strict border controls as it did during the pandemic, the number of Chinese tourists coming to Thailand will likely increase. This is the case for most of South East Asia.
In December, China’s immigration office said that Chinese people who want to travel abroad could start applying for passports again on January 8.
The announcement ended the strict quarantine rules that had been in place for almost three years. This caused people to book trips abroad, and travel sites reported a rise in traffic.
Before the pandemic, most of Thailand’s tourists came from China. In 2019, almost 11 million people came from China. This year, at least 5 million Chinese tourists are expected to visit the country.
COVID and ethics are changing tourism in Thailand
When Kwanmueang walks in for his annual checkup, his size takes your breath away.
The 18-year-old Thai bull elephant is a powerful sight. It stands nearly three meters tall at the shoulder, weighs at least four tons, and has beautiful tusks that curve together almost to the point where they touch.
But he and Sornsiri “Lek” Sapmak, his keeper, are in trouble.
They used to make money by having Kwanmueang take part in ceremonies to make new monks or dress up as a war elephants for reenactments of old battles. All of that stopped when COVID was locked down.
Thailand is the only place where more than 3,000 elephants are used for tourism than anywhere else. Thailand is different from other countries with captive populations in that almost all are privately owned. So, the end of tourism because of the pandemic has been terrible for the elephants and their owners, who no longer make enough money to take care of them.
Even though tourism is starting to improve, this unique business is still a threat. Concerns about how captive animals are kept and trained are causing many foreign tourists to stop going to elephant shows, which used to be a big part of tours. This makes people wonder if elephant tourism will ever be the same as before COVID.
Lek and Kwanmueang have returned to Lek’s home village in Surin province. This is where people are known for being good at keeping elephants, training them, and in the past, capturing them.
Lek is not alone. Hundreds of other elephants have returned to Surin from places like Phuket and Chiang Mai, which are popular with tourists. They made money by doing tricks or giving rides to foreign tourists.
It’s unsettling to walk through these villages. Elephants are chained up in front yards or resting under trees at almost every house. You get used to seeing the big animals walking slowly down the road with their mahouts on their wide necks, and you learn to drive carefully around them.
Thailand is home to elephants, but the number of wild elephants has dropped from about 100,000 a century ago to only about 3,000 to 4,000. In the past, many of them were caught and used in the logging industry. When that stopped in the late 1980s to protect what was left of the country’s forests, they started being used to entertain tourists instead.
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In their first shows, they used logs to show their skills. But as Thailand’s tourism grew, these included rides and shows where animals did things like paint or play football. World Animal Protection (WAP), an animal rights group, says that before COVID, elephants brought Thailand up to $770 million (£626 million) a year.
WAP is one of many groups trying to stop elephants’ use for entertainment. They say that it is not natural and always involves cruel training methods. Many tourists already want to see elephants in Thailand in a more responsible way. Some European and North American tour companies will no longer send their clients to elephant camps where they can ride or bathe elephants.
So, to meet these needs, the ecotourism industry has created a new niche.