Chinese travelers will eventually return to Southeast Asia, and how they are expected to behave in the near future will offer valuable hints to restart growth for Thailand’s devastated tourism industry.
Tourism has come to a virtual standstill in Thailand as foreign arrival numbers have careened sharply since the coronavirus outbreak, plunging 76.4 percent in March from last year after a 42.8 percent drop from the previous month.
For the Thai economy that derives 14 percent of its gross domestic product from tourist receipts, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been catastrophic as at least one million tourism workers are now estimated to be out of jobs.
But with infection rates plateauing in Thailand since early April, hopes are high that easing of lockdown rules will come in the near weeks to bring some relief to the economy. Like China and many destinations elsewhere, Thailand’s tourism recovery trajectory is anticipated to be first centered on the domestic and local corporate markets before radiating into intra-region travel.
When borders open up and international travel restrictions are lifted, China will, with most certainty, play a dominant role in the country’s inbound tourism sector again. How this major source market for Thailand, and many destinations around the world, is expected to travel again will offer strategies for those working through today’s crisis.
Familiarity Breeds Comfort
Recent findings by Chinese travel giant Trip.com have consistently ranked Thailand as among the first outbound destinations that Chinese travelers want to travel to post-coronavirus.
The China Thailand Travel Sentiment Survey conducted by C9 Hotelworks and Delivering Asia Communications of over 1,000 respondents in China’s first-tier cities indicated that 53 percent of Chinese travelers are planning outbound overseas travel in 2020, with August, October and December being the most popular months for the remaining of this year.
Of those surveyed, 71 percent would like to travel to Thailand and, in a notable shift from the Chinese group travel which had dominated the country’s inbound market in the past decade, 83 percent would choose independent travel versus group tours.
With the Chinese government’s ban on outbound group travel still in place, the free independent traveler segment will become the guiding force for China’s outbound travel market going forward.
But these wave of “early pioneers” from China, said C9 Hotelworks Founder and Managing Director Bill Barnett in a webinar, will likely show a weaker appetite for lesser known brands and will gravitate towards familiar destinations, at least in the initial recovery stages.
Without deviating from their previous preferences, Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Pattaya have respectively ranked as Thailand’s top five destinations that Chinese travelers in the survey would want to travel to.
Juthamas Carranco, area director of business development at So/ Bangkok, believes the health crisis has further underlined the role of “relationships” that travelers already have with brands or places. “We will only go to places if we already know it well. People want to live in a safe mode [post-Covid],” she said.
Furthermore, the perception of what makes a safe space will figure highly on travelers’ post-Covid priorities. Social distancing measures, no doubt, would have to be reflected in hotels’ physical spaces such as lounges, restaurants and elevators, said Carranco.
Hark the TikTok Generation
The comeback of the Chinese market will be led by independent travelers, a digitally savvy segment who tend to be between 20 and 40 years old and already possess a keen interest in experiences, Delivering Asia Communications Director Vanessa Zhu stated during a webinar.
Unlike the older generations who may be more cautious of traveling overseas after the coronavirus, the deep integration of travel into the lifestyles of the younger under-40 set also means this latter group believes the risks of overseas holidays could be reduced with technology and smartphone usage, she added.
In the wake of the coronavirus, Zhu stressed that it’s even more paramount for Thailand hotels keen in the Chinese market to be adept in popular Chinese travel e-commerce sites like Ctrip and Fliggy as well as payments systems like Alipay.
While Ctrip is favored by 60 percent of respondents for booking hotels, she stated that Alibaba’s Fliggy, second in popularity at 16 percent, will likely grow in usage among China’s younger FIT demographics. Fliggy, she added, is more likely to appeal to a young generation as a pre-trip discovery and booking tool in China.
The online behavior acquired by many during the coronavirus lockdown will likely accelerate the digitalization across China’s travel population across all age groups.
Notably, TikTok – better known by its Chinese name Douyin in China – “has gone viral during Covid”, capturing 400 million daily users in China with its video and live streaming content, shared Zhu.
New Protocols in Making
Safety and security will clearly be top priorities for Chinese as well as international travelers in the immediate future.
Asia’s hospitality sector is warming up to automation to ensure the health of guests and staff, with several hotels leveraging the use of robots to deliver meals and contactless self-check-in/out systems.
In a move similar to Singapore Tourism Board’s SG Clean audit initiative, the Tourist Authority of Thailand will soon introduce a safety and health certification aimed at elevating the country’s tourism industry standards and developing confidence among domestic and international tourists alike.
The Phuket Hotels Association, with 74 member hotels, is also working on a local initiative, as part of the island’s reopening will center on critical issues like safety and hygiene, according to Barnett, who is founder advisor to the association.
Taking a leaf from the safety certifications launched by major hospitality chains like Accor and Marriott, Thailand-based Onyx Hospitality Group will also roll out its our own mandatory audit measures to focus not only on hygiene and cleanliness but also well-being of staff, according to vice president, marketing & communications Charles Yap. “We are also learning from our China properties on how to apply best post-Covid practices elsewhere.”
By June, Barnett expects health protocols to be established for international travel. Local airlines including Thai AirAsia, Thai Lion Air and Bangkok Airways have already outlined their inflight social distancing measures – mask wearing for all passengers, no food and drinks to be served or sold on board, and empty middle seats, etc – that will be rolled out with the resumption of domestic flights in May.
However, airports have yet to clearly establish any new protocols that will be in place post Covid, he noted.
“There is now a new fear factor in travel but this is not new,”Barnett remarked. “After 9/11 the world started taking their shoes off at airports so let’s see what the Covid-19 protocols will be.”
Photo credit: Tourists used to throng Wat Phra Kaeo, a temple attraction in Bangkok, but the coronavirus crisis has decimated Thailand’s tourism industry. atipanit / Adobe