26.5 C
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
26.5 C
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
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    A matter of time

    Tassanee Vejpongsa & Elaine Kurtenbach

    CHIANG MAI, THAILAND (AP) – Just a handful of Chinese visitors were posing for photos and basking in the sun this week in the market and plazas near Chiang Mai’s ancient Tha Phae Gate, one of many tourist hotspots still waiting for millions of Chinese travellers to return.

    The beaches and temples of destinations like Bali and Chiang Mai are the busiest they have been since the pandemic struck three years ago, but they’re still relatively quiet.

    Still, Chanatip Pansomboon, a soft drinks seller in the Chinatown district of Chiang Mai, a scenic riverside city in northern Thailand, was upbeat.

    He trusts that with the number of flights from China steadily increasing, it’s only a matter of time.

    “If a lot of them can return, it will be great as they have buying power,” Chanatip said. The expected resumption of group tours from China is likely to bring far more visitors.

    For now, it’s only individual travellers who can afford to pay, with flights costing more than triple what they normally do, who are venturing abroad.

    ABOVE & BELOW: Chinese tourists arrive at Chiang Mai international airport in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand; and Chinese tourists from Xiamen, China arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines. PHOTOS: AP

    ABOVE & BELOW: Tourists spend time at Kuta beach on the popular tourist island of Bali, Indonesia; and tourists play with pigeons at Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai province, northern Thailand

    This includes people like Chen Jiao Jiao, a doctor who was posing for pictures with her children in front of Tha Phae Gate’s red brick wall, escaping the damp chill of Shanghai to enjoy Chiang Mai’s warm sun and cool breezes on her first overseas vacation since the virus surfaced in China in early 2020.

    “After three years of pandemic and a severe winter, now it’s opening up,” Chen said.

    “For Chinese, the first choice is to visit Chiang Mai because the weather is warm and the people here are very warmhearted.”

    In 2019, 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited Chiang Mai, generating THB15 billion of tourism-related income, money sorely missed across the region as countries shut their borders to most travel.

    Group tours are due to resume on February 6, but the number of tourists who will come will depend on how many flights are operating, said the director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Chiang Mai office in Suladda Sarutilawan. She said the hope is for about 500,000-600,000 visitors from China this year.

    Of course more Chinese would like to visit, said a businessman from Shanghai Li Wei, as he visited the ancient wall with his extended family of seven.

    “Since visas and flights are not back to normal yet, maybe tourists will come in the next three months,” Li said.

    Far to the south, on the tropical Indonesian resort island of Bali, the shops and restaurants – some decorated with festive red lanterns and red and gold envelopes used for Lunar New Year cash presents – were still relatively empty.

    Bali’s first post-pandemic direct flight from China arrived on Sunday, bringing 210 tourists from the southern city of Shenzhen who was greeted with garlands of marigolds and dance performances.

    “Before COVID, we worked with travel agents who handled Chinese tourists who brought us guests from China every day, but since they closed down there are far fewer guests,” said a seafood restaurant owner in Bali’s Jimbaran area Made Sutarma.

    After three long years of almost no customers, general manager of a Chinese restaurant Nyoman Wisana said he was “very happy” to see Chinese tourists return.

    Fewer than 23,000 Chinese tourists visited Bali from January to November of last year and only a quarter of the island’s 80 tour operators who mostly handle Chinese clients are operating, saidchairman of the Bali Association of Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies Putu Winastra.

    “We’re very concerned about this,” he said.

    Indonesia is developing programs to attract more Chinese tourists, including exploring starting direct flights from major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, he said.

    Those who did visit this week seemed elated after enduring many months of strict pandemic controls that put international travel beyond the reach of almost all Chinese.

    “I’m feeling fantastic since I haven’t gone abroad and haven’t come to Southeast Asia to spend my holidays for the last three years,” said a tourist enjoying a day at the beach Li Zhaolong. “Bali is a very beautiful place so I’m very happy coming here.”

    Closer to home, Macao and popular tourist spots in Hong Kong, drew bigger crowds than usual but were still empty compared to the days before COVID-19.

    Normally, places like Hong Kong’s scenic Ocean Park and Wong Tai Sin temple, with its Nine-Dragon Wall, would be packed with visitors from the Chinese mainland.

    Leo Guo, who works in the travel industry, brought his wife, daughter, sister and parents for a week filled with visits to Hong Kong Disneyland, Victoria Peak and the skyline-studded harbour, and of course, shopping.

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