They’re coming back. Tourist arrivals in Thailand rose almost 30 percent in February from a year earlier, the biggest jump since Dec. 2012. Given that tourism makes up the equivalent of 10 percent of the country’s GDP, this is cause for celebration.
Almost. While there has been some good news lately — manufacturing output rose in February for the first time in 23 months, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha lifted martial law that had been in place since last May — most data have been disappointing. Consumer prices fell for a third straight month in March, while the consumer confidence index dropped to a nine-month low after the central bank cut its projections for economic growth. Exports also fell in February.
“We are see rising tourist arrivals, but most of them are Chinese, who don’t spend much,” said Thanavath Phonvichai, economist at the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce. “Even though tourism has started to recover, it’s not enough to help drive the economy.”
The government certainly wants more tourists; it has said it may ease visa restrictions for some nationalities. But it remains to be seen if visitors will come in droves. For one thing, most people have already made their summer plans. For another, there are concerns that while martial law has been lifted, the military government now wields absolute authority. Also, safety concerns raised by the International Civil Aviation Organization may also affect arrivals into Thailand.
Thailand has also been beset by other tourist troubles: while Chinese arrivals have been rising, China said it would talk to Thailand about ensuring safety after a fatal car accident in Phuket that killed three of its citizens. That followed the murder of two British tourists last year on the southern island of Koh Tao. Prayuth apologized after suggesting that foreign tourists wearing bikinis were risking their safety in the country.
Bangkok last year lost its spot as top destination for international travelers to London on the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index. So while the tourist numbers are looking up, it’s not quite time to pop the champagne.