The opening of the China – Laos bullet train in December 2021 has transformed the future of regional vacations according to travel specialists. The train runs several times daily from the Chinese border to Vientiane, capital of Laos, which in turn is close to the Thailand with plentiful rail and road connections. The top rail speed is 160 km an hour with a distance of 422 km.
The Association of Thai Travel agents points out that the Chinese government still bans group tours abroad, but that the rules are already being slackened. For example, compulsory quarantine on return to China is being replaced by home isolation in some provinces. In the meantime, most Chinese visitors to Thailand are business people, Elite card holders and Chinese nationals with longstay visas in Taiwan, Laos and Cambodia who are avoiding Beijing’s Covid travel restrictions by residing outside of China.
China’s president Xi is unlikely to waive all Covid travel restrictions before a national congress meeting in March 2023, but some estimates suggest more than half a million Chinese nationals have already visited Thailand this year. Recent reports of police raids in Bangkok suggest that there are clubs and casinos run and patronized by Chinese citizens, often contrary to immigration rules.
The Thai government is currently considering cancelling the 2,000 baht fee which accompanies the 30 days visa on arrival for Chinese nationals, with the option of a further 15 days on application at Thai immigration. The idea would be to increase Chinese tourism massively, especially as the bullet train access is expected to attract many more economy visitors once Covid rules are rescinded by Beijing.
Although Thailand is numerically dependent on Chinese tourism – about one third of 40 million visitors in 2019 hailed from China – critics say that few Thai business people benefit greatly from the phenomenon. The Chinese tourists are mostly zero-sum, that is paid for in advance of travel with favored hotels, restaurants, entertainment and hotels booked beforehand. This applies equally to economy tourists and the wealthy hi-fliers.