With the Thai prime minister welcoming the 10th million arrival to Thailand this year as early as December 10, all bets are off for 2023. The Tourist Authority of Thailand predicts 18 million, others 25 million plus or even beating the 40 million record in 2019. The Pattaya area will get its full share of perhaps a third of the total because of the expansion of U-tapao airport, 30 kilometers away, which is resulting in dozens of charter flights weekly from various Russian cities alone. The Russian pressure in particular is for more and more.
The news that Chinese nationals will be able to travel abroad from January 8 without experiencing compulsory quarantine and home isolation on return has been generally welcomed as boosting the Thai economy as it struggles to regain momentum in the post-covid world environment. To date, only 10 percent of Chinese nationals even possess a passport. The future potential is mindboggling.
Thailand has always been a popular destination for Chinese vacationers with 25 percent of all the 40 million foreign arrivals in 2019 touching down on flights from Chinese cities. Beijing has now withdrawn the limit on the daily number of allowable international flights which, in turn, will lead to pressure to allow more charter planes to land at Pattaya’s much-expanded U-tapao airport. Russian tour operators, such as Pegas Touristik and Odessa Tours, are currently lobbying to increase their flight numbers, now joined by Chinese travel authorities which claim to have an available stockpile of planes at Chinese airports which have been in mothballs during the covid pandemic.
It is significant that the principal leisure facilities in Pattaya still closed are the cabaret theatres on Thepprasit Road which relied almost exclusively on Chinese zero-sum, pre-paid holidaymakers. Other markets are also growing. Whilst the Indian arrival rate seems to have slowed of late, there is a surge in mid-east arrivals, especially from Saudi Arabia whose citizens can now travel to Thailand visa-free for 45 days.
For the first time in years, there are direct flights to Bangkok from Canada, whilst Pattaya and Phuket remain popular vacation spots for south east Asians in general. European arrivals are generally static as the economy of many countries suffers from inflation and various consequences of the Russian war in Ukraine.
Thanet Supornsahasrangsri, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, has already warned of staff shortages to work in hotels and other leisure-related industries. Many medium-sized hotels in south Pattaya are already urgently advertising for staff in preparation for the anticipated boom and are appealing to the foreign worker registration bureau, next to the Jomtien immigration office, to recruit more waiters and cleaning staff from Myanmar and Cambodia.
The biggest problem the resort’s business owners may experience in 2023 will be keeping up with the demand for more staff. The Tourist Authority of Thailand aims to have 20 million foreign tourists visiting the country in 2023, but many gurus think 30 million plus is a distinct possibility if the required number of flights can be accommodated.
The largest question for Pattaya in 2023 is its infrastructure. The local immigration bureau is already at its busiest level since pre-Covid days, mostly because of initial address registration requirements. Many Russian arrivals in particular are dominated by the need to open Thai bank accounts and are sometimes frustrated by difficulties in so doing.
Some are keen to invest in property and others are checking out the regulations for long-stay visas such as Elite and Long Term Residence. The nearby coral and beach island of Koh Larn is now limiting the number of daily arrivals, whilst the waiting period to obtain driving licences can be longer than a month.
Meanwhile, traffic on Pattaya’s main roads is much heavier than before, thanks partly to the boom in the resort’s domestic tourism from Bangkok residents. But the ongoing road improvement program in the city is far from finished leading to traffic snarl-ups. If the Chinese tour buses were to arrive in any number prior to completion of repairs or improvement, the consequences would be dire. Morning air pollution in Pattaya is sometimes worse than in Bangkok.
Geoff Clarkson, spokesman for Faraway Tours, said, “It’s not just a question of overall numbers arriving in Thailand because of pent-up demand after the covid pandemic, but the tourist crowds coming to Pattaya owing to the massive expansion of nearby U-tapao airport.” The number of daily flights should be limited to reduce the risks of pollution, traffic jams and pressure on local services such as immigration and land transportation.”
He added that some of Pattaya’s major roads were still under renovation and not in a position to accommodate hundreds of huge tour buses which are associated with charter vacations. “However, there is time to prepare because it will take weeks for the detailed flights arrangements to be made.” Many Chinese vacationers are hoping to get away in late January which is Chinese New Year, a traditional foreign travel favorite.
After its recent history as a ghost town, Pattaya is welcoming with open arms the international tourist boom which has the cash registers ringing all over town and the hoteliers and condominiums enjoying a new lease of life. But, as 2023 progresses, national and local Thai authorities will have to wrestle with some other consequences. No easy answers.