CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A handful of Chinese visitors posed for photos and basked in the sun last week at markets and plazas near Chiang Mai’s ancient Tha Bay Gate. .
The beaches and temples of places like Bali and Chiang Mai have been busier since the pandemic hit three years ago, but they are still quiet.
Still, Sanadib Panchomboon, a soft drink vendor in the Chinatown district of Chiang Mai, a picturesque riverside city in northern Thailand, was upbeat. As the number of flights from China continues to rise, he believes it is only a matter of time.
“If many of them can return, it will be good because they have purchasing power,” Sanadib said.
More visitors are likely to come as group tours from China resume. For now, only individual travelers can afford to pay, with flights costing more than three times what they normally do, and they’re going overseas.
These included doctors like Chen Jiao Jiao, who was photographed with her children in front of the red brick wall of Tha Bei Gate, and those on their first overseas vacation, escaping the damp cold of Shanghai to enjoy the warm sun and cool air of Chiang Mai. The virus appeared in China in early 2020.
“After three years of epidemics and harsh winters, now it’s opening up,” Chen said. “For us Chinese, the first choice is to go to Chiang Mai because the weather is warm and the people here are very kind.”
In 2019, 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited Chiang Mai, bringing in $450 million in tourism-related income, money sorely missed across the region as countries close their borders to most travel.
Group tours are set to resume from February 6, but the number of tourists arriving will depend on how many flights are operated, said Sulatha Saruthilavan, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Chiang Mai office. This year, he expects around 500,000-600,000 visitors from China.
Shanghai-based businessman Li Wei, who visited the ancient wall with his family of seven, said that more Chinese would definitely like to visit.
“Tourists may arrive in the next three months as visas and flights have not yet returned to normal,” Li said.
Further south, on the tropical Indonesian resort island of Bali, shops and restaurants — some decorated with festive red lights and red and gold envelopes used for Lunar New Year cash gifts — were still relatively empty.
Bali’s first post-pandemic direct flight from China arrived last week, welcoming 210 tourists from the southern city of Shenzhen with marigold garlands and dance performances.
“Before Covid, we were working with travel agencies that handled Chinese tourists who brought guests from China every day, but because they were closed, there were very few guests,” said Matt Sudharma, a seafood restaurant owner in Bali’s Jimbaran area.
After three years with almost no customers, the Chinese restaurant’s general manager Nioman Visana said he was “very happy” to see the return of Chinese tourists.
Fewer than 23,000 Chinese tourists visited Bali from January-November last year, and only a quarter of the island’s 80 tour operators that cater to Chinese clients are active, said Putu Vinastra, head of the Bali Association of Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies.
“Actually, we are very concerned about this,” he said.
Indonesia is developing plans to attract Chinese tourists, including launching direct flights from major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, he said.
Visitors last week appeared to be buoyed after enduring months of strict pandemic restrictions that put international travel off limits to almost all Chinese.
“I feel really good because I haven’t gone abroad for the past three years and I haven’t come to Southeast Asia to spend my vacation,” said Li Zhalong, a tourist enjoying a day at the beach. “Bali is a very beautiful place so I’m very happy to be here.”
Closer to home, casinos in Macau’s gambling complex and popular tourist spots in Hong Kong, a former British colony, drew larger crowds than usual but were still empty compared to pre-Covid-19 days. Usually, places like Hong Kong’s scenic Marine Park and the Wong Tai Chin Temple with its Nine-Dragon Wall are packed with visitors from mainland China.
Leo Guo, who works in the travel industry, took his wife, daughter, sister and parents to Hong Kong Disneyland, Victoria Peak and the skyline-studded harbor for a week, shopping of course.
“For mainland Chinese, Hong Kong is a special city that is different from other Chinese cities,” Lee said. “It’s a great goal for us.”
And in Australia, Eric Wang, a Sydney-based travel agent, says that even as Chinese airlines increase flights, the high cost of travel appears to be keeping the Chinese away.
With more than 1.4 million visitors in 2019, the Chinese accounted for almost a third of tourism spending in Australia before the pandemic. Australia, like Japan, the US and some other countries, requires visitors from China to take Covid-19 tests. Departure. But Wang, who works for CBT Holidays, a company that specializes in travel to China, said he didn’t see that as a major obstacle.
“It’s about the airlines, because the flights are still not back to normal frequency, so the airfares are five times higher,” he said.
Information for this article was provided by Sigit Purvono, Rod McGuirk, Alice Fung and Edna Darrigan of The Associated Press.