What does mainland China's highest grossing film of 2012 have to do with a tourist boom in Thailand? The land of smiles - once the choice destination for middle-aged male tourists, the Germans and the Japanese in the 1980s, followed by Italians and Russians in subsequent decades, now has a new kid on the block - the mainland tourist.
Blame it on Lost in Thailand, a hit movie directed by Xu Zheng released in late 2012 that charts the exploits of two bumbling Chinese businessmen and a tourist in Thailand. Riding the popularity of the film, predictably choc-a-bloc with Thai icons from lady-boys to Buddhist statues, mainland travel agencies were quick off the mark to offer tailored tours to key locations featured in the movie, much of which was shot in Chiang Mai, in time for the Lunar New Year holiday. Initial estimates number mainland tourists visiting Thailand over the 2013 Lunar New Year at 270,000, which, on an annualised basis, makes the mainland tourist the single biggest source of inbound tourism to Thailand.
Of course, there is more to the mainland tourist boom in Thailand than the movie alone. Thanks to improving infrastructure and a stable government, inbound tourism is booming. In 2012, tourists numbers reached a record 22.2 million, almost 15 per cent up on 2011 despite flooding that paralysed most of Bangkok in the end of 2011 and early 2012. By 2012, mainland tourists to Thailand totalled 2.7 million, up 50 per cent on 2011 and representing the largest single source of inbound tourism to the country. A key reason for the deluge has been the rapid growth of low-cost carriers serving Bangkok as a regional hub, making travel to Thailand affordable to many low-income travellers.
With Bangkok's modern Suvarnabhumi Airport running above design capacity for most of 2012, full resumption of operations at Bangkok's older Don Muang airport in the third quarter opened up a lot of new capacity for low-cost carriers. Another factor has been the improved connectivity between China and Thailand, as part of Beijing's "go west" policy (designed to boost investment in inland provinces) with seven mainland carriers now plying direct air routes to Thailand from large mainland cities. Thailand has also made a smart move by offering mainland tourists tourist visas immediately on arrival without any need to pre-apply.
Serendipity may have also played a role. Following the onset of Sino-Japanese hostilities in late 2012, mainland visitors to Japan, which had averaged 140,000 a month until then, dropped by almost 40 per cent in October.
Thailand clearly has picked up some of the tourist flow from Japan.
Significantly, Thailand is one of the few Southeast Asian nations with whom China does not have a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. One blogger also suggested that Thailand has started to attract a lot of middle-class Chinese tourists who may normally visit Hainan Island or Vietnam, for the traditional sea-and-sand holiday during the winter months. The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects 3.3 million mainland visitors this year from a total of 24.5 million tourists. The estimate may prove to be conservative based on a 90 per cent year-on-year rise in mainland arrivals to Thailand in the first two months of 2013.
Carl Berrisford is an analyst for UBS CIO Wealth Management