The success of Lost in Thailand, a low-budget Chinese comedy that has become mainland China's most successful domestic film, is raising hopes that it will help attract a record number of tourists to the nation in which it is set.
More than 30 million people have seen the film, about the travels of two rival businessmen and a pancake-maker through Thailand, since its debut on December 12, according to Xinhua.
China overtook Malaysia last year as Thailand's biggest source of overseas tourists, and the film's popularity could help increase total arrivals by 10 per cent this year, according to the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
"The movie is helping boost sentiment and is increasing people's desire to visit," said association president Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn. "The global economic situation isn't a big issue, as we've seen the tourism industry grow a lot despite the slowdown. People who love travelling continue to do it anyway."
Thailand is luring Chinese tourists away from Japan after a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands between Asia's biggest economies led to a travel boycott last year. Hotel rates in Bangkok also remain about half those in Singapore and Hong Kong, while the rise of the Thai currency, the baht, in the past year has been overshadowed by bigger increases in the value of the Singapore dollar and Philippine peso.
"Foreign tourists are flocking back to Thailand," said Sittidath Prasertrungruang, an analyst at Krungsri Securities. "The Thai tourism industry is very resilient, with diversified sources of travellers from China and India to Russia," he said.
China accounted for 13 per cent of the 19.8 million visitors to Thailand in the first 11 months of last year, according to tourism ministry data. The Tourism Authority of Thailand forecasts total visitors may rise to 24.5 million this year, from an estimate of more than 21 million last year.
"China is really just blowing everyone out of the water," said William Heinecke, chief executive officer of Minor International, Thailand's biggest hotel operator. "In percentage terms, numbers from Europe and the UK are down. In actual numbers, they're still the same or slightly higher. But the big growth is coming from Russia and China."
The success of Lost in Thailand, which is the first Chinese movie to make more than one billion yuan (HK$1.24 billion) in box-office receipts, according to Xinhua, may convince even more Chinese to choose Thailand, Sisdivachr said.
Chinese tour groups had added additional charter flights to Thailand as demand for travel to Japan declined, Sisdivachr said.
Heinecke said Thailand's reputation as an inexpensive holiday destination was also luring more tourists from Southeast Asia. "If you're going to cut back you're probably going to cut back on a trip to Singapore or Hong Kong, where you're going to pay US$400 a night for a luxury hotel versus US$200 a night in Thailand," Heinecke said.