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The Chinese boom in Phuket

December 11, 2013

It seems the boom in Chinese tourist numbers visiting Phuket is set to continue, after signals that China’s first consulate for the island could be opened as soon as next year.

chinese-temple-phuket-town-vegetarian-festival

This will make it far easier for Chinese tourists visiting Phuket to access consular services, as currently they have to visit the existing consulate in Had Yai to deal with any problems.

Qin Jian, the Chinese Vice Consul based in the consulate office in Had Yai, spoke to The Phuket News about the plans, and explained the planned Phuket consulate would cover Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi provinces, and would come under the control of the the Had Yai office.

“The number of Chinese tourists visiting Phuket has already reached 1 million this year, so I think it would be convenient for them to have these services for when they encounter problems such as injuries or losing their travel documents.”

He explained that because tourists would no longer have to travel to Had Yai in Songkhla – a five-and-a-half hour drive from Phuket – they would be able to get consular assistance much quicker than before. Mr Qin added that business ties between China and Phuket may also benefit.

Phuket-based C9 Hotelworks Managing Director Bill Barnett said in an interview with the Manila Standard on Wednesday (November 27) that 22 cities in China now had direct flights to Phuket, significantly up from just five in 2008.

Mr Barnett noted that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Thailand annually would reach more than 200 million in 2018, with projected traffic of 80 million tourists this year.

“In Phuket alone, one of every four visitors is [already] Chinese. And this year, there will be three million Chinese visitors to Thailand,” Mr Barnett was quoted as saying.

“They take more trips a year, but stay less time. They want tourism, theme parks, retail. They want Chinese-speaking staff, Chinese-language TV stations, smoking rooms. They want to be welcomed,” Mr Barnett said.

However, as the number of Chinese arrivals increases, so will the problems they face.

In late October, local businesspeople, Airports of Thailand (AOT) representatives, and members of the Chinese community met at the Phuket AOT office to discuss issues concerning Chinese tourists.

At the meeting, it emerged that safety on the island’s beaches, problems with filling out arrival cards when entering the country, and delays at Immigration are some of the main problems affecting the thousands of Chinese tourists arriving on the island every day.

“But I’ve found that over time, the frequency of these three major problems has decreased,” said Mr Qin.

Mr Qin said he believes the number one issue currently affecting Chinese tourists is drowning: “I think that so far this year, around 10 Chinese have drowned while swimming.”

That figure does not include 20-year-old Chinese national Gao Yang, who died last Wednesday (November 20) after he fell off the rocks at Promthep Cape – which draws hundreds nightly for its sunset views – and was swept away by the stormy seas.

His body was recovered on Friday, between Koh Hei and Koh Lone – around 7 kilometres from Promthep Cape. Mr Gao’s family came from China to collect his body – a tragic end to a planned fun-filled trip to Phuket.

Pol Maj Urumporn Koondejsumrit, an inspector with the Tourist Police, also agreed that drownings were unusually high for Chinese tourists.

“The rate is rather high. We have co-ordinated with tour agents and we provide leaflets in Chinese, English and Russian warning tourists not to swim during the monsoon season.

“However, in some areas the tourists look and see the waves are normal, but they don’t know that underneath is a strong rip current. It is hard for us to get the message across about this.

“As well as that, many Chinese tourists who come to Phuket want to swim in the sea, and it’s hard for us to persuade them not to.”

Usually, Chinese tourists visit Phuket as part of a tour group, and individual tourists are rare, explains Maj Urumporn.

“But usually we don’t find communication a big issue, because the Tourist Police have around 10 Chinese-speaking volunteers.”

Maj Urumporn believes the consulate will be a good thing for Phuket, and it will instil confidence among visiting Chinese tourists.

“If there’s a consulate around, tourists will feel like there is someone there to help, and someone they can rely on. This will encourage them to visit Phuket again.

“I’ve heard about a book that the Chinese government has provided for citizens, about how to behave when visiting a foreign country.

“I think this is a good solution because sometimes we don’t understand their behaviour and they don’t understand our culture. This book is a good tool to reduce problems for the Chinese when they travel abroad.”

Karn Therdmaefaluang, the general manager of Nonthasak Marine, a speedboat company that transports many Chinese tourists to the islands surrounding Phuket, said the idea of opening a Chinese consulate in Phuket was mooted many years ago.

But with the opening of a consulate might come other problems, he believed.

“What might occur is that tourists will complain more. If there are minor problems that can be solved easily, they will run to the consulate [for help].”

However, Mr Karn said one of the positive things about a consulate would be the ease of getting new passports.

For example, when Chinese tourists currently lose their passport, they have to go to Had Yai to get a new one, then return to Phuket before catching their departing international flight.

“This takes time and is not convenient for the tourist,” he said.

At the start of October, new Chinese government regulations were introduced which were expected to have a profound effect on the number and “quality” of Chinese tourists coming to Thailand, and particularly Phuket.

The new rules are aimed at clamping down on low-quality, “zero-baht” tour packages that typically include air fare, hotel, meals and tours.

The first regulation limits each Chinese outbound tour companies to sending no more than 5,000 people a year to Thailand.

Tour companies will not be allowed to take customers to tourists “sights” (such as shops) that are not on their printed itineraries. Any infringements will result in the company being barred by the Chinese government from running package tours to Thailand.

It’s still early days for these regulations, but there have been forecasts that they will lead to the number of Chinese visitors to Phuket initially falling, before bouncing back and bringing more “quality” (read: higher spending) tourists.

No matter what type of tourist comes to Phuket, there is no doubt that the proposed Chinese consulate will be a great help for the millions who will most likely still visit every year.

It may even be the catalyst for other major sources of tourists, including the UK, Australia and Russia, to consider establishing their own fully-fledged consulates in Phuket.

For better or worse, the island is no longer the sleepy backwater it once was. It’s now a high-profile international destination for millions – and it needs to have the services to match.

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