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Phuket’s tourism ‘steady as she goes’ amid influx of Russian arrivals

Thailand’s tourism sector is showing promising signs of recovery, exceeding expectations, even amidst a bumpy travel recovery around the world. A Thai government official recently reported that the sector is “gaining momentum”, with an expected arrival of 6 million foreign tourists in the first three months of the year.

This marks a significant recovery from the lows of last year’s pandemic-induced travel restrictions. Asia, generally, has had a slower recovery due to the lateness of full reopening after years of border closures and restrictions.

The total arrivals of foreigners in Phuket has been between 11,000 – 14,000 each day for the first two weeks of March, a continuation of arrival figures in January and March. The consistent number of arrivals on the island is welcome but a closer look at the statistics reveals some worrying trends.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is projecting a total of 25-30 million foreign tourists to visit the country in 2023, with an estimated spending of 1.5 trillion baht. These projections have been bolstered by the strong performance of the sector in the first quarter, although fall short of the 2019 pre-Covid arrival numbers – nearly 40 million tourists.

Russian arrivals were a significant feature of the rise in tourism in Q4 of 2022, with Chinese travellers driving the recovery in Q1 of 2023. Since China re-opened its borders to foreign travel at the start of the year, the number of Chinese travellers visiting Thailand has increased significantly.

In Phuket, Russian and Chinese arrivals are filling the two top positions now, according to arrival statistics from Phuket Immigration.

The surge of Russian travellers, fuelled partly by an exodus of families and young men from the ongoing Ukraine war, has been a boon for a recovering Phuket tourism economy. But is it sustainable, or even a workable model in the long-term? Worryingly for Phuket’s tourism officials is the simple maths of subtracting the Russian arrivals from Thailand’s arrival statistics which reveals a very poor recovery without the Russians flying to Thailand.

Although the number of tourists from other countries has been mediocre, Russian, and now Chinese travellers, are currently more than compensating for this. Indian tourists also contributed to an important resurgence in Phuket tourism, albeit to a lesser extent (despite being pioneers in the early days of Thai tourism recovery in the second half of last year). Their current arrival numbers have dropped off from their peak in Q4 last year.

In Phuket, Russians were the most numerous arrivals in the first two weeks of March, with over 47,000 tourists. They were followed by Chinese, Indians, Kazakhs and Germans. Notably, the rate of Russian arrivals in March exceeded that of December and January.

Generally, the numbers indicate a slow return to pre-pandemic levels of tourism. In 2019, Thailand welcomed a total of 39.8 million foreign tourists, with the tourism industry contributing to around 11% of the country’s GDP.

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