CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AP) — Just a handful of Chinese visitors were posing for photos and basking in the sun this week in the market and plazas near Chiang Mai's ancient Tha Phae Gate, one of many tourist hotspots still waiting for millions of Chinese travellers to return.
The beaches and temples of destinations like Bali and Chiang Mai are the busiest they have been since the pandemic struck three years ago, but they're still relatively quiet.
Still, Chanatip Pansomboon, a soft drinks seller in the Chinatown district of Chiang Mai, a scenic riverside city in northern Thailand, was upbeat. He trusts that with the number of flights from China steadily increasing, it's only a matter of time.
"If a lot of them can return, it will be great as they have buying power," Chanatip said.
The expected resumption of group tours from China is likely to bring far more visitors. For now, it is only individual travellers who can afford to pay, with flights costing more than triple what they normally do, who are venturing abroad.
This includes people like Chen Jiao Jiao, a doctor who was posing for pictures with her children in front of Tha Phae Gate's red brick wall, escaping the damp chill of Shanghai to enjoy Chiang Mai's warm sun and cool breezes on her first overseas vacation since the virus surfaced in China in early 2020.
"After three years of pandemic and a severe winter, now it's opening up," Chen said. "For we Chinese, the first choice is to visit Chiang Mai because the weather is warm and the people here are very warmhearted."
In 2019, 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited Chiang Mai, generating 15 billion baht ($450 million) of tourism-related income, money sorely missed across the region as countries shut their borders to most travel.
Group tours are due to resume from February 6, but the number of tourists who will come will depends on how many flights are operating, said Suladda Sarutilawan, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Chiang Mai office. She said the hope is for about 500,000-600,000 visitors from China this year.
Of course more Chinese would like to visit, said Li Wei, a businessman from Shanghai, as he visited the ancient wall with his extended family of seven.
"Since visas and flights are not back to normal yet, maybe tourists will come in the next three months," Li said.