Thailand’s target of 40 million visitors in 2024 too ambitious: OAG

India, Russia drive growth, but recovery in China & Japan slow
/ New Delhi
Thailand’s target of 40 million visitors in 2024 too ambitious: OAG

Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok has recovered the fastest in Thailand

Thailand has set a target of attracting 40 million international visitors in the year, a significant increase over 28 million in the year 2023. International aviation data tracking and analysis firm OAG says that with air connectivity still struggling to recover to 2019 levels, Thailand would have trouble meeting the target that may be a bit too ambitious.
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Recovery of tourism in Thailand grew significantly in the last year, reaching 28 million, placing the country well ahead of its South-East Asian neighbours. Enthused by the growth, the Thai government has set a target of attracting 40 million international visitors in 2024, bring it slightly above the pre-pandemic level of 39.9 million visitors.

In an indepth analysis of the country’s tourism industry and especially its air connectivity, OAG says that Thailand was the unquestionable leader in SouthEast Asia for international tourist arrivals in 2023, hitting 28 million, which was about 30 pc below the 2019 levels. It says that Thailand’s overall air capacity recovery is stacking up similarly. In December 2023, it was 23 pc lower than December 2019 for total seat capacity, and in March 2024, that gap narrowed to 22 pc.

OAG then goes on to examine its targets for 2024 and to the extent that aviation capacity will influence whether those targets are hit.  OAG says that Thailand’s biggest international market pre pandemic was China, accounting for almost 4 million seats in Quarter 1 of 2019. Today, capacity between China and Thailand remains 41 pc behind 2019 as this market builds back slowly. All of the other top 10 markets from 2019 are more recovered, although Japan is in a similar position to China, still with a gap of over one third behind 2019 levels.

OAG says that the biggest recovery has been vis-à-vis Russia, where capacity between Thailand and Russia is back to the pre-pandemic level.

Easing visa norms boost numbers

OAG says that in an attempt to improve the capacity gap with China, Thailand grabbed the headlines in early 2024 when it signed a permanent, mutual visa exemption with China, coming into effect from March 1. This move in itself is not new as in September 2023, the newly-appointed Thai Prime Minister had announced a temporary, 30-day visa exemption policy for Chinese and Kazakhstan passport holders, from September 25 to February 29, 2024.

It adds that since then Thailand quickly added India and Taiwan to the visa waiver list from November 10 to March 10 and extended visa-free stays from 30 days to 90 days for Russian visitors, until April 30. OAG says that while these visa waivers generated lot of publicity, they didn’t necessarily generate the number of international arrivals hoped for, and it took a number of months before the effects started to kick in, both for flight capacity and the number of arrivals themselves.

Thailand has not yet officially extended the visa waiver scheme for India and Taiwan, but in mid-February it extended that for Kazakhstan, and it is highly likely it will repeat the same move. In fact, in late January Thailand introduced a new Muay Thai visa which allows foreign nationals to remain in Thailand for up to 90 days to receive training in Thailand’s national martial arts.

OAG says that in Quarter 1 in 2024, during the Chinese New Year break capacity increased month on month, and the difference between 2024 and 2019 reduced down to 36.8 pc, but after the break, this gap returned back to just over 40 pc below 2019.

While Thailand has been struggling vis a vis the Chinese market, it has had better fortune with Russia, which has seen high levels of air capacity into Thailand, particularly over the winter season. OAG says that due to the sanctions placed on Russia with regards to the Russia-Ukraine war, Russian outbound travellers have less choice for destinations they can fly directly to. For Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, many of the highest recovering routes, those which have well surpassed 2019 levels, are to Russia. Irkutsk, for example, is 148 pc above, Khabarovsk at 371 pc above and Vladivostok 70 pc above the pre-pandemic numbers.

India emerging as rival to China

Similarly, Thailand is making good gains in India, says OAG, adding that the decision to offer a visa waiver scheme for Indian nationals travelling to Thailand reflects the broader consensus in SouthEast Asia that in the mid and long term, India will emerge as a rival to China in terms of being the largest source market of tourists.

OAG says that currently India is the 6th largest country market for international capacity to Thailand, with a similar volume of seats to Malaysia and Hong Kong. Thailand’s capacity recovery percentages to and from India are in a much healthier state than for China. Overall, capacity is just 17 pc behind 2019.

According to OAG, whilst China still dominates in terms of absolute seat numbers, the potential for strong growth from India to Thailand in the coming years is high, as India is experiencing high population growth rates and increasing levels of disposable income amongst its population.

It says that nonetheless a target of 40 million arrivals this year feels very ambitious, particularly given the current competition for international tourists in the region. The only way Thailand can reach this target is by encouraging airlines to add back their international seat capacities to Thailand, particularly to key markets, and to continue to facilitate visa waiver schemes.

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