In this photo taken on Dec 7, 2022 a tourist wades into the sea from a beach at sunset in Railay, Krabi. (JACK TAYLOR / AFP)
PHUKET, Thailand – Hitting the white sand beaches and eating mango sticky rice and seafood, Chinese tourists are returning to Thailand for their first trips abroad since China ended its strict COVID-19 curbs and reopened its borders.
Countries from Thailand to Japan had depended on China as their largest source of foreign visitors
With China celebrating the Lunar New Year, Asia's tourist hotspots have been bracing for the return of Chinese tourists, who spent $255 billion a year globally before the pandemic. Countries from Thailand to Japan had depended on China as their largest source of foreign visitors.
ALSO READ: Cruise tourism comes alive in new year
Beijing in December abruptly dropped some of the toughest COVID restrictions on earth.
Business owner Yoyo Chen, 32, from Yiwu in central China, said returning to Thailand felt like coming home.
"I'm here to eat seafood. Previously, when I was here, I ate mango sticky rice, which was delicious. Back in China I kept thinking about the mango sticky rice here. I'm looking forward to the food, as well as visiting the beaches," Chen said.
"Getting visas is very convenient now. The tourism industry is more developed here, there are lots of fun activities and cuisine, and the Thai people are very hospitable," she said.
The Chinese return was welcomed by businesses.
ALSO READ: Bali sees 1st charter flight of Chinese tourists after curbs ease
"We're glad that China finally allows their people to travel. At the moment, we've received some bookings through March," said Woranuch Maungtong, 44, manager of Tip-Top Destination on the resort island of Phuket, which provides daily speed boats to nearby islands.
China's reopening raises hopes for the return of Chinese visitors, who accounted for nearly a third of Thailand's 40 million foreign tourist arrivals in pre-pandemic 2019.
ALSO READ: Thailand greets Chinese tourists after policy update
The Thai government is expecting at least five million Chinese tourist arrivals this year, with some 300,000 coming in the first quarter.