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Is a Chinese Blockbluster Discouraging Travel to Thailand?

Is a Chinese Blockbluster Discouraging Travel to Thailand?
A Chinese blockbuster movie that depicts real life scams in Southeast Asia could be spooking tourists from China and giving them pause when considering traveling to Thailand, analysts and data suggest. Released in August, No More Bets is a story about several Chinese citizens who are tricked into taking a work trip overseas only to be forced into operating illegal online investment, gambling and cryptocurrency scams in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. The movie is based on a real-life problem that has mushroomed in recent years. The same month the movie hit theaters, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report that said criminal gangs have forced hundreds of thousands in Southeast Asia into the illicit industry. In theaters in China, No More Bets has been a roaring success, reaching number one on the movie charts for three weeks in August and ranking third highest grossing film of the year. The movie also reportedly raked in more than $500 million at China’s box office in the first month of its release. In one scene, abducted Chinese tourists are traveling in a minibus, which drives under a road sign for "Sukhumvit," a well-known district in the Thai capital of Bangkok. Experts say the film shouldn’t have a lasting effect on Chinese tourism to Thailand, but it has raised concerns that it could discourage tourists from traveling to Bangkok. And Thailand is not the only country where the movie’s success has triggered trepidation. Khmer text is featured in the film, which has prompted Cambodia to ban its screening. In Myanmar, the country’s military administration has complained the movie "tarnishes" the country’s image. Vincent Zhuang, a former senior editor at the Robb Report, still sees Thailand as a suitable place for Chinese tourists, but he admits bad news can easily discourage some prospective visitors. "I never think this will be a big problem. I have visited Thailand this year by myself. We know Southeast Asia has lots of interesting places, which fits for Chinese market," Zhuang told VOA by email. "There’s an old Chinese saying which means good news is hard to spread, but bad things are easy. It is the same in the travel industry, bad incidents easily influence the guests to stop coming." The fact that No More Bets is based on true events has also resonated with viewers, Zhuang said. "‘The movie is based on a true background. The telecommunication fraud in the last few years, nearly everyone had received a certain kind of fraud information, some [have] lost money too. That is the reason the movie makes us feel so real and make it success." Nithee Seeprae, the deputy governor for marketing communications at Tourism Authority Thailand, is confident the Chinese blockbuster won’t impact tourism in Thailand. "According to the travel agent and our partners in China, they said most of the people they knew understood what the truth of this movie and they still trust in Thailand as a safe destination," he told VOA in October. Seeprae admitted that tourism authorities still need to show Chinese tourists who aren’t in China that Thailand is safe to visit. "Maybe we’ll have to coordinate with Chinese influencers and the Chinese influencer network in Thailand," he added. But there is evidence the movie may have already had some impact on Chinese tourists visiting Thailand, as arrivals are less than expected. There have been over 2.2 million mainland Chinese arrivals to Thailand this year through August, according to government data. But Thailand’s tourism bureau had predicted 5 million Chinese visitors by the end of 2023, a figure which seems unlikely to be reached by the end of next month. Other reasons must be considered though. China has a slowing economy and the number of flights to Thailand are still not at pre-pandemic levels. In addition to that, a mass shooting at the Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok in September has also spooked some after three people were killed, including one Chinese national. The shooting saw around 60,000 Chinese tourists cancel their trips to Thailand, local media reported. Seeprae said the Thai government has done everything it can to reassure China its nationals were not a deliberate target. "The situation at the Paragon has already calmed down," he added. Gary Bowerman, an Asia tourism analyst, told VOA the recent incidents have influenced Chinese tourists’ decision to enter Thailand. "The two recent Chinese hit movies, No More Bets and Lost in the Stars, caused expansive debate on Chinese social media about issues around personal safety and security in Southeast Asia. The fatal shooting at Siam Paragon mall has exacerbated those fears and Thailand is confronting significant cancellations of Chinese holiday bookings over its peak season." Thailand officials have tried to make it easier for visitors from China – as well as Taiwan, India and Russia – by announcing visa relaxations in recent months. Arrivals from China can now enter Thailand for 30 days without requiring a visa. The waiver expires at the end of February. In 2019, 11 million Chinese visitors alone contributed to a record 39 million international arrivals in Thailand. But with the pandemic limiting Chinese nationals from traveling, outbound tourism has dwindled. And in 2022, only 273,567 arrivals entered the Southeast Asian country, according to government data. And it’s since become easier for Chinese tourists to travel domestically, Zhuang said. "The Chinese tourist had changed a lot. [Convenience] becomes a priority. Visa, flight time, language. In the Asia area, the air tickets and hotel price are still high for some of the guests. So, it will be [natural] that some will choose other destinations instead. Second, domestic destinations have been deeply developed in the last 3 years. There are many choices in China both for luxury and economy," he added.

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