PHUKET, Thailand—This resort island is facing a challenge other vacation spots around the world may soon confront: how to cope when the Chinese tourists come. Thailand is now the top foreign destination for Chinese travelers, and an estimated 400,000 of them will visit the country around the time of the Lunar New Year holiday that began Thursday, according to the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
Phuket, famed for both scenic beaches and bargain shopping, was already busy with Chinese tourists last week. Ranai Pier, a departure point to offshore islets, looked more like the Shanghai subway at rush hour as Chinese tourists jostled for deck space on one of the revving speedboats below.
At a duty-free mall, Luo Yang and his wife trawled for deals. “Everything is so cheap!” said Mr. Luo, here with a tour group from the Chinese city of Chongqing. The upside for Thailand is a windfall of Chinese cash. But the downsides are mounting: roads snarled with traffic, picturesque spots teeming with people, and new hotels and holiday condos sprouting, adding further to the sense of overdevelopment.
Now even some of tourism's cheerleaders are warning that Phuket is close to a breaking point.
“It can't just keep going up like this,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, vice president of the Phuket Tourism Association.
The situation in Phuket is one result of the global upsurge in Chinese tourism.
More than 62 million Chinese vacationed in other countries last year, twice as many as five years earlier.
For the most part, China's outbound travelers are welcomed with open arms. The Chinese spent $261 billion vacationing in 2016, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, far more than travelers from any other country, and China has accounted for roughly 80% of the growth in global tourism in dollar terms since 2008.
Thailand has been successful at capturing that growth. Ten million Chinese vacationed in Thailand in 2017, up from one million in 2010 and triple the number from any other nation. Thai authorities expect 11 million this year.
While most agree the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, tourism workers in Phuket complain that the Chinese travel on the cheap in “zero-spend” tour groups— paying everything to a Chinabased tour operator upfront and then spending a pittance in Phuket itself. The big retail outlets are an exception, with tourists spending freely. Many of these stores are Chineseowned, however, and funnel the money back to China.
Some tour groups even bring their own sightseeing guides, inciting a protest in December by the local contingent. Thai authorities have arrested about 200 unlicensed Chinese guides in Phuket alone over the past couple of years, but their numbers keep growing as Chinese tourism explodes, said Phuket tour guide Wannarisa Watt, who took part in the recent protests.
“It's not right. There has to be a limit,” said Ms. Wannarisa, who wants the government to cap tour-group numbers.
Visitor numbers continue to climb, however, and many worry what might happen if Chinese tourists were to stop coming. South Korea has seen its popularity with Chinese tourists decline: eight million visited in 2016, but that number halved last year as Beijing—locked in a political row with Seoul—blocked tour groups from coming, causing agony in the Korean tourism sector.
In Thailand, Chinese visits declined briefly in 2016 after a barrage of social-media posts by Thais alleging boorish behavior by Chinese tour groups and as Thai authorities sought to reduce zero spend trips. But that was followed by a charm offensive by the Thai government, which quickly reversed the trend.
China's National Tourism Administration has conceded that its citizens sometimes behave poorly abroad, with line-cutting and littering among their infractions. Still, the money spent by Chinese tourists has “contributed socially to the welfare” of neighboring countries like Thailand, Xu Jing, the U.N. World Tourism Organization's Asia-Pacific director and a Chinese national, told Chinese state media last year.
Hawkers selling noodles and beer at Phuket's night markets have learned to holler in Mandarin at Chinese passersby. And at the crocodile show the bandanna-wearing impresario no longer shouts “hello” before thrusting his head into the creature's jaws.
These days, it's “ni hao.”
BY TREFOR MOSS