For Chinese tourists in Bangkok, 76 Garage, an open-air restaurant on the northern outskirts of the Thai capital, has long been near the top of the list of places to visit.

And they go there not for the food, but the waiters.

In the middle of the restaurant is a swimming pool. The evening reaches its highlight when the waiters, all fit young men, strip down to their shorts and wade into the pool, offering to carry the diners for a photo op and a tip.

There was a time when 76 Garage was so popular you needed to book a month in advance to get a table. These days half the tables are empty.

Thailand’s lauded tourist industry is missing its biggest customers: the Chinese.

When China finally lifted zero-Covid restrictions in January, allowing its citizens to travel overseas, Thailand had high hopes. It expected an upsurge in business that would help its tourist industry recover much of the ground it lost during the Covid pandemic.

The government predicted as many as five million Chinese tourist arrivals by the end of the year – still less than half the nearly 11 million who came in 2019. But a big improvement on last year, when there were only 270,000.

That rosy scenario has turned out to be far too optimistic. Fewer than 2.5 million came in the first nine months of 2023.

Empty tables at 76 GarageIMAGE SOURCE,BBC/ JONATHAN HEAD
Image caption,

Empty tables at a Bangkok restaurant that is typically popular with Chinese tourists

“Our tourism ministry said visitor numbers would recover quickly after the pandemic,” said Anucha Liangruangreongkit, a Chinese-speaking tour guide at the Grand Palace in Bangkok who has been working there for 42 years.

“But they’re dreaming. I’m a guide – I should know. If it was normal, like in the past, it would be packed, right? Look at it now. Are there a lot of people here? No.”

Part of the problem is a shortage of low-cost flights post-Covid, and a slowing Chinese economy.

The new Thai government hoped its announcement of a five-month visa waiver would entice more tourists. But a shooting at Bangkok’s most famous shopping mall on 3 October, in which a Chinese mother of two children was killed, compounded an image problem confronting Thailand and other South East Asian countries.

They are now considered unsafe by many Chinese people.

Anucha LiangruangreongkitIMAGE SOURCE,BBC/ LULU LUO
Image caption,

Anucha Liangruangreongkit says Chinese tourists have not returned in the same numbers

In August a new film called No More Bets became a huge box office hit in China, earning tens of millions of dollars in its first few days. It depicted a Chinese model and a computer programmer being lured by the promise of high-paying jobs into a scam centre in an unnamed South East Asian country – and being forced to work in slave-like conditions.

No More Bets rode on the back of alarming reporting over the past two to three years about the thousands of people, many of them Chinese, being trapped in such scam centres in Cambodia, and along Thailand’s lawless borders with Myanmar and Laos. Social media in China has also carried horrifying accounts of torture and abuse by those who have escaped.

Abby, a Chinese student in Thailand who likes to vlog to her social media followers about places like 76 Garage, has watched how the popular image of Thailand has changed in the comments below her TikTok feed.

“The comments on my feed used to be very positive,”she says. “Many people said after watching my videos that they really wanted to come to Thailand.”

But now, she says, people even worry that the shirtless waiters in the pool could be a ruse to get unsuspecting diners to give up their kidneys: “People would ask me “are you running a ‘kidney harvesting’ scam? Are you the one sending people from Thailand to Myanmar?”

In the past Chinese tourists got something of a bad name in Thailand. They often travelled in large, noisy groups and were seen as rude and pushy. There were complaints about so-called “zero dollar tourism” – where they came on all-inclusive packages in which most of the income went to operators back in China – and there was public debate about the risks of depending too much on the Chinese.

Now safety concerns are keeping many of them away, and the Thai tourist industry has been focusing its efforts on other markets like Russia and India.

But a country as reliant on tourism as Thailand cannot afford to ignore the world’s largest market. Chinese visitors are actually among the biggest spenders in Thailand, forking out an average of $180 (£148) a day.

Grand Palace in BangkokIMAGE SOURCE,BBC/LULU LUO
Image caption,

Thailand’s Grand Palace was once bustling with Chinese tourists, says a tour guide

“Actually the travellers from China to Thailand right now are at the higher end of the market,” said Tirawan Taechaubol, whose family runs an extensive chain of luxury hotels and serviced apartments as part of their Kasemkij Group.

“We have noticed that they are more open to different experiences, that they spend a lot on good food and activities. Like at Cape Fahn, our resort on a private island with 24 villas – we have Chinese customers who buy out the whole island for birthdays or weddings, even just for marriage proposals.”

She said Thai tourism is starting to see a different kind of customer to the rowdy, bargain-hunting Chinese crowds of popular folklore.

At the entrance to a newly-built, 55-storey apartment block in central Bangkok, Owen, a Chinese property agent, waits to meet two new clients, Lincoln and Wonson, who flew in from Shanghai the evening before for their first ever visit to Thailand.

As a gay couple they say they want to experience the dizzying variety of LGBTQ+ entertainment in Thailand. But they have a more serious purpose. They want to raise a family, which is much harder for gay couples to do in China, and they are looking for a potential home.

Owen says Thailand is the first destination of choice for Chinese LGBTQ+ travellers, and those wanting to settle here now make up two-thirds of his clients.

“We saw a lot of gays, lesbians, and some transgender people here,” Lincoln said. “So yeah, I think this is a very open country, and very free. When we got here we felt kind of liberated.”

Lincoln and WonsonIMAGE SOURCE,BBC/ JONATHAN HEAD
Image caption,

Lincoln and Wonson say they can have a life in Bangkok that is still unimaginable in China

“I think the most important thing is the atmosphere here,” Wonson added.

“The freedom, because you know it is hard for us to live in China, facing social pressure from family, from traditional culture. Maybe here we can have a life like in our imagination, which can not only fulfil our own needs, but also our children’s. And here we can tell our children that we are very normal, like other people.”

Such visitors will make up a growing proportion of Chinese travellers, said Gary Bowerman, whose company Check-in Asia tracks travel trends in the region.

“Three years stuck in a very safe country during the pandemic has probably changed their perceptions of safety and security, so that when you’ve got these rumours of scams and kidnappings, it will have an impact on people’s perceptions,” he added. “But one thing I would say about the younger travellers from China is that they are prepared to experiment.”

And Thailand’s biggest appeal, he says, is “that element of adventure and, let’s say, manageable danger”.

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