BANGKOK Thailand's pivotal Chinese tourism sector is on the rise and may get an additional boost due to tensions between China and South Korea and the banning of Chinese tour groups to South Korea this month, the head of a Thai travel group said on Tuesday.
Overall tourism accounts for 12 percent of Southeast Asia's second-largest economy but Chinese tourism, the biggest foreign group, slumped in the final quarter of 2016 after a Thai crackdown on cheap Chinese tour packages.
"Chinese tourist numbers have recently increased by 15-20 percent to about 80 percent of last year's levels, which is very encouraging," Ronnarong Chewinsiriamnuai, president of the Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association, told Reuters.
He said tensions between China and South Korea over Seoul's decision to deploy a U.S. missile defence system, which Beijing says threatens its security, could further boost Chinese tourism.
The picture should be clearer after March 15, when Chinese tour groups to South Korea will be banned, Ronnarong said.
"That's an opportunity for Thailand to see its tourism active again as more Chinese visitors are coming," said Ronnarong.
Chinese represent the biggest group of foreign holidaymakers to Thailand and the tourism sector has been a rare bright spot in a country, where economic growth has lagged regional peers. Chinese tourism accounts for just over 3 pct of Thailand's GDP.
In January, Chinese visitors rose 5.5 percent from a year earlier, but that was partly because the Lunar New Year fell in February in 2016.
In 2016, Thailand received 8.87 million Chinese tourists, down from 10 million it had expected before the crackdown. The military government expects 9 million visitors this year.
($1 = 35.37 baht)
(Reporting by Orathai Sriring; Editing by Michael Perry)