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.
"Because of the pandemic, we hadn't been out of China for three years," said tourist and business owner Kiki Hu, 28, in Krabi on Thailand's southwest coast. "Now that we can leave and come here for holiday. I feel so happy and emotional".
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.
Beijing in December abruptly dropped some of the toughest Covid restrictions on earth, which had battered the world's second-biggest economy.
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, despite some wariness about a huge spike in Covid infections in China after Beijing ended its zero-Covid policy.
"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.
The Thai government is expecting at least five million Chinese tourist arrivals this year, with some 300,000 coming in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with its people praying for health after three years of stress and financial hardship under the pandemic, as officials reported almost 13,000 new deaths caused by the virus between January 13 and 19.
Queues stretched for about one kilometre outside the iconic Lama temple in Beijing, which had been repeatedly shut before Covid-19 restrictions ended in early December, with thousands of people waiting for their turn to pray for their loved ones.
One Beijing resident said she wished the year of the rabbit will bring "health to everyone".
"I think this wave of the pandemic is gone," said the 57-year-old, who only gave her last name, Fang. "I didn’t get the virus, but my husband and everyone in my family did. I still think it's important to protect ourselves."
Earlier, officials reported almost 13,000 deaths related to Covid in hospitals between January 13 and 19, adding to the nearly 60,000 in the month or so before that. Chinese health experts say the wave of infections across the country has already peaked. - Agencies