Flowers and face masks as Chinese tourists return to Thailand

Chinese tourists bounded back into Thailand on Monday after Beijing eased travel rules, welcomed at Bangkok's main airport by officials with flowers and gift bags.

The Southeast Asian kingdom was heavily reliant on visitors from China pre-pandemic, with Chinese travellers accounting for roughly 30 percent of its tourists.

Thailand's economy has been battered by Covid-19 and the current global downturn, with officials now hopeful Beijing's decision to reopen could help its recovery.

The 269 arrivals on a flight from the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen on Monday were greeted with flowers and gift bags -- containing hand sanitiser and face masks.

"I'm very excited and almost can't believe it," said university teacher Jiang Shanna, among the first arrivals.

The 36-year-old, visiting Thailand for a month to go diving, said it was "very familiar to visit here, and the weather is good too".

Jiang, who booked her flight two weeks ago, said she had a last-minute panic about possible travel restrictions.

"We worried the policies would be different from what we expected and we would be stopped from flying," she said, adding that none of the ground staff at Xiamen airport had known the latest Thai policy.

China is experiencing a surge in Covid infections, with one official admitting Monday that 90 percent of people in Henan province, the country's third most populous, were infected.

Unlike many other countries -- among them the United States, Canada, Japan and France -- Thailand has decided against requiring pre-departure Covid tests for travellers from China.

However, confusion reigned over the weekend after mixed messaging from the health ministry and the Thai civil aviation authority appeared to imply that tourists would be required to present vaccination records.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said Monday that arrivals would not be required to show vaccination records, or undergo tests.

"The decision was decided not only for economic reasons, but also based on medical information," he told reporters at the airport.

Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn said there had been discussions over entry requirements but the issue had been resolved.

Thailand was hoping for "at least five million" Chinese tourists in 2023, he said, but he warned that numbers would be lower than previously with only 15 China flights a week -- compared to around 400 pre-pandemic.

Officials have forecast roughly 20 million tourists will visit Thailand in 2023, far off the 40 million arrivals pre-pandemic.

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