Thais smile through gritted teeth for tourists from China

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Drying underwear at a temple and defecating in public, kicking a bell at a sacred shrine and washing feet in a public restroom: That's a sample from a litany of complaints about the behaviour of Chinese tourists in Thailand.

Public outrage forced the Thai government to issue thousands of Chinese-language etiquette manuals last month in an effort to ensure sightseers behave themselves.

Feathers were ruffled anew in March when a Thai model posted a video on Facebook accusing Chinese tourists of jumping the queue at an airport, prompting heated debate from Thai and Chinese bloggers.

But with Thailand struggling to revive a stagnant economy after a military coup ended months of political unrest last year, tour operators in the "Land of Smiles" say they have no choice but to grin and bear it.

Tourism accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the country's economic output and Chinese holidaymakers are Thailand's largest group of overseas visitors.

It is not just Chinese tourists that Thailand is wooing: China is a top trading partner. The government has sought to strengthen ties with Beijing since some Western countries downgraded diplomatic ties when the military seized power last year.

Raising revenue from tourism is a government priority to compensate for weak exports, said Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the country's deputy government spokesman.

Thailand, therefore, has to tolerate bad behaviour for the sake of its vital tourist industry, he said.

"We have to endure because having tourists is better than having no tourists at all," Col Sansern told Reuters. "Our exports are dependent on the economic situations of other countries. So we are focusing on tourism. This is something we can control."

At the Erawan shrine in the heart of bustling downtown Bangkok, Ms Kanlaya Yimpreeda, 29, a garland vendor, reels off a list of complaints about Chinese visitors.

"I recently saw a Chinese couple take their kids' underwear off so he could pee near the shrine," she said, a look of horror on her face. "Right there in the corner next to one of Bangkok's holiest places."

Tourism took a hammering during months of protests last year that saw parts of Bangkok shut down. Many countries issued warnings against non-essential travel to Thailand.

The Chinese market was one of the first to bounce back, said Mr Srisuda Wanapinyosak, executive director of East Asia Region at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

TAT has Chinese-language specialists manning its official account on Chinese microblogging site Weibo around the clock to communicate with Chinese travellers, Srisuda said.

Over 560,000 Chinese tourists visited Thailand in January, accounting for over a fifth of tourist arrivals, according to the tourism ministry. That was up nearly 60 per cent on the year.

Mr Korn Ornprasert, a veteran tour guide, said he preferred guiding visitors from elsewhere.

"They have no discipline. They throw cigarette butts and spit in public," said Mr Korn. "I would rather give a tour to other nationalities than to mainland Chinese."

China's Ms Mei Zhang, 39, who was on a five-day tour of Thailand, said she was unperturbed by the way her countrymen are perceived.

"We have a bad reputation abroad but people probably said the same thing about Japanese and, before them, Americans. When there are many tourists coming from one country it is easy to criticise," she said.

China is acutely aware of its tourists' image abroad and in January started work on a national database to help rein in some of its unruly sightseers and monitor the behaviour of habitual offenders.

Col Sansern said both countries needed to be flexible. "We as the housekeeper have to adapt and our house guests have to adapt."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.