PHUKET • Hotels on Phuket, Thailand's most popular holiday island, have been forced to slash prices, with rooms left vacant and beaches sparse, as tourist chiefs struggle with a plunge in Chinese visitors caused by the US trade war and a stronger baht.
Phuket was the most visited destination in the country last year after Bangkok and a good gauge of the state of its crucial travel industry.
Mr Claude de Crissey, honorary consul of France in Phuket and owner of about 40 rooms in the popular Patong Beach area, said Chinese tourists are usually present even during the current low season.
"That was not the case this year," he said, adding that he had to lower his prices by as much as 50 per cent.
Hotels elsewhere in Thailand, including the seaside resort of Pattaya and Koh Samui, are also struggling to fill rooms.
Tourism accounts for 18 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product and Chinese holidaymakers make up over a quarter of total arrivals. But while 2.2 million Chinese visited last year, numbers for January-September were down almost a fifth, official data shows.
Trade tensions with the United States have already made some Chinese reluctant to take holidays owing to uncertainty at home, while the Thai baht has risen around 10 per cent against the yuan this year.
A boating disaster off Phuket's coast that killed 47 Chinese holidaymakers has also scared some off.
Adding to the headache is the fact that over 3,000 new hotel rooms are being built on the island, raising the question of who will fill them.
Still, tourism authority chairman Yuthasak Supasorn remains optimistic, saying he expects to "reach our goal of 39.8 million foreign visitors" this year.
However, that is only up from 38.2 million in 2018, far less than the jump seen from the previous year's total of 35.6 million.
Now hoteliers and tour operators are targeting visitors from elsewhere, particularly India. A rapid expansion of the middle class in India, more direct flights and visa-free travel have prompted Thailand to revise forecasts upwards. It now expects two million Indian tourists this year, after a rise of nearly 25 per cent year on year in the first seven months.