PHUKET: Phuket's famous beaches are usually filled during the holiday period with tourists from all over the world who come to enjoy the sun, sea and sand.
But things may be different this year after a major crackdown on the so-called “zero-dollar tour”.
In September, authorities shut down a tour company in Phuket and another in Bangkok. They were accused of money laundering and selling cheap tour packages to tourists from China.
Authorities said these operations spent very little money in Thailand because the overseas owners controlled the entire supply chain.
Popular tourist destination Chalong temple in Phuket. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Abdullah Wisutchon, who operates a tour boat in Phuket, also shared this view.
“The money from tourism doesn’t reach our pockets," he said. "Many Chinese tours use their own boats and buses; the money only goes to their own tour operators."
As a result of the crackdown, Chinese tourist arrivals to Thailand in the last quarter of 2016 dropped by more than 12 per cent compared to the year before.
But officials in Phuket told Channel NewsAsia they are optimistic the numbers will pick up.
"Between this December and March next year, we are projecting that 12,000 Chinese tourists will be arriving in Phuket," said Phuket Governor Chockchai Dejamornthan.
"These will be 'high-quality' (i.e. spending) tourists from China,” he added.
However Phuket has been relatively lucky. While the crackdown has hurt Thailand's other tourism destinations like Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, the impact has not been as severe on the resort island.
Tourists wait for sunset at the cape of Promthep, Phuket. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
But this has not stopped locals from worrying about their future.
Sunan Suksalee, 40, has been selling shirts on Kata Beach for many years. She said that she is expecting tough times ahead.
“Things were okay two years ago, but it has been tough since then. The economy is not doing well and it is hard for me to pay off my debt," she said.
Taxi driver Somtop Phatkor, 45, said that many people have been losing their jobs over the past few years. "Official statistics may show that there are more tourists this year than last year, (but) local people here haven’t gained anything or seen any improvement at all."
The government is working on introducing new price regulations with overseas tour operators in a bid to bring in what it calls "quality tourists" who will spend more money.
But some in the industry said they disagree with this approach, saying cheap "zero-dollar tours" have also helped generate income for locals.
“How does one measure a 'quality' tourist?" asked Virat Chatturaputpitak, the vice president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
"If they buy tours cheaply from overseas, then I’d say this is just commerce. Tour operators can sell cheaply if they want to," he told Channel NewsAsia. "The country can benefit from tourists coming here to spend money, rather than getting to pay (more) fees to tour agents abroad," he added.
Thailand's famous Patong Beach, Phuket. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)
Other industry players said that instead of cracking down on cheap tours, the Thai government should improve the tax database for all tour operators to ensure there is a steady income for the country.
They also recommend expanding local ability in areas such as language training, so that Thailand will benefit more from tourism.
"We are always behind in long-term preparation in the tourism sector," said Chatturaputpitak. "But we can always start doing (things) now to prepare for the next three to five years."