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China's neighbors gear up for record Lunar New Year tourism

Thais and others ready to cash in on travelers from Vietnam as well

Thailand has been recruiting Chinese-speaking volunteers in anticipation of a huge influx of tourists during the Lunar New Year holiday. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

BANGKOK/HANOI/SINGAPORE -- Countries throughout Southeast Asia and Japan are hoping for a banner Lunar New Year holiday in terms of tourism and sales, with Chinese expected to visit in record numbers on top of buzzing intraregional travel.

Some 6.5 million Chinese are predicted to go abroad during the extended holidays that began Thursday. With frosty relations between Beijing and other destinations like South Korea and Taiwan, many popular spots in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, are preparing for waves of tourists.

Thai retailer Central Group launched Tuesday an event celebrating the Chinese holiday, greeting tourists through Sunday with traditional Chinese lion and dragon dances. One store in downtown Bangkok was adorned with deep-red banners and lanterns for the occasion.

Tourism contributes around 20% of Thailand's gross domestic product, with China the biggest customer. "Historically high numbers" of Chinese are expected to visit this year, says Pongpanu Svetarundra, permanent secretary for Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports. The ministry expects Chinese visitors during the February holidays alone to climb 20% year-on-year to 300,000. A Thai travel agents' association sees tourism income reaching 20 billion baht ($639 million) during the period.

Facing enough tourists to fill a city, the Thai government is struggling to ease congestion at airports. It has greatly expanded its customs staff and has launched a service letting Chinese visitors fill out visa application forms using WeChat, the popular messenger app operated by Tencent Holdings. About 2,000 Chinese-speaking volunteers are also being deployed to tourist hot spots.

Many Vietnamese are likewise expected to travel abroad for the extended Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, holiday that also began Thursday. Overseas travel sales have grown 20-30% year-on-year at major agencies including Saigontourist Travel Service. Airlines have increased seats on international flights from the end of January to March 4 by 16% to 1.4 million. Besides Japan and China, many are visiting gambling destination Singapore, as well as Thailand, served by many low-cost airlines.

In the past, many Vietnamese considered Tet a holiday to spend at home with family, and few went abroad. But the rise in budget airlines such as Vietjet Air, on top of generational shifts in thinking and rising incomes due to economic expansion, has helped swell the ranks of international travelers.

In Malaysia, however, 2018's status as the Year of the Dog under the Chinese zodiac calendar creates a minefield for inadvertent religious offense. About 60% of the country follows Islam, in which dogs have traditionally been regarded as impure. As a result, many in Malaysia are refraining from displaying decorations depicting the animal.

The Malaysia Shopping Malls Association is responding pragmatically to the situation in accordance with customers' views, according to President Eddy Chan. The association is not instructing member stores to take down dog decorations, but stores are responding to the situation on an individual basis.

People of Malay origin make up just shy of 70% of the ethnically diverse country, with people of Chinese descent making up about 25% of the population. In recent years, certain contingents of hard-line conservative Muslims have grown increasingly vocal, and tension with ethnic Chinese has been building.

Japan is another country likely to benefit more this year, not only because Chinese tours to South Korea have been frozen, but also because this season of the year is suited for skiing and enjoying hot springs in Japan. Japanese travel agency JTB said that by early February reservations from China to Japan had risen 7% from a year earlier.

According to one major travel agent in Guangzhou, touring Hokkaido and Mount Fuji are some of the most popular Japanese highlights this year among customers. With so many tourists concentrated in the Lunar New Year season, many Chinese travelers are also choosing to shift their vacation days away from the official holidays to avoid the crush.

Some Japanese businesses have made Chinese-specific preparations. Hotels such as Hotel Nikko Narita in Chiba prefecture and Grand Nikko Tokyo Daiba have started to accept Alipay, the popular smartphone-based payment service developed by China's Alibaba Group Holdings. Tokyo Disneyland also has special sections in its souvenir stores set aside for merchandise and characters popular among Chinese people until the end of the month.

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