Like Korea’s famous “K-Wave”, Thailand’s media stars and products have gained an Asian audience where Chinese fans dominate. Unlike the Korean trend, however, Thailand’s new “T-Wave” has not gained enough momentum to significantly increase Chinese tourist numbers.
Pre-pandemic, Vanessa Leong, a 27-year-old Singaporean office worker known to the author whose hobby is chasing idols, found herself among countless other fans awaiting Perth’s arrival in Thailand. Perth, alias Tanapon Sukumpantanasan, was one of the lead actors in the popular Thai Boys Love (BL) series Love by Chance (2018). Aside from Leong, the crowd is mostly Chinese and Thai, with a scattering of fans from other countries. According to Leong, Chinese fans are the second largest group in these fan meetings in Thailand, after Thai fans. The more fervent Chinese fans would fly in almost weekly; some even move to Bangkok to be closer to their idols. This was part of a rising trend of Thai entertainment driving Chinese tourists to Thailand.
Fast forward to 2023, and the popularity of Thai dramas in China sees no signs of ebbing. Thanks to the constant import of Thai dramas through streaming channels such as Tencent and iQiyi, the flame for Thai shows has only burned brighter. To better interact with Chinese fans, many Thai celebrities set up Sina Weibo (新浪微博) accounts alongside their usual social media platforms. The most popular actor, Mike Angelo, has over 8 million followers on the platform. Younger rising actors, such as Non Chanon and Win Metawin, have over 2 million and 1 million followers, respectively. Dubbed the “T-Wave”, the popularity of Thailand’s performers has some commenters speculating that soon, Thai music and dramas will overtake Korea’s K-Wave.
Unlike the K-Wave however, it appears that this rising T-Wave is still too weak to significantly attract Chinese tourists to Thailand post-pandemic. In fact, Thailand reported a sharp fall in Chinese tourist arrivals, from 2019’s 11 million to 2.2 million from January to September 2023. By end 2023, Thailand expects to receive only 3.5 million Chinese tourists, a far cry from its initial target of 5 million for the year. In comparison, during the early days of the K-Wave in 2011, Chinese tourists influenced by the fan mania accounted for 57.1 per cent of tourist arrivals to Korea. In 2013, Korea’s largest group of inbound travellers were Chinese ones – some 3.92 million. The impact of Chinese tourists on Korea was clear even after the pandemic ban on group tours was lifted in 2023, with shop owners putting up signs in Chinese and hiring Mandarin-speaking staff.
More broadly, the Korean entertainment industry had a much longer trajectory of global expansion beginning in the 1990s compared to Thailand’s, which saw its rise roughly starting from the late 2010s. The impact of Thai cultural influence on Chinese and other fans – and by extension the fans’ home countries – will naturally be limited in comparison to Korea’s. Unlike Korea, Thailand’s strong tourism industry prior to the COVID-19 pandemic relied largely on its cultural, wellness/medical, and food industries, with the media industry only comprising a small slice of the pie. With Thailand’s economy slowing down, there have been talks on how to boost the media industry through shifts towards a “creative economy”. This includes emulating Korea’s investment in and export of its entertainment sector.
Thailand has launched visa-free travel for Chinese tourists from September 2023 to February 2024 but this move alone is unlikely to nudge Chinese tourist numbers up, given the above circumstances.
Thus far, the weak impact of the T-Wave in boosting the Thai tourism industry, particularly for inbound Chinese tourists, can be attributed to a few key reasons.
First, the Korean entertainment industry was state-supported, which aided the global acceleration of the quality and quantity of music and drama production in Korea. Industry experts have called for the government to similarly support the Thai entertainment industry and there were even plans to establish a special ministry for this purpose. There is an existing government agency, the Creative Economy Agency (CEA), set up in 2018 to further develop the Thai entertainment industry. Taking a leaf out of China’s book, the CEA invited Korean producers to guide Thai filmmakers on how to promote Thai content. However, these initiatives are still new and have had little knock-on effect on other industries such as cosmetics and fashion, including tourism.
Second, the effects of the T-Wave remain concentrated among fans of Thai dramas and music. While the T-Wave does contribute to tourism in Thailand, its effects are confined exclusively to Chinese fandoms and have not seeped into the general Chinese public’s consciousness. Chinese tourist numbers in Thailand continue to be affected by China’s domestic downturn; Chinese airlines have had to cancel flights to Thailand due to the low number of bookings. Leong noted that her Chinese friends immediately returned to Thailand to chase their idols after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in China. This suggests that the allure of these Thai idols spurs dedicated fans to return to Thailand.
Finally and most importantly, the recent spate of tourist safety issues in Thailand remains a key concern for Chinese tourists. While Thailand used to be a key travel destination for them pre-pandemic, their low numbers since pandemic restrictions were lifted have been partly attributed to a blockbuster movie, No More Bets, whose storyline featured Chinese tourists being abducted from Thailand to work at scam centres elsewhere. According to some reports, this movie has greatly deterred Chinese tourists from visiting Thailand, as has a shooting incident on 4 October 2023 at Bangkok’s Siam Paragon mall, where one Chinese national was killed.
Thailand has launched visa-free travel for Chinese tourists from September 2023 to February 2024 but this move alone is unlikely to nudge Chinese tourist numbers up, given the above circumstances. Unless Thailand seriously invests in the Thai entertainment industry and works on enhancing safety measures for inbound travellers, the nascent T-Wave’s effects can be felt only in a limited fashion in its tourism industry.