Thailand Aims High in 2024 - But Can It Make It?

In 2024, Thailand is aiming for 40 million international arrivals, which would edge it into growth just above the 39.9 million level achieved in 2019. The country was the unquestionable leader in Southeast Asia for international tourist arrivals in 2023, hitting 28 million, -30% vs 2019 levels. Thailand’s overall air capacity recovery is stacking up similarly: in December 2023, it was -23% vs December 2019 for total seat capacity, and in March 2024, that inched up to -22%.Are Thailand’s tourism ambitions way off base for 2024? And to what extent will aviation capacity influence whether those targets are hit?   Thailand’s biggest international market pre pandemic was China, accounting for almost 4 million seats in Quarter 1 of 2019. Today, capacity between China and Thailand remains 41% behind 2019 as this market builds back slowly.

All of the other top ten markets from 2019 are more recovered, although Japan is in a similar position to China, still with a gap of over one third behind 2019 levels.

Most recovered of this group is Russia, where capacity between Thailand and Russia is back to the pre-pandemic level.

Getting Creative With Visa Policies

In an attempt to improve the capacity gap between China and Thailand, Thailand grabbed the headlines in early 2024 when it signed a permanent, mutual visa exemption with China, coming into effect from 1 March 2024. This move in itself is not new - in September 2023, the newly-appointed Thai Prime Minister announced a temporary, 30-day visa exemption policy for Chinese and Kazakhstan passport holders, from 25 September 2023 to 29 February 2024.

Thailand quickly added India and Taiwan to the visa waiver list from 10 November 2023 to 10 March 2024, and extended visa-free stays from 30 days to 90 days for Russian visitors, until 30 April 2024.   Whilst these visa waivers generated column inches, they didn’t necessarily generate the number of international arrivals hoped for, and it took a number of months before the effects started to kick in, both for flight capacity and the number of arrivals themselves.

Thailand has not yet officially extended the visa waiver scheme for India and Taiwan, but in mid-February it extended that for Kazakhstan, and it is highly likely it will repeat the same move. In fact, in late January Thailand introduced a new Muay Thai visa which allows foreign nationals to remain in Thailand for up to 90 days to receive training in Thailand’s national martial arts.

Looking to China for Capacity

As we’ve already noted, the recovery of China-Thailand seat capacity has not been as fast as Thailand would have liked it to be. Looking across Quarter 1 in 2024, we can see the impact of the Chinese New Year break, where capacity increased month on month, and the difference between 2024 and 2019 reduced down to 36.8% behind, but March sees this return to just over 40% behind 2019 capacity levels. In March 2024, it is currently at 684,000 seats, -41% on 2019 levels. 

Whilst capacity has been added back into Bangkok Suvarnabhumi-China (March 2024 is -26% of 2019 levels), other airports are struggling, with Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, U-Tapao, Ko Samui and Krabi seeing little to zero connections being added back to Chinese cities yet, which severely impacts their international seat capacity recovery.

Thailand Takes Advantage of Russian Outbound Travel Limitations

Meanwhile, Russia has seen high levels of air capacity into Thailand, particularly over the winter season. Due to the sanctions placed on Russia with regards to the Russia-Ukraine war, Russian outbound travellers have less choice for destinations they can fly directly to. For Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, many of the highest recovering routes - those which have well surpassed 2019 levels - are to Russia. Irkutsk, for example, is +148%, Khabarovsk at +371%, Vladivostok at +70%. 

India Goes From Strength to Strength

As we’ve pointed out previously, India is seen by many Southeast Asian countries as the true rival to China for arrivals in the mid to long term, and the decision to offer a visa waiver scheme for Indian nationals travelling to Thailand is reflective of that.  India is the 6th largest country market for international capacity to Thailand, with a similar volume of seats to Malaysia and Hong Kong. 

Thailand’s capacity recovery percentages to and from India are in a much healthier state than for China. Overall, capacity is just 17% behind 2019.

Capacity between some Thailand - India destinations has exceeded March 2019 levels:

  •  Bangkok Don Mueang-India generally is +15%
  •  Phuket - India generally is +1%
  • Delhi - Bangkok Suvarnabhumi + 5% ahead of the same month in 2019.
Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore routes into Thailand are also performing well, on Mumbai – Phuket, capacity has almost doubled between March 2019 and March 2024.  Cochin – Bangkok Don Mueang has also seen capacity almost double over the same time period.  

Whilst China still dominates in terms of absolute seat numbers, the potential for strong growth from India to Thailand in the coming years  is high, as India is experiencing high population growth rates and increasing levels of disposable income amongst its population. 

Can Thailand Handle 40 Million International Arrivals in 2024?

One concern is Thailand’s current airport infrastructure, and whether an increase in seat capacity and arrivals can be accommodated.  This is clearly a question on the Thai Prime Minister’s mind, too, as he paid an unexpected visit to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi in February and highlighted the need for infrastructure and processes to be improved.

The upgrading of airport infrastructure in general was a key promise he made at the start of his tenure, and in mid-February 2024, Airports of Thailand (AOT) announced major investment into both of Bangkok’s airports (BKK and DMK), with plans to increase the flight capacity of BKK’s Satellite Terminal (SAT-1) from 50 to 120 per day in the next 60 days, reaching 400 by the year end. The East Expansion project at BKK is also expected to start later in the year, which will allow it to handle an additional 8 million passengers per year. 

Bangkok Don Mueang (DMK)’s renovation will enter its third phase this year, with a new international passenger terminal and a renovation of the current building which will allow it to handle 50 million passengers per year, up from the current 30 million.

The AOT have also announced plans to upgrade Udon Thani, Buriram and Krabi to boost their passenger capacities annually, and it will speed up the construction of a brand new airport, the Andaman International Airport in Phangnga. Together with Phuket, this would be able to handle 18 million passengers annually, up from Phuket’s current 12.5 million.

Tony Fernandes, CEO of Capital A, which operates AirAsia, asserted that Bangkok should become “the Dubai of ASEAN, where 700 million passengers from this region can use the airport in Bangkok as a hub to travel to Europe, Africa and the Middle East”. A tall order to compete with nearby Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

Airlines in Thailand are also looking to increase their fleets, with the announcement that Thai Airways will order 45 Dreamliners to be delivered from 2027-2033, and the refurbishment of previous Thai Smile aircraft to Thai Airways standards.

Thai Vietjet has emerged form the pandemic as the third largest airline operating in Thailand, with total capacity adding up to 647,000 seats and a +131% growth in March 2024 vs 2019, leapfrogging competitor Thai Lion Air who previously held that title in Mar-2019 and whose total seat capacity is still -50%.  Much of the growth for Thai Vietjet comes from international capacity expansion, where there are more than five times the number of seats operating this March than in 2019.  Similarly Thai Lion Air's international capacity is considerably lower this year than in March 2019, by 69%, equivalent to almost 350,000 fewer seats. 


Competition will continue to be fierce amongst Thailand’s airlines, with the announcement that 8 new airlines are set to start operations in 2024 alone. Not all are passenger services, but with newcomers set to hit the market like Really Cool Airlines - focusing on mid-long haul international routes - international capacity and connectivity will be added back into the market.

A target of 40 million arrivals this year feels very ambitious, particularly given the current competition for international tourists in the region. The only way Thailand can reach this target is by encouraging airlines to add back their international seat capacities to Thailand, particularly to key markets, and to continue to facilitate visa waiver schemes. However, the pressure is on – with a struggling economy, the Prime Minister needs Thailand’s tourism to deliver.