BANGKOK (AP) — Three Cabinet ministers welcomed Chinese tourists with flowers and gifts as they arrived Monday at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport after China relaxed travel restrictions.

The high-profile event reflected the importance Thailand places on wooing back Chinese travelers to help restore its pandemic-battered tourism industry — before COVID-19 struck, they comprised about one-third of all arrivals.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and the ministers of transport and tourism were among those applauding as 269 passengers on Xiamen Airlines Flight MF833 from Xiamen in southeastern China entered the terminal. It was one of the first flights arriving in Thailand since Beijing eased its coronavirus-related travel restrictions as of Sunday.

The travelers received garlands and small gift bags, and were greeted by a big banner saying “China and Thailand are one family, Amazing Thailand always warmly welcomes our Chinese family.”

“I’m feeling good,” said Simon Zou from Tianjin in northeastern China. “I can feel the hospitality of Thai people. We were given some small gifts. I feel very happy.”

Asked what he plans to do in Thailand, he replied: “Eat! Have fun! And experience Thailand’s culture.”

“The number of tourists from China and other parts of the world traveling to Thailand tends to increase continuously,” Anutin told reporters at the airport. “This is a good sign for the Thai tourism sector, which generates income, adds value to the economy, creates jobs and opportunities for people.´´

The arrival was heralded by Thai authorities as a symbolic step towards restoring the country’s lucrative tourism sector. But it also exposed how tricky it is for tourist-hungry nations to navigate the coronavirus issue.

As the Chinese tourists arrived, Anutin announced at the airport that visitors would not be required to show COVID-19 vaccination certificates.

Just two days earlier, the Transport Ministry had issued a detailed list of revised requirements for visitors from abroad, including the need to show proof of vaccinations.

The announcement by the transport authorities itself was a sudden turnaround from what had been Thailand’s policy since October, when it dropped nearly all pandemic-related requirements for visitors from abroad.

Anutin said the only requirement retained from the Transport Ministry’s revised rules was that proof of insurance is needed for visitors coming from countries that require coronavirus tests before they return home. That condition would apply mostly, if not exclusively, to China.

On Sunday, Beijing lifted a mandatory quarantine for arrivals from abroad imposed when the pandemic began three years ago. The move is expected to unleash large pent-up demand for outbound travel.

But so far few flights have been restored. On Monday, a check of arrivals at regional airports found only a handful of flights coming from China. The largest share were traveling to South Korea.

A resurgence of infections in China and the relaxed rules led the United States and some countries in Europe and East Asia to tighten rules for travelers from China, raising accusations of discrimination from Beijing. Taking pains not to offend China, Thai officials have emphasized that Thai rules apply to all countries.

Other countries in Southeast Asia also normally host large numbers of tourists from China, though not on Thailand’s scale. Most abolished entry requirements and have stuck with that policy, publicly declaring there was no need to single out visitors from China for new restrictions. Malaysia and Indonesia said they were screening incoming travelers for fever, a common, non-intrusive procedure.

Wang Zhiying from Beijing, one of Monday’s arrivals in Bangkok, said she used to travel to Thailand every year but had not since the pandemic broke out.

She said she believed that other countries’ COVID-19 policies “are quite strict.”

“If they only do this to Chinese people, it would make us uncomfortable. Thailand is friendly and the landing visa is available so we chose Thailand as our first overseas destination when we can go abroad,” said Wang, whose family planned to head south to a seaside resort after a few days in Beijing.

In 2019, before the pandemic, around 11 million Chinese visited Thailand each year and tourism industry-related revenue accounted for about a fifth of the country’s GDP, Tanes Petsuwan, deputy governor for International Marketing in Asia and the South Pacific for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Last year, 10 million visitors were expected, but 11.8 million actually came, mostly after restrictions were lifted in October.

“The TAT earlier projected there will be around 20 million international visitors this year, but it has adjusted that to 25 million thanks to the Chinese,” Tanes said.

He said he expects arrivals to reach or surpass pre-pandemic levels in the next two to three years, possibly reaching 40 million by 2025.

___

Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Jim Gomez in Manila, the Philippines and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.