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Visitors from China are spurring growth in Phuket’s tourism market, according to a recent report released by regional consulting firm C9 Hotelworks.

Phuket attracted nearly half a million visitors from China in the first half of 2013, with mainland Chinese making up one quarter of overseas visitors to the island. This figure is up from just under 40,000 in 2007.

An increase in the number of direct flights between Phuket and cities in mainland China has supported demand, which according to the report, contributed to a total of 12.7 million international arrivals from January through to the end of June.

“For the first time, travellers from legacy markets such as Western Europe are no longer present in the top five arrivals,” said Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks. “What has replaced them are Asian regional travellers and the emerging Russian segment,” he added.

Barnett predicted tourist numbers to exceed records this year, forecasting three million international visitors to Phuket by the close of 2013, with tourists from China and Russia reaching 44 percent of the total overseas volume.

“The mantra of demand is clearly Thailand’s strategic location in the sweet spot window of six hours and under in terms of airline travel time,” he added.

The report also notes that the surge in visitor arrivals was fueling a variety of branded real estate projects on the island, which have attracted investors from the Thai domestic and regional buying pool. Holiday homes that have historically been a magnet for end-user buyers are now proving more popular with investors. However, the most attractive units are typically smaller than they were in the past, with the average price of branded condominiums and apartments reaching just over US$4,300 per square metre.

Despite the recent surge in Phuket’s tourism market there are growing concerns that the current capacity of the island’s international airport could soon be overloaded. According to Barnett, the process of upgrading the airport is slow and unlikely to be finished by 2015.

“With so much of the demand coming from Russia and China, the airport has been managing traffic by shifting scheduled and charter flights to off-peak hours," he said. "As to what the future holds, forget the West Side story, today it’s all about the economic power of the East.”

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