BANGKOK: Tencent, the Chinese internet giant, sees Thailand playing a central role as it expands across Southeast Asia, and an early focus will be on advertising Thai brands to Chinese tourists in their own language.

Announcing an expansion of Tencent's Chinese advertising services, Krittee Manoleehagul, managing director at Tencent Thailand, noted that Thailand was now the third market to offer this after Hong Kong and Italy – two other countries where Chinese tourist spending is high.

Some 10m Chinese tourists are expected to visit Thailand in 2017; last year 8.7m spent 146bn baht on shopping for items like food, gifts, souvenirs, clothes and cosmetics; this amounted to 3% of the country's GDP, according to the Bangkok Post.

"This is a huge opportunity for Thai brands that target Chinese tourists, but a challenge is the Chinese language," Krittee said, adding that Tencent could help attract them through its digital services which include WeChat messaging, the Qzone social network, and WeChat Pay mobile payment.

Social media and search engines are the two most influential channels for reaching Chinese travellers, according to Krittee, while extending WeChat Pay to local merchants will make shopping easier for them.

Beyond tapping the large tourist market, Thailand is seen as a hub for further expansion into Indochina. Already, Tencent has set up a joint venture in neighbouring Laos and intends to establish a presence in Myanmar later this year.

"Thailand is the largest potential market for Tencent in Southeast Asia and also the largest operation in this region," said Krittee as he promised continued investment in marketing and development teams.

The region is fast becoming a battleground for the big Chinese internet firms, as rival Alibaba has just increased its stake in Lazada, Southeast Asia's leading online retail platform, from 51% to 83% at a cost of $1bn.

Data sourced from Bangkok Post; additional content by WARC staff