By Imtiaz Muqbil,
The Thai tourism industry is undergoing the most important transition in its 53-year history, with far-reaching consequences for the kingdom’s society, economy, culture, heritage, and environment. The age of generating mass tourism is making way for an age of promoting niche-market tourism with a greater emphasis on balance and sustainability. With the industry’s potential for creating millions of jobs across the board now a given, the focus is shifting toward ensuring that the goose continues to lay the golden eggs.
Mass tourism is here to stay, thanks to the huge boom in arrivals from within the Asia-Pacific region, possibly the most important influencing factor in shaping industry fortunes over the last two years. In 2012, Thailand hit a record-breaking 22 million arrivals. Two source-markets, China and Malaysia, are now generating more than two million annual arrivals each. And four source-markets, Japan, Russia, Korea, and India, are generating more than one million arrivals each. With other populous countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam only a stone’s throw away, the flow of numbers is virtually guaranteed well into the future.
This growth, and indeed the growth in the entire travel and tourism industry worldwide, has been underpinned by geopolitical peace and economic stability, mainly in the Asia Pacific, and the absence of any major environmental disasters or health pandemics or local disturbances such as those which occurred almost annually in the first decade of the 21st-century.
The upward trend is continuing in January-April 2013, when arrivals surged to a record total of 8,841,730, up by 19.04% over the same period of 2012, according to figures published by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. This means that in just four months, Thailand is now getting more visitors than it received in all of 1999. Another remarkable statistic (see chart below) is that the number of visitors have effectively doubled between 2004-2012, in spite of declines in 2005 and 2009 due to the impact of the tsunami and domestic political disturbances.
A detailed analysis of the Jan-April 2013 arrivals will show that visitors from East Asia totaled 4.82 million (+28.72%), Europe 2.62 million (+11.89%), the Americas 422,000 (+6.75%), South Asia 410,000 (+9.98%), and Africa 38,000 (+6.70%). Only two regions, Middle East declined -2.20% to 180,000 and Oceania 324,000 (-1.14%). China’s total of 1.53 million visitor arrivals or (+92.82%) made it the first time that any country had crossed the one million mark in the short span of four months.
In 2013, TAT is confident that if the global, regional, and local situation remains stable, Thailand will receive 24.14 million arrivals, generating a projected tourism income of Bt1.1 trillion.
There are many reasons for Thailand’s tourism success. A long-standing geographical advantage has positioned Thailand at the crossroads of Asia. This has been augmented by the long-standing visa-free and visa-on-arrival policy, which has freed visitors from many key source-markets from lengthy and tedious process of procuring visas at diplomatic missions abroad. Extensive airline and aviation access to Thailand in terms of both domestic and regional linkages has ensured a plentiful supply of seats. On the back of this, strong promotional campaigns have buttressed Thailand’s image as a friendly and service-oriented people with a strong history and cultural tradition and respectful of all races or religions.
However, this growth has not been without its negative consequences. Many popular Thai destinations are groaning under the pressure of congestion. Others, especially in the pristine beach areas, do not have enough capacity to handle the increased demand for water, sewage- and garbage-treatment facilities. Human resources availability is not keeping up with demand. The pace of change in technology and security requirements is also proving to be an overwhelming task.
TAT’s response is to shift attention toward “a balanced marketing strategy” to promote a better equilibrium between the quality versus quantity of visitor arrivals. Deputy Governor for Asian Markets, Sansern Ngaorangsi, told a media briefing at the recent “Thailand Travel Mart Plus” in June that the TAT was conscious of the fact that the surge in visitors would have an environmental impact, requiring a strategic shift to preserve the quality of Thai destinations, products, and services. The balanced strategy will strive to maintain a good mix of repeat and first-time travelers, probe new markets while consolidating existing markets, iron out the peaks and troughs between high and low seasons in arrivals, distribute visitors between urban and rural areas, and ensure a good mix of customer segments from High Net Worth Individuals to backpackers.
In detail, this will mean attracting more upmarket visitors and decongesting existing destinations by promoting new and emerging ones, especially in the provinces surrounding the popular destinations. Sansern said TAT was trying to move visitors away from the usual spots of Pattaya, Phuket, and Chiang Mai toward lesser-known provinces such as Ang Thong, Suphan Buri, Trat, Chanthaburi, Khao Yai, Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Pathom, Kanchanaburi, Chumphon, and Nakhon Si Thammarat.
He said that the TAT would also be stressing the experiential aspect of visiting Thailand, for example, by having people not just to eat Thai food but also to learn to cook it, not just to watch Thai boxing but also learn the science and techniques behind it.
The TAT has also identified four key product areas, which it believes will generate more earnings than numbers. These are:
Golf: Thailand today has an expansive range of golf tour operators and over 200 top-quality golf courses nationwide. Golfers come from all around the world, especially places such as Japan and Korea, to play and attend international tournaments. The cost of playing in Thailand is generally much lower than that of many countries.
Health and Wellness: Visitors are coming to Thailand for everything from sex-change operations and dental treatment to meditation and detox programs. Recently, Thailand won the “Best Spa Destination (Asia)” voted by readers of AsiaSpa India, the most popular spa and wellness magazine in India. Moreover, TAT has launched a website for dedicated promotion of medical tourism www.ThailandMedtourism.com.
Wedding and Honeymoon: The wedding and honeymoon market has exploded in recent years, especially from India. It has been one factor driving the boom in boutique-style properties designed for guests seeking total privacy in a charming ambience. In April 2012, Thailand was awarded the ‘Best Wedding Destination’ category from Travel + Leisure India & South Asia.
Green Tourism: This has now become an important niche-market as the impact of global warming and climate change is making global travelers more conscious of their environmental footprint. Thailand’s product range offers everything from quiet treks in the jungles to soft adventure like zip lining and rock climbing. Thailand is also using the carrot approach that rewards Thai companies for best practices and provides them with publicity and marketing exposure at local and international travel shows.
In recent years, Thailand has successfully repositioned itself to dilute one of its most negative image problem — as a sex-and-smut destination for single males. A boom in shopping malls, although driven by the growth in the Thai middle class, has provided ample opportunities for the tourism sector to market itself as a paradise for women visitors. This has led to a huge trickle-down ripple effect by creating jobs in related sectors also popular with women such as health and wellness, and culinary tourism. Many Thai women who are physically challenged, poorly educated, or former victims of domestic violence are now finding gainful employment in the foot-massage parlors, which have proliferated on every street corner in the main cities.
As it reinvents and repositions itself, the Thai tourism industry can look forward to a bright future. The opening of the Asian Highway has already boosted connectivity to the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, and will soon do the same for Myanmar. New airlines are emerging and boosting access to Thailand’s 29 provincial airports. Hotel chains such as the Dusit Thani group and Centara Group are pursuing vigorous expansion strategies both within Thailand and around the region. The number of small- and medium-sized enterprises supplying products and services to the travel and tourism industry is also on the rise. At the same time, the TAT’s marketing skills continue to grow, especially in terms of taking advantage of the Internet and social media.
Barring a global economic collapse or a geopolitical catastrophe, the Thai tourism industry has become too big to fail, in every sense of the term.