Continued statements that Thailand is moving away from its former, perhaps controversial but highly lucrative foreign tourism market must tend to irk foreign adults who over the last thirty years or so have made Thailand a second home with many often spending their annual savings on trips to what used to be called the Land of Smiles. It is clear that the government is aiming to take advantage of the pandemic disaster to end Thailand’s reputation as a sex tourist haven, an ambition stated clearly by the country’s first female Minister of Tourism and Sports in 2014 after the military coup that year installed a junta government.
With only modest gains being seen from the November 1st reopening and a prediction from the World Bank that it will be 2023 before the country even sees 50% of its former level of foreign tourism again, the question as to whether Thailand can now ever recover its key economic engine which represented up to 20% of GDP, is an open one which must be explored further. The situation is certainly not being helped by repeated assertions from government ministers, tourism promotion executives and agencies that the kingdom seeks a new and more upwardly mobile market or customer pool than in the past.
Thailand is again sending change signals to its foreign tourism market even as the figures for the November 1st reopening appear to be on course to resting at approximately 250,000 visitors for the last two months of the year leaving the final tally for 2021 at 350,000 or approximately 0.87% of what was seen in 2019.
Effectively, it represents a 99% wipeout both in terms of numbers of visitors and income generated as figures for the Phuket Sandbox which opened on July 1st, showed the average spend per visitor at ฿47,619 including medical fees of 14% compared to ฿49,500 in 2019.
Visitors are more habitual tourists from western countries who tend to spend more during High Season
There may be scope for an improvement in these figures, at least for income generated, as all indicators suggest that the latest visitors from November 1st are more habitual foreign tourists to Thailand with Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom accounting for 28% of arrivals.
Visitors to the kingdom during the High Season from November to March are also more likely to be bigger spenders.
There is even more worrisome evidence, however, to suggest that momentum from the November 1st reopening is slowing with figures from November 1st to December 6th showing only 133,924 foreign tourists entered Thailand.
The pickup in incoming visitors has seen only a modest 10% rise in flights reported by the Airports of Thailand in December but from a very low baseline with over 80% of slots given up by September this year when the industry came close to being dormant.
Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat refers again to kingdom’s oft-quoted less is more strategy of attracting ‘high-end travellers’ to holiday here
A recent statement by the Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has again affirmed the kingdom’s goal to seek higher quality tourists rather than the mass-market tourism that made the kingdom’s foreign tourism the second largest on the planet up to 2019.
Mr Phiphat said that Thailand would be seeking ‘high-end travellers, rather than a large number of visitors’ as the kingdom announced that Maya Beach, the scenic beauty spot closed to foreign tourists in 2018 will be open from January 1st next under controlled conditions designed to protect the environment.
It comes at a time when struggling bars in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and other former hotspots attempt to cater for Thailand’s traditional foreign tourism market of westerners by taking advantage of regulations that allow restaurants and Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus certified establishments to serve alcohol until 11 pm.
Bars in tourist hotspots keep struggling industry alive by reclassifying their enterprises as restaurants
This has been accompanied by warnings from officials particularly in Bangkok that only fully approved establishments, operating properly as restaurants, are allowed within the limits of the law.
A Thai Examiner survey over the last two months with over 600 respondents shows that 90% of foreigners to Thailand or readers associated tourism in the kingdom with the country’s formerly vibrant nightlife and entertainment industry which remains closed until January 16th 2022 at the earliest and is still threatened with extended closure because of fears over the Omicron variant of the virus.
85% of visitors agreed with the statement that alcohol mattered either a great deal or a lot to their holiday plans in Thailand.
The effect of not having hostelries serving alcohol would undoubtedly reduce the kingdom’s appeal to what remains its mainstay market despite the aspirations of the country’s planners.
Omicron is a spectre in the background which threatens to uproot the current reopening with caution being the watchword of tourism operators
Omicron has been detected in Thailand among incoming travellers but has not yet taken off on the scale currently experienced by western countries.
Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul meanwhile has insisted that Thailand is prepared for Omicron as the government urges the population to continue to cooperate with an ongoing vaccination programme.
This now includes booster shots against the virus with the public being notified of appointments.
Mr Anutin has emphasised that, at this point, it does not appear that Omicron is a more serious form of the disease.
He has insisted, however, that existing disease prevention measures laid down by the Public Health Ministry for all establishments currently reopened to the public such as mandatory vaccine passes and other precautions be enforced.
He has also warned that there will be stiff penalties and a campaign by police to prosecute anyone using fake COVID-19 vaccine documents.
Public health measures and their implementation fully supported by leading tourism industry officials
The emphasis on precautions at this point is supported by leaders within the foreign tourism industry who fear that another lockdown or suspension of the industry could lead to a catastrophic and perhaps irrecoverable situation.
Indeed, even as things stand, the ability of Thailand’s foreign tourism industry to recover at all from the pandemic is now in question with the latest projections from the World Bank only predicting a 50% return to normality in two years suggesting the kingdom may only see 20 million visitors again in 2023.
Tourism Council of Thailand President Chamnan Srisawat has urged the public in Thailand not to panic over the Omicron threat but to listen to statements from the Public Health Ministry and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
‘Tourism operators are about to start up again after almost two years of waiting during the crisis, as we gradually see signs of a tourism rebound,’ Mr Chamnan declared. ‘The Omicron variant certainly raises more concerns, but our battered industry will not be able to handle any more flip-flops about the country’s reopening.’
Similar sentiments were expressed by Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, the President of the Association of Thai Travel Agents who has warned that if the current controlled reopening process is left exposed to an uncontrollable virus surge and further enforced closures ensue, it will set the tourism industry back to zero.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in pursuit of an online metaverse and cryptocurrency strategy very much divorced from the existing industry
In the meantime, the message from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is again one of change for its vision of the country’s foreign tourism industry.
It must be said it seems like a vision that is increasingly distanced from the current reality on the ground.
The boss of the tourism promotion agency in Thailand Mr Yuthasak Supasorn has persisted in his quest to forge closer links between Thailand’s foreign tourism industry and the burgeoning world of cryptocurrency even as the central bank in the last weeks has warned that the industry poses a growing threat to the kingdom’s financial stability.
The TAT boss has also lately announced plans for a new Thai tourism platform as part of a joint undertaking with the leading and pioneering cryptocurrency exchange Bitkub.
Officials concerned that a rising crypto-asset trend poses a real threat to Thailand’s financial stability
Part of the plan being looked at is a project to launch its own cryptocurrency linked with tourist services and products in Thailand as part of a wider foreign tourism platform for those involved in the industry.
TAT has also recently launched information portals and news websites to promote its nascent vision.
New ‘metaverse’ project will see an online Durian fruit plantation initiative go live in May 2022
This week, for instance, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) announced that it was launching its first ‘metaverse’ project with the development of what appears to be a virtual reality Durian Fruit plantation online.
The agency explains the new metaverse project, which seems a long way from the current basics of Thailand’s foreign tourism industry, should be online in May 2022. It highlights the project as a pilot before it moves on to the deployment of cryptocurrencies.
‘TAT is studying the method of making metaverse, starting from a durian plantation, which should be seen in the durian season next year, which is in May 2022. Recently, there was a discussion with the owner of the durian plantation in Rayong, Chanthaburi and Nonthaburi provinces. This will open up applications for durian gardens throughout the country such as Volcano durian, Sisaket or other varieties to join. This is an example of how metaverse is created as a virtual world where people who come in will see a durian garden. You can actually trade which will help drive the tourism industry in its efforts to take advantage of cryptocurrencies. This is a matter TAT can prepare for in advance without having to let everything go to the last moment and then doing it.’
Reported TAT vision may see foreign tourists receiving online tokens for carrying out acts to support the environment and ecosystem
In another insight, into this emerging vision for what appears to be a new foreign tourism industry as the existing one attempts to revive itself, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has outlined plans to allow foreign tourists to pick up online foreign currency tokens from participating in collective types of behaviour that smack of policies that would be quite at home in communist China such as promoting a cleaner environment or picking up litter or protecting the ecosystem as opposed to a holiday in the sun.
For most foreign tourists wishing to visit Thailand, at this time, the current issues they face are the availability of flights to the kingdom and the management of the country’s Thailand Pass system which has significantly improved in terms of speed and quality of its service offered to incoming travellers.
This comes after an injunction from the Prime Minister’s Office to improve the service after it was initially plagued by bugs and a lack of information for travellers often working to tight deadlines.
Attempts to radically alter the kingdom’s foreign tourism market date back to the formation of the junta government in 2014 and a vow on sex tourism
These statements calling for a new foreign tourism market and profile also date from before the pandemic and show that the policy of Thailand’s government and its goal for tourism is to alter and control the market that has served the kingdom well.
It started with Thailand’s first female Minister of Tourism and Sports, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, who took power after the 2014 coup and the formation of the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta which ruled from 2014 to 2019.
At that time, she vowed to put an end to the kingdom’s reputation for sex tourism.
This was followed by a campaign of raids on nightclub venues in Pattaya in 2014 and 2015 as well as a series of raids on sex for sale establishments, some of them high profile, throughout Thailand in recent years which created a chill factor within the industry which was eventually floored in April 2020 when the kingdom closed its borders and later locked down the economy.
Record year for Thai tourism but not so good for Thailand’s bar girls and luxury hotels as the market has changed
Could this be true? The clear and perhaps unpalatable answer for many regular foreign tourists to Thailand is that the controversial reputation which the country developed over the last sixty years remains a powerful if unspoken factor linked with Thailand’s perception abroad which may well be impacting its broader economic future.
Of course, it is not just the sex industry but Thailand’s reputation for danger and corruption as well as its reputation for political intrigue and propensity for coups that has contributed to this.
Perception of Thailand was already changing and becoming more sophisticated among a younger generation of western travellers who took to Thailand
In the last two decades, however, the image of Thailand in the western psyche had already been softening and became more contemporary before the coup in 2006.
The kingdom still retained its aura of controversiality as it was embraced by a younger generation of western visitors in the form of backpackers who learned to savour Thailand’s authentic beauty both of its environmental scenery and its common people who, in turn, reached out and embraced the world through the internet.
All of this could be seen in Danny Boyle’s movie The Beach with Leonardo De Caprio which made Maya Beach such an iconic tourist attraction.
The Beach, a film that only ever received mixed critical reviews at best, developed a cult following among millions of younger western adults who have visited Thailand since its release in 2000.
Thailand’s existing mass foreign tourism market is already well defined, sophisticated and high spending
At the same time, the kingdom, despite its controversial reputation, developed a market of 5 to 7 million foreigners who, before the pandemic visited the country regularly.
Many have made it a home away from home with a proportion of visitors using their annual savings for regular trips to Thailand to enjoy its sunshine and vibrant nightlife scene.
Others with more financial resources have invested in the country and are being targeted by new government special visa programmes commencing in 2022.
Many of these foreign tourists in turn generated word of mouth which in addition to backpackers and visits to Thailand as a right of passage for young twenty-somethings generated a broader market of foreign visitors wishing to taste for themselves ‘Amazing Thailand’ and to whom it’s still somewhat controversial reputation only adding zest to the trip.
Begpacking is shameless behaviour that is outlawed in Thailand and poisons goodwill between cultures
These are generally not package tour travellers but high spending visitors although the concept of ‘beg packing’ which came to the fore in 2019 was particularly disturbing not only for officials in Thailand but the populace.
It may have helped undermine confidence in foreign tourism but the pandemic crisis has shown Thailand’s top economic planners particularly at the Bank of Thailand, the importance of the industry to the kingdom’s struggling economy.
New advertising campaign to be launched in Berlin in March 2022 using top social media influencers
Meanwhile, Governor Yuthasak Supasorn and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has unveiled a new marketing and advertising campaign to promote Thailand as a tourist destination in 2022 which will be showcased at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade fair in March.
Titled ‘Amazing New Chapters: From A-to-Z Thailand has it all’, the new campaign will target an audience of over 26 million netizens through 26 ‘social media influencers’ who each have a following of over one million people online.
One of the campaign’s stars will be Formula One driver Alex Albon who raced with Red Bull this year but will be part of the Williams Formula One team in 2022.
Mr Albon has 1.3 million followers on Instagram, 427,000 followers on Twitter and 325,000 followers on Facebook.
‘I personally talked to Alex Albon about becoming a tourism ambassador for Thailand. He’s a prominent figure who could represent the letter A and help us target motor racing fans globally as sports tourism is one of our key quality markets next year,’ Mr Yuthasak, the top Thai official, said this week.
However, questions remain.
Are these social media followers and influencers representative of Thailand’s existing or potential foreign tourism market which before 2020 powered up to 20% of the country’s GDP?
Or more importantly, can a government agency, notwithstanding its apparently vast budget supplied by state coffers or even the government itself arbitrarily decide what its preferred customer profile should be in a world that is driven by market forces and is not a communist state nor a command and control economy?