Why You Will Want To Go To Thailand In 2017
Dec 13, 2016 | Doug Gollan
Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, generating over $7 trillion annually in receipts and employing about one in 11 of the world’s citizens. Needless to say, this means competition for international travelers is fierce, with countries elbowing vigorously for visitors.
One top league player is showing signs it is on the move further up the standings. Thailand, a long favorite with students and budget tourists for its good weather and warm, welcoming people, exotic temples, white sand beaches, parties on the beach and nightclubs, the buzz of Bangkok and upcountry adventures, this year for the first time will break the 30 million mark in arrivals, closing at nearly 32 million, a number that should rank it in the top 10 worldwide.
The numbers are being powered by growth from virtually all markets, officials told Forbes.com during an exclusive interview at the International Luxury Travel Mart (ILTM) in Cannes last week. Chinese visitors are up by about 30 percent, Russian travelers have come back and Americans increased by 12 percent. Many European countries were at double digits or near to that. In an effort to drive new markets next year Thailand will try to tap into Eastern Canada and Brazil by opening tourism promotion offices in Toronto and Sao Paolo.
Perhaps more interesting is that while the growth continues, pure visitor numbers are no longer seen as good enough. While Thailand still offers amazing value, it now has become a hotspot for luxury with more five-star resorts, spas, and hotels as well as a becoming a center for medical tourism, wellness, and haven for yachters.
Whether riding elephants, riding aboard the Eastern & Orient Express luxury train or learning to prepare authentic cuisine at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s Thai Cooking School, the country has been at the cutting edge of what’s hot when it comes to the product and marketing side of tourism. Its national tourism promotional arm, Tourism Authority of Thailand, which is known as TAT, was the first country to introduce the “Visit Year” concept more than two decades ago. The idea is now widely copied not only by other countries but regions and cities as well.
Now Thailand is looking to take advantage of the surge of world wealth, particularly the Ultra High Net Worth market (over $30 million net worth) which is expected to double in the next decade, and the new wave of affluent travelers who want experiences and to go to new places.
“Our customers are always looking for new destinations that offer the ultimate yachting experience, and Thailand is a place that is now on the radar and has an opportunity to become a significant player in the superyacht market,” says Daniel Ziriakus, COO of Northrop & Johnson, a leading broker of yachts for sale and charter, whose clients bring to the table an average net worth of $150 million and spend over one million a year on vacations.
He’s not the only one taking notice. On land, Deepak Ohri, CEO of hotel group lebua who pioneered turning skyscraper rooftops into haute dining and hot bar venues several years ago hosted a Million Baht Dinner. While the exchange rate put the tab at about $30,000 a head, it helped point a spotlight to the country as a place that offers fine dining in addition to street food. It’s now rumored that one of the leading restaurant rating services may add Thailand to their list, an indication of both the breadth of the culinary landscape and the fact that Thai cuisine is diverse regionally, and can also be viewed through the lens of fine dining.
Thailand’s tourism success isn’t accruing accidentally. While the national carrier has had a long reputation for top-level service, it has also struggled with profitability and other issues such as its network. It doesn’t fly to the U.S., for example.
To ensure there is enough airlift, TAT has been signing deals with the fast growing middle eastern carriers, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways, that is helping drive more visitors from Europe and the Americas. Coming across the Pacific it has similar deals with Korean Air and now EVA Airways, connecting travelers from its gateways in the U.S. and Canada to Bangkok via its hub in Taipei.
Qatar Airways is now also flying nonstop from Doha to Krabi and plans to add more destinations in the country beyond Bangkok. What this means is that you can now travel from places like Glasgow or Houston with one stop directly to resorts. It literally adds two days of extra vacation time not spent in transit.
To support the new flights, TAT has been investing in cooperative marketing programs. Yuthasak Supasor, Governor of TAT, says that 70 percent of arrivals from Dubai’s Emirates Airlines come from Europe. In fact, on some days it has a total of 12 flights a day between Dubai and Bangkok as well as two flights each way between Dubai and Phuket, many with the mega jumbo Airbus A380 aircraft holding over 500 people.
Although the typical marketing investment by TAT is only about $400,000, the partnerships with these fast-growing airlines has meant tapping into markets like Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary where in the past getting to a beach resort would have meant an extra half day of travel each way or getting crammed onto a charter airline with infrequent schedules. Supasorn calls it a “win-win” as the airlines have large orders of new planes, and Thailand provides a destination with a wide range of activities and a positive perception among global travelers. Bangkok is perennially on Travel + Leisure’s list of Best Cities in the World and it’s easy to find stories from the likes of CNN such as “50 Reasons Why Bangkok Is Number 1.”
Tanes Petsuwan, Deputy Governor for International Markets says it’s not the amount of money TAT puts into the partnership, but it’s the marketing plan behind it. After signing a memorandum of understanding, he sends a team to the airline’s headquarters to develop a program targeting major tour operators, key celebrities, and influencers that TAT can engage as pied pipers to fill all those seats.
As everyone involved in the business of tourism knows, planning is like drawing a map on a paper made of shifting sands. Politics, currency, terrorism, and economic distress can wipe out the best-laid plans in seconds and turn-key source markets from a river into a trickle overnight. So while luxury is important in that it’s a growth area, and visitors spend more, bringing in more money to Thailand and leaving it there compared to backpackers is no longer enough.
Studies increasingly show even the well to do want to travel to new places. Research from American Express listed Ecuador, Newfoundland, Sri Lanka, Mongolia and Bath, England as hot destinations. To expand Thailand’s tourism product beyond its existing destinations, Supasorn is launching a program called L.I.N.K. L stands for local tourism, I for innovation, N for networking and K for keeping it authentic. To support the effort, he is pairing TAT’s overseas offices to different provinces, which have potential but don’t necessarily have the local expertise to know what long-haul, foreign visitors want from an “authentic” local experience. As a test, the Paris office is working with Loei Province, a mountainous area in the north near the Laos border with four national parks and a wildlife sanctuary, where the economy is currently centered on farming macadamia nuts, coffee, passion fruit and mining gold. So far, a team from TAT in France has made a visit and the next steps will be to send tour operators and media to get their feedback.
The L.I.N.K. program goes beyond promotion and even product development. To begin with, Supasorn engages the governor of each province to ensure buy-in. “If they aren’t behind it, It won’t work,” he says. Petsuwan says development is a process of TAT working side-by-side “like a coach, teacher, doctor.”
Supasorn says this “outside-in” approach is enabling rural provinces to benefit from tourism in a sustainable way by creating experiences that are in line with what consumers today want. Other government agencies offer investors tax breaks, favorable land leases, and permits to bring in foreign workers as part of the development plan. The localized tourism experiences also mean more money stays in the community, and by opening new markets, it further exposes the diversity of Thai cuisine, which again drives more money back to local farmers.
A key milestone for Thailand’s tourism industry will take place April 25-27 when the World Travel & Tourism Council holds its annual conference in Bangkok, the first in Thailand. The keynote speaker will be former British PM David Cameron, but most of all it will bring the WTTC’s 100 member CEOs representing the largest hotel groups, airlines, car rental agencies, tour operators and travel agencies. In addition to global media coverage, it will give the government and private sector a chance to discuss how Thailand can increase its tourism profile even higher.
Alison Gilmore, director of ILTM says she has always seen Thailand as a luxury destination. “They have always had great hotels and spas. It is nice to see that they are now really working hard to get the word out and promote it,” she adds.