Resilient Thailand

Thailand was buffeted by the tsunami in 2004, and rocked by political unrest in recent months. In June, while attending Thai Travel Mart in Bangkok, Travel Agent heard hoteliers express the opinion that Thailand is coming off a tough year for tourism.

Options for adventure-seeking tourists include elephant rides through Thailand's jungles

The figures tell another story: Thailand saw 13.82 million international visitors in 2006, a 20.01 percent increase over the previous year. The U.S. accounted for 640,000 of these arrivals, an increase of 9.43 percent. According to Phorsuri Mancharn, Tourism Authority of Thailand's governor, Thailand is seeking to boost the total number of international visitors to 14.8 million in 2007.

A recent survey conducted by Visa International Asia Pacific and the Pacific Asia Travel Association of 5,000 international travelers from ten markets around the world found 52 percent considering Asia as their next travel destination, a nine percent increase over last year's survey. The survey found Thailand to be the number-one preferred destination, followed by Japan and China.

"I've noticed that recent political events in Thailand have reduced the number of corporate visitors, but not leisure; I would have thought it would be the other way around," says Jagan Lacsher, director of sales and distribution for the popular Novotel Bangkok on

Siam Square
. "I think people are of the mind that they are not going to have their vacation plans disrupted by political unrest." In Lascher's eyes, Thailand is looking at a healthy tourism market for the future.

"Thailand has recovered from the tsunami and now has a warning system in place throughout the AndamanSea resort areas," says G.W. "Sandy" Ferguson, president of Asia Desk, Ltd. "Actually, it was Thailand that was impacted the least by the tsunami but covered the most. What reporter do you know who would want to spend his time in Banda Ache, Sumatra as compared to an untouched five-star hotel in Phuket?"

Vibrant cultural festivals

"Thailand's image will be improved when we have an elected government in December," says Sethapon Chindanon, regional director, the Americas, Tourism Authority of Thailand. "I want travel agents to understand that even though we had a coup, it was a non-violent one. Thailand is a safe destination."

Reinventing Thailand

"Thailand is in the process of reinventing itself as a cultural destination, a process started three years ago—before that it was primarily a shopping, nightlife and beach destination," says Hpone Thant, director of Myanmar-based South Wind Travels & Tours Co., Ltd.

In months to come, look for Thailand to initiate efforts to attract the high-end visitor. "Our tourists like adventure during the day and luxury at night," says Chindanon. "In other words, maybe they'll ride atop an elephant along a jungle trail, and then return to their hotel to relax in a spa or have a fine meal." Chindanon adds that the country needs more four- and five-star hotels.

Floating markets are two must-sees

"In Bangkok, food and beverage is cutting edge, shopping is international quality and traffic is improved," says Deepak Ohri, CEO of Lebua Hotels & Resorts Co., Ltd. "In fact, everything is improving, which is contributing to Bangkok's appeal."

Thailand's target markets include educational tourism, volunteer tourism, alumni groups, and special interest travel focusing on the country's culture and history. "These are tourists who are less interested in sightseeing—they're more interested in 'life-seeing,'" says Chindanon.

"Most of my clients hit Bangkok, northern Thailand and one beach destination, plus Siem Reap in Cambodia for Angkor Wat," says Karin Hansen, Asia travel expert, Frosch Travel. Hansen adds that she's getting increased interest in Thai cooking classes, and the beach destination of Hua Hin is gaining in popularity. Hua Hin is a three-hour drive from Bangkok offering upscale getaways for city dwellers, much like the Hamptons for New Yorkers.

Clients may want to try something educational, like a Thai cooking class

Medical tourism was getting some buzz at the Thai Travel Mart. A recent Research and Markets report, "Opportunities in Thailand Tourism Industry (2007-2009)," notes that Thailand has been promoting its healthcare tourism, which entails providing visitors with private healthcare facilities.

It is expected that tourist arrivals for the purpose of medical treatment will reach two million by 2010. September 27-30, at Bangkok's Impact Exhibition Center, Thailand will provide a platform for Proud Asia 2007, the first international trade exhibition and conference on the medical tourism, spa and wellness industries. The event is expected to attract 15,000 visitors and 300 trade exhibitors from over 10 countries.

Thai Airways is doing its part to attract visitors. The carrier's "Discover Thailand Fares 2007," offers a pass that entitles travelers to fly economy class to three cities within Thailand for $169, within a three-month period. Additional flight coupons are available, up to a maximum of eight coupons. All travel must be completed by December 31 and only in conjunction with international travel to, from or via Thailand. Qualifying international flights may be via any carrier. Thai Airways International and Air China have also teamed to offer packages combining Beijing Olympics 2008 trips with a pre-or post-Bangkok visit. Both airlines are offering special fares out of a variety of cities, including New York and Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.thaiairways.com or www.airchina.com.

One Country, Four Regions

Geographically, Thailand is a diverse country. Thais generally divide it into four regions, each with its own distinct ethnic peoples speaking their own dialect and observing their own customs.

"Thailand is a modern country now—not like when I grew up there in the `60s or ran a DMC there in the `80s," says Asia Desk's Ferguson. "It's becoming much like the U.S., with Starbucks and other fast food outlets in the big cities. Now, you have to get out in the boonies to get a real experience."

Southern Thailand has a peninsula, with the AndamanSea on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. Popular seaside destinations include Samui, Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, known for the Phi Phi islands.

The Central region is largely delta country, dominated by the Chao PhrayaRiver. While Bangkok is the prime magnet for travelers, popular destinations throughout the region include Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Kanchanaburi, site of the historic Bridge on the River Kwai; and the upscale seaside resort area, Hua Hin.

Northeastern Thailand is a vast plateau, flanked by the MekongRiver, and encompassing part of the Golden Triangle. World Heritage Sites include Ban Chiang in Udon Thani, where the world's oldest Bronze Age civilization flourished some 5,600 years ago, and KhaoYaiNational Park in Nakhon Ratchasima.

The North is cool and mountainous. Stand outs include the cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and Sukhothai, site of the first independent Thai kingdom and a UNESCO World Heritage historic town.

Marketing Indochina

Thailand is considered the gateway to Indochina countries, such as Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam. Tour operators are increasingly offering Thailand in combination with other destinations.

"In the past, we promoted Thailand exclusively," says Chindanon. "Now we're happy to join forces with other Indochina countries to form another tourism hub in Asia."

To this end, Thailand is promoting the range of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Indochina. "We can't compete alone against the number of sites in mainland China," adds Chindanon. "But in combination we can offer an impressive amount of sites."

In addition to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Thailand, these include AngkorWatArcheologicalPark in Cambodia; Ha Long Bay, Hoi, and My Son Sanctuary in Vietnam; and the town of Luang Prabang in Laos.

"We've seen an increase in combining Thailand with at least one or two of the surrounding countries, especially Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar," says Eric Kareus, sales manager for Asia Transpacific Journeys. "(Our travelers) also seem to be traveling throughout the year now rather than during the peak travel months of November through January." Kareus has some caveats: "I'd like to see better promotion of lesser-known areas in the country with good potential for tourism, as well as better infrastructure to facilitate easier overland border crossings with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar."

"Thailand has always been a strong destination for us," says Jerry Chang, president of Pacific Holidays. "There have been a couple of hiccups—the tsunami and the coup—but business always comes right back." Chang gives Thailand high marks for its diverse offerings—the mountains in the north, the island and beaches, the history and culture of its ruins and temples. Pacific Delight has a number of itineraries that combine Thailand with other countries, including a popular 15-day Thailand Delights program with a three-day Angkor Wat extension.

"We used to sell Japan by itself or combined with China," adds Chang. "In 2007 we introduced a combined Japan/Thailand program."

"We have not seen any meaningful reduction in business to Thailand as a result of recent events," says Rosalyn Gershell, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Pacific Delight Tours. "After China, Thailand remains the number-one destination for us—both in combination with China tours and as a destination on its own." Among its programs, Pacific Delight has a five-day Bangkok extension that can be added to its tours that end in Hong Kong, and a 15-day Bangkok, Vietnam and Cambodia SuperValue program.

"We feel that while Thailand has indeed recovered from the setbacks posed by the recent events, we feel that the tourism sector has not yet fully come all the way back," says Evan Chan, director of Ritz Tours. "The good news is that all signs show this sector to be speeding on its way to full recovery." Ritz Tours offers Thailand extensions as an option on all of its Asia programs. The company is continuing to develop new offerings in combination with other Asian destinations, such as its new 15-day Tantalizing Thailand tour. According to Chan, the company plans to combine Thailand with Indochina, China, and Japan.