Thailand welcomed more than 11 million travelers in the first four months of 2016, following a record year of tourism in 2015. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Interest in Southeast Asia is up, helping to boost the number of visitors to Thailand from North America. // © 2016 iStock
Thailand’s tourism industry hit its stride last year, recovering after a challenging 2014 to set new all-time highs in visitor arrivals and spending. And the Southeast Asia destination appears to have maintained that momentum thus far in 2016.
A record-breaking 30 million travelers vacationed in Thailand in 2015, spending $42 billion — a new expenditures peak, according to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) estimates. Those new highs came despite the Aug. 17 shrine bombing in Bangkok last year, which killed 20 people and injured another 125.
The subsequent international media scrutiny did have a negative impact on Thailand tourism, according to Pataraporn Sithivanich, the TAT’s executive director for the Americas region.
“At the beginning, there was a short period,” she told me earlier this month at the country’s annual Thailand Travel Mart Plus (TTM+) event. “When this happens anywhere in the world, it will have some effect on the feelings of tourists.”
Visitor numbers weren’t hampered for long, though, according to Sithivanich, who says “everything bounced back very quickly.”
Through April of this year, in fact, Thailand has welcomed more than 11 million travelers, a jump of more than 14 percent over the same period a year prior, according to the latest available TAT estimates. Meanwhile, arrivals from the U.S. have also improved by about 14 percent to more than 337,000 travelers.
“I think the economy in the U.S. is better,” Sithivanich said, adding that she believes the Discover Thainess campaign, which launched January 2015 and showcased unique elements of the country’s culture, helped boost numbers from North America.
Sithivanich also says that more Americans are now visiting multiple countries in Southeast Asia.
“I think cooperation is bringing more business for us, because for tourism there are many angles you can play,” she said. “We cannot go it alone. We have to work together.”
Spreading the benefits of tourism across the Southeast Asia region was a prominent theme throughout this year’s TTM+, which drew more than 850 buyers, sellers and members of the international media. This year, the June 8-10 event, held in Chiang Mai, marked the first time TTM+ was held outside of Bangkok in its 15-year history.
Keynoter Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, delivered an address that generated a great deal of buzz at the event. Pitsuwan cautioned that while low-cost airlines have made connectivity across Southeast Asia far more affordable and accessible, concerns about managing growth and sustainability are mounting.
“If we are not careful, we will have problems of congestion and environmental impact, which will also impact the cultural resources that we value,” he said. “Tourism is a goose laying golden eggs. We can’t starve it, nor can we overfeed, nor ignore it, nor take too much advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, Kay Tran, director of sales and marketing for V’ Explore Tours in Orange, Calif., told me that Thailand has been providing her company with a few of those golden eggs, as business to the destination for the tour wholesaler improved 20 percent in 2015 and has grown again in 2016.
“So far, we’ve been very busy in the first quarter,” she said. “Business is definitely up.”
She agrees with the TAT’s Sithivanich that an improved U.S. economy and the focused marketing campaigns by the destination in 2015, following the political unrest in Bangkok in 2014, have really helped boost North American numbers.
“The U.S. currency is very strong here,” she added. “And that’s a good reason for people to come back. Thailand is a very popular return destination. People always want to come back.”
Tran also notes that she’s seeing more clients who want to visit multiple destinations in Southeast Asia, although those trips all typically include some time in Thailand.
“Lately, that has increased a lot,” she said. “We create programs for people who are well-traveled. They’ve already been to Europe and the South Pacific. Now, they are looking for something new, and Southeast Asia is on their bucket list. And of course, with the currency exchange rate now, the money they spend goes further in Southeast Asia.”