Building Booms on the Gulf of Thailand

Original beach areas are revived by internationally known hotel brands

By: Fred Gebhart

PATTAYA, Thailand Thailand’s original beach resort areas are staging a comeback. International hotel brands like Hard Rock, Hyatt, Marriott, Sheraton, Sofitel and others are investing millions of dollars to build, refurbish and expand resort properties on the Gulf of Thailand just south from Bangkok.

The building boom in Hua Hin and Pattaya couldn’t come at a better time for U.S. tour operators and travel agents.

“The trend is definitely going toward being a little more adventurous and getting off the beaten track,” said Mary Barnett, regional sales manager for Pacific Delight Tours in San Diego. “We are getting people who have been to Thailand before. They have seen the traditional three Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai in the north. It’s time for something different.”

Hua Hin, on the west coast of the placid Gulf of Thailand, offers relaxed resorts, white sand beaches and small-town atmosphere. Pattaya, on the east coast, is a high-energy beach town with shopping, sometimes-raucous nightlife, golf, parasailing and other active water activities off a golden beach that disappears at high tide.

Hua Hin emerged as Thailand’s first beach resort in the early 20th century. Linked to Bangkok by railroad in 1903, the tiny fishing village became a favorite retreat for the royal family. The elegant Victorian-style royal railway pavilion is still one of Hua Hin’s must-see attractions even though today’s visitors can’t arrive by train it’s a 30-minute commuter flight or a three-hour drive from Bangkok.

Even so, the railway hotel is thriving. The original 1923 lobby and two-story topiary elephants form the heart of the colonial-style Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort.

The 32-acre beachfront property offers 207 rooms just steps from the small-town center of Hua Hin. The new Centara Spa has emerged as one of Sofitel’s most popular attractions, said General Manager Bernd Schneider: “Spa is a must-have in Thailand today.”

Next-door is the high-rise Hilton Hua Hin Resort & Spa, fresh from a $6 million renovation. The 12,000-square-foot The Spa features treatments with honey, fresh fruits, mud, essential oils, aromatherapy, reflexology and ayurvedic treatments.

Mandara Spa has locations at the Hua Hin Marriott Resort & Spa, just north of town, and the posh new Thai-style Anantara Resort & Spa, just south. The 197-room Anantara features 12 low-rise clusters including a spa village surrounding a private lagoon.

“People are asking for Hua Hin and they are asking for spas,” said Faisawan Klungness, sales supervisor at Los Angeles-based Asian Affair Holidays.

The 185-room Evason Hua Hin Resort, which opened in 2002 with the self-described “environmentally conscious” Six Senses Spa, is opening a companion Evason Hideaway later this year.

Each of the 45 Hideaway villas features a private swimming pool, outdoor bathtubs and showers in a garden setting, and complete entertainment systems. Hua Hin’s newest resort, the 250-room Sheraton Hua Hin Resort opening in September 2005, is also pitching its spa and health club.

========= Who’s Building in Pattaya

An easy 90-minute drive south from Bangkok, the seaside resort of Pattaya will get even hotter when Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi International Airport opens late in 2005. Located southeast of the city, the new airport will be less than an hour from Pattaya.

International hotel groups began planting their flags in Pattaya in 2001. Hard Rock and Marriott renovated and rebranded existing properties. Sheraton and Accor are building. Hilton and Holiday Inn are reportedly looking for sites. “The East Coast has a lot of promise,” Suraphon Svetasreni, deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said at the ASEAN Tourism Forum in January. “It is one of the destinations in our ‘Unseen Thailand’ campaign to expand tourism to new destinations.”

TAT marketing support strengthens groups like Starwood, which is opening in Pattaya later this year. The 156-room Sheraton Pattaya Resort will offer some of the largest rooms in Thailand at 700 square feet plus 129-square-foot balconies.

Accor has three Pattaya properties in the works. The mid-range Pattaya Mercure is slated to open this summer. Next up will be a 250-room Novotel Pattaya, set to open in November or December. A 470-room Sofitel is due by mid-2006. “Pattaya is name recognition and price,” said Cindy Yam, owner of Solutions Travel Service in Los Angeles. “People are interested in Pattaya because they know the name. Familiar hotel names will just add to the popularity.”