Upon the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit, Covid-19 became a seasonal virus and the world was full of hope again as borders reopened and travellers longed to indulge their wanderlust. This lit the torch for tourism to bounce back.
Based on data gathered from January to May, Agoda’s research of booking data ranks Thailand as the second most popular destination behind Japan, with Bangkok being the most popular city. After the US, Japan and Malaysia, Agoda also found that Thailand had the fourth-highest number of domestic travellers.
The hospitality industry in Thailand appears to be in a highly competitive state as leading hotel chains are quick to open new properties, aiming to meet the demands of free independent travellers.
Additionally, the Thai government has capitalised from soft power trends like elephant pants and art festivals to boost tourism, while Hong Kong and Taiwan have collaborated with the private sector to develop interesting marketing campaigns such as giving away round-trip airline tickets and pocket money coupons to draw international visitors.
Life reviews some of the happenings in Thailand’s travel industry this year.
Thai tourism needs more trust
Thailand made the headlines in the first month of the year when a Chinese tourist posted a video on social media showing four police officers providing her with an unauthorised VVIP service. She claimed she was given the option of a quick immigration check at the airport and a police escort to her hotel in Pattaya.
Misfortunes never come alone. In the same week, Taiwanese actress Charlene An wrote on social media about her experience celebrating New Year in Bangkok. She said that while she and her friends were travelling, the police stopped them and informed them that her visa was not valid and that her passport needed to be officially stamped. After long conversations, she decided to pay 27,000 baht to be let go.
This quickly went viral on social media in Taiwan and Thailand, and both incidents ruined the country’s reputation. However, four former Huay Khwang police officers received prison sentences in September for extorting money from the Taiwanese artist.
In October, the situation seemed to improve for National Day and Golden Week as more Chinese tourists came to Thailand. However, happy times were short-lived when a juvenile gunman opened fire inside Siam Paragon, killing two foreign women — a 34-year-old Chinese mother shopping with her twin kids and a young woman from Myanmar who worked there. Five other people were injured, one of whom died later.
The shooting spree was the reflection of a regulatory gap in the assistance provided to tourists impacted by incidents in Thailand. Both Thai citizens and visitors have requested that safety measures be improved, including the implementation of a mobile broadcasting alert system and gun regulations that limit access to and the sale of illegal firearms.
Songkran is now recognised as a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill
Songkran Festival recognised as a Unesco cultural heritage
After a three-year hiatus, Thai residents and foreign visitors were able to celebrate the Songkran Festival without masks. The sale of alcoholic beverages, high-pressure water guns, smearing powder and inappropriate clothing were restricted, but other customs like almsgiving, rot nam dam hua –which involves pouring water over the hands of elderly relatives to obtain their blessing — and the procession of revered Buddha statues to temples all resumed.
Two weeks ago, Unesco added the Songkran Festival to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, following in the footsteps of khon mask dance in 2018, traditional Thai massage in 2019 and nora dance in 2021.
According to Unesco, Songkran refers to the Sun’s annual entry into the Aries constellation, which is the first sign of the zodiac and signifies the beginning of the new year. It takes place in mid-April following the rice harvest. During this time, families reunite and pay their respects to elderly people and sacred Buddha images. Pouring water is a significant ritual that represents purification, reverence and good fortune.
Temporary tourist visa exemptions
In an attempt to stimulate tourism, Thailand is temporarily allowing 30-day visa-free stays for visitors from Kazakhstan and China until Feb 29. Russian passport holders can stay in Thailand for 90 days until April 30, while Indian and Taiwanese tourists can also enjoy a 30-day stay until May 10.
Thailand expects to welcome between 1,912,000 and 2,888,500 Chinese tourists during the five months of the visa-free period, bringing in up to 140 billion baht. Thailand anticipates 129,485 tourists from Kazakhstan, up 49.73% from the same period last year and generating 7.93 billion baht in revenue.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said: “The easing of the visa policy will enable tourists to save time and money on visa applications, making it easier for tourists to decide to travel to Thailand. With the visa exemption scheme, Thailand can expect to welcome around 4.04 to 4.4 million Chinese tourists in 2023 and achieve the forecasted revenue target of 257,500 million baht.”
From Jan 1 to Sept 10, Thailand welcomed 2,284,281 Chinese visitors, making China the second largest source of tourists after Malaysia. During Golden Week, airlines launched new routes connecting cities in China and Thailand including Chengdu-Samui, Beijing-Chiang Mai, Guangzhou-Phuket and Kunming-Hat Yai.
Si Thep Historical Park has been added to the list of Unesco World Heritage Sites. Pattarawadee Saengmanee
Si Thep Historical Park named Unesco World Heritage Site
It was great news when Phetchabun’s Si Thep Historical Park was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in September. This town was a major hub for trade, culture and religion for 700 years, but it is currently developing as a new tourist destination to help second-tier cities boost tourism in the lower northern region.
It pays homage to local wisdom of the Dvaravati civilisation, which existed between 1,500 and 1,700 years ago, with its distinctive two-layered layout including old moats and walls. Excavation by the Fine Arts Department started in 1978 and more than 100 abandoned Buddhist and Hindu temples as well as 100 different-sized ponds have been found.
Human bones and graves from 2,500 years ago further confirm the existence of the prehistoric settlement. Changes in trade routes caused Si Thep to deteriorate and it was abandoned before the Sukhothai kingdom rose to prominence in the 13th century.
It is home to Prang Song Phi Nong which is said to be a Hindu monastery with primitive Khmer-style architecture. Inspired by Baphuon-Angkor Wat art, its smaller prasat is adorned with a carved stone lintel, depicting Uma Maheshvara (Shiva holding goddess Uma).
The ancient Khmer-style Prang Si Thep represents heaven in Hinduism, while a king used its holy pond to conduct a religious ceremony in honouring the creator deity Shiva. Later, the building was reconstructed in the 12th century when the influence of Bayon architectural art spread to Siam.
Situated 2km from the central town, Khao Klang Nok was formerly home to a large Dvaravati-style chedi, which symbolises Mount Meru. The architecture of its foundation has a replication of prasats, with influences from Southern India. The historical park now forbids people from climbing the Khao Klang Nok ruin in order to minimise damage due to a daily spike of visitors from 300 to around 7,000.
Wat Arun appeared in the hit K-drama series King The Land. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill
Promoting tourism through soft power
Similar to how K-entertainment became a strong magnet to entice travellers to the Land of Morning Calm. Thailand is promoting its alluring culture and other sorts of tourism through the use of soft power. Bangkok was a primary filming site for the hit romantic comedy K-series King The Land, which debuted on Netflix in the middle of the year.
Episode 10 highlights a number of well-known tourist destinations, including Muang Boran (The Ancient City) in Samut Prakan, Talad Rom Hub (Mae Klong Railway Market) in Samut Songkhram, and Wat Arun, Wat Ratchanadda, Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen, Sao Chingcha and Klong Ong Ang. This illuminated the rich history and culture of Thailand.
Fashion fads of dressing in period costume and visiting historical sites in Ayutthaya and Lop Buri were once again triggered in October by the famous Thai romantic comedy series Love Destiny Season 2, which aired on Channel 3 and just wrapped on Monday. On social media platforms, fans have discussed Thailand’s history, going all the way back to the reigns of King Suriyenthrathibodi (Phra Chao Sua) and King Taisa (King Sanphet IX).
At the same time, the Tourism Authority of Thailand teamed up with Winning Moves UK and Hasbro to launch the Monopoly: Chiang Mai Edition board game. Taking the role of treasure seekers, players can explore more than 30 tourist sites and activities in the ancient Lanna capital, including Doi Ang Khang, Bua Tong Waterfall, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chang Moi Road and Doi Inthanon.
Social media went into a frenzy when several Thai travellers claimed that they had been refused entry into South Korea. Photo: Pattarawadee Saengmanee
In late October, a female visitor posted on social media about her experience of being denied entry into Korea by an immigration officer despite having return tickets, hotel bookings and tour itineraries. Thus, #bandtravellingtokorea rose to the top of the X trending list in Thailand.
Her post received 9.2 million views and 22,000 reposts. Many people assume that a large number of Thai nationals who enter Korea on tourist visas and then work there illegally in the industrial, hospitality and agricultural sectors is the reason behind the deportations.
A rising number of testimonies from deported tourists and those taken to the interview room have prompted concerns about prejudice against Thais by the Korean immigration office. The Korean Tourism Organization reported that 269,347 Thai tourists arrived in South Korea between January and September this year, following only Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Taiwanese and Vietnamese tourists. The Thai outbound market reached its peak in 2019, with 571,610 visitors.