Readers' Submissions

Thai Tourist Numbers

  • Written by Khun Bill
  • December 5th, 2012
  • 10 min read




The TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) and the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports are constantly feeding statistics to the media which show a booming tourism industry with ever increasing international arrivals. Occasional Stickman postings make reference to this phenomenon but to my knowledge no posting has dedicated itself to a review / study of what is actually happening on the ground so to speak.

In my submission ‘What a Horrible Country’ of 21 April 2012, I concluded that Thailand was finished as a mainstream holiday destination for western tourists and if anything my view has hardened over the last 8 months or so based on what I have seen and read. Although not well received by Stick himself, I did receive a large feedback to that posting – over 30 emails – only two of which were critical or abusive. The others, in varying degrees, agreed with me and were complimentary.

Yes on the face of it tourism in Thailand is booming but it is a simple conundrum to solve – look at where they are coming from. All the figures I will be quoting below comes from an article in the November edition of ‘Lookeast,’ a fairly upmarket glossy journal that is left in rooms at better quality hotels around Thailand. Specific arrival numbers relate to the 9-month period January to September 2012 and were sourced from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports. To the hard facts I add my own commentary.

Overall arrivals at almost 16 million were almost 9% up over the same period in 2011. Nine of the top ten source countries are from within the Asia-Pacific region with only the UK creeping into the list at number 9 from elsewhere, a far cry from the 1980’s and 1990’s when European countries and the USA topped the charts.

Those readers who rarely stray outside of Pattaya will be certain that Russia will be number 1 but this accolade goes to China with almost 2 million out of the 16 million, a remarkable 39% increase over the 2011 figure. I believe the Chinese population to be in excess of 1.4 billion and there are scores of cities of over 1 million all within 3 to 6 hours flying time of Bangkok. China alone could dominate the Thai tourist industry within a very few years as that country gets richer. OK they don’t patronise the girly bars but it is simplistic to write them off as ‘non-spenders’ as some do – they spend their money on sightseeing and clothing and of course food / accommodation.

Second place goes to Malaysia with almost 1.8 million out of the 16 million. These are apparently mostly ‘overnight’ trippers but they are counted the same as any other international tourist arrival. Most cross by land. Now the magazine article is silent on this and I may be totally wrong but I believe that every weekend droves of Malaysian men cross into Thailand to enjoy the carnal delights that Thailand’s southern towns and cities have to offer – I am thinking in particular of Hat Yai which has a massive ‘entertainment’ industry aimed, I am reliably informed, at Malaysian men. The type of entertainment on offer in Thailand is not readily available in Malaysia, at least not to local, Moslem men. So how many of these 1.8 million are ‘genuine’ tourists that the TAT would be proud of…?

Quite a way down at third place is Japan at just under 1 million out of the 16 million. Now the Yen is strong and the Japanese have money. It is said to be cheaper for a Japanese man to have two or three long weekends a year golfing in Thailand than it is to join a club and play in Japan. Stroll down Thanon Thaniya any night of the week and you will see what they get up to in the evenings. 18 holes in the daytime, another…yeah, ok, too corny to continue. On top of tourists there are all the businessmen coming and going plus their wives and children. So it again begs the question, how many of these Japanese are ‘conventional’ tourists?

Fourth place goes to Korea at just over 0.8 million …similar comments apply as above in relation to the Japanese.

In fifth position is Russia at almost 0.8 million but here the interesting point is the increase of almost 19% over 2011. Increasing wealth obviously a factor here…wouldn’t you escape the Russian winter if you could afford to! The Russians have all but taken over a large slice of Pattaya and other Eastern seaboard resorts, they even import their own working girls for goodness sake. You see the Russians in Pattaya walking around drinking beer out of the bottles that they have bought from 7 Eleven and they seem to enjoy traditional holiday activities such as day trips, sunbathing and the like. One thing we can thank the Russians for…some good looking young women who enjoy flaunting their assets.

India is number six, again at not far short of 0.8 million, although perhaps surprisingly up only 7% over 2011. What the statistics do not show is a male / female split and I would hazard a guess that by far more than half are male. One sees groups of young Indian men ‘window shopping’ but at the moment they don’t seem to have much spending power – one hears tales of them sharing drinks, meals, hotel rooms, women!! This will change steadily over the coming years as the number of Indians with surplus disposable income grows. With a population of over 1.2 billion and rapidly growing and comparatively rich megacities like Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore etc within 3 to 4 hours flying distance on an increasing number of new low cost carriers India will provide more and more tourists, although at the moment they are not what one could call ‘conventional’ tourists. Entertainment not available to young Indian men at home is readily available in Thailand and this seems to be the main draw. The Thai working girls do not like them and complain about having to deal with them… but money talks.

Number seven is Laos…yes Laos, one of the poorest countries of the world with a population of just over 6 million accounts for over 0.7 million of the ‘tourist’ arrivals. Are they really tourists? What are they doing corrupting TAT statistics? Oh, silly me, it pads out the figures doesn’t it?

Eighth is Australia with 0.7 million tourist arrivals, ahead of every other fully developed western nation (I exclude Russia from that definition). The Aussie dollar is strong and Australia domestically is very expensive – it is cheaper for them to holiday in Thailand than it is to go to a nice resort in Queensland in the same way that it is cheaper for Brits to have a cheap & cheerful holiday on the Spanish Costas rather than holiday at home. They’ve done Bali – it doesn’t take long – so now they are doing Thailand. Their arrivals are over 12% up on 2011 but exchange rates vary and over time there tend to be cycles of strength followed by weakness. If the Aussie dollar weakens expect their tourist numbers to decline. However the Aussies, along with the Russians, are the ones that come closest in complying with my idea of what constitutes a conventional tourist.

Ninth is the good old UK with just over 0.6 million arrivals. But of these how many are stopping over for one or two nights en route for Australia or New Zealand? How many are using Bangkok as a means to get to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam…there are no direct flights from the UK to the first three of these countries and it was only earlier this year that direct flights started up to Hanoi and Saigon out of London? How many are being counted more than once – personally I, with my British passport, have already entered Thailand 6 times this year? How many international businessmen base themselves in Bangkok (cheap accommodation etc) but travel regularly to work in other Asian countries – I personally know two such gentlemen with British passports who enter and leave Thailand in excess of 20 times per year each so there will doubtless be hundreds, maybe thousands more. But maybe even more relevant might be the question…how many are returning from visa runs? I will bet you that every week several hundred if not thousands of Brits are either crossing land borders or flying to the likes of KL / Penang / Singapore / Vientiane / Phnom Penh just to renew visas or obtain another 15 or 30 days. High airfares made worse by the ever increasing air passenger tax, dire economic hardship facing many families, a fear of redundancy, bad publicity for the ‘land of smiles’ (scams, unexplained and poorly investigated tourist deaths, fear of flooding, fear of political unrest and civil uprising…all factors given wide publicity on TV and on the internet) – these issues do not encourage tourism particularly by families. It remains my view that Thailand is slowly becoming a very minor player when it comes to attracting ‘normal’ tourists from the UK, and the same will apply to much if not all of Western Europe.

Propping up the top 10 is Singapore, a State of 5 million people accounting for almost 0.6 million tourist arrivals. Like they go to Batam for cheap but poor quality shopping and cheap spa treatments, I guess they come to Thailand for better quality but still much cheaper shopping and still cheap but potentially more ‘interesting’ spa treatments. Some Singaporean men obviously are coming to enjoy much cheaper evening entertainment than is available back home. The price of quality accommodation in Bangkok is a fraction of prices in Singapore so it is not surprising to see so many visitors from that country…but I guess we are talking short trips and probably also multiple trips, which would explain the high arrival number when compared with available population.

Just outside the top 10 at 11 & 12 were the USA and Vietnam respectively, with Vietnam projected to break into the top 10 and exceed UK numbers by 2014. One nation that was not mentioned in the article was the Philippines which I found surprising as I am aware that there is a huge population of Philippine people in Thailand working (some of them even have work permits) or simply eking out an existence in Thailand which, for all sorts of reasons, they find preferable to doing in their own country.

The three most populous countries in the world, China, India and the USA are mentioned above at 1, 6 and 11. The next four most populous countries do not figure – they are Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh, three of which are near, or fairly near, to Thailand. What will happen as their citizens, or at least a portion of them, become richer and want to travel?

So to conclude, yes, Thailand’s tourist arrivals are on the rise and for sure they will continue rising so long as political stability persists in the country. The mix however started to change several years ago and will continue apace with fewer visitors from the west and more from the Asia/Pacific region – both purely from a strict numerical viewpoint but even more so as a proportion of total arrivals. So to all the wealthy Thai property developers and investors, keep on building more and more low to medium priced accommodation (as certainly seems to be happening in Pattaya), you will make a good return on your investments in the years to come.

If you have stayed with me to the end, thank you. A sober and arguably dry submission but one that I hope will be of interest to presumably the bulk of you out there who enjoy Thailand and all that it has to offer.

Khun Bill



Stickman's thoughts:

For sure, the mix of tourists visiting Thailand is changing, but then it always changes, it's just that the rate of change is much more noticeable now.

What I see with my own eyes in central Bangkok is more and more Westerners, both visitors and newly arrived expats. For sure, the middle-aged single Western male is not nearly as common a tourist profile as it once was.