Pattaya Now World’s Largest Sea Resort
Pattaya is often advertised as the largest sea resort in Asia. This suggests that there are larger sea resorts in other parts of the world. The question is therefore : what sea resorts are larger than Pattaya? When I ask this question around me, people come up with answers such as Honolulu, Copacabana, Acapulco, Torremolinos, and others. But, first of all, are all of these cities sea resorts? In other words, what is a sea resort? Surely these places are coastal cities, they have beaches, and they attract a lot of tourists. But then, what about cities like Miami or San Diego? They are also coastal cities with beaches and tourists. And if Miami and San Diego are sea resorts, what about Sydney, Naples, Caracas, Marseille, or even New York, which all have beaches nearby and all attract many tourists? Something tells us that these cities are not real sea resorts, although we may not know exactly why. Fortunately, the people who make international tourism statistics have already thought about this problem. Their definition of a sea(side) resort is “a place (it could be a hotel, a village or a city) on the coast of a sea, mainly devoted to tourism”. This eliminates the big cities we just talked about, and now we know why: they are not mainly devoted to tourism. Honolulu, which is mainly an administrative and commercial center does not qualify, although it has a large seaside resort area (yet, Waikiki together with Kapahulu, has a much smaller number of hotel rooms than Pattaya.). One can also think, in addition to Honolulu, of cities like Rio de Janeiro or Miami, where one section of the city only is a sea resort. Among the places mentioned so far, we are left with coastal cities like Acapulco and Torremolinos as real sea resorts. Of course the distinction between a sea resort and a city with beaches is not a clear cut one, and there are intermediary cases. One can think of cities like Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, or Agadir, where tourism plays an important role although there are other quite important activities disconnected from tourism.
Now, in order to compare sea resorts, we have to keep in mind some technicalities. What exactly are we comparing? There is no one number which will tell you how large a sea resort is. We have to work with indicators because it's impossible to count all the tourists and because the notion of tourism is an unclear one. According to the definition used in international statistics, a “tourist” is someone who makes a trip outside of his/her usual environment for less than one year and at least one night. One common indicator of the number of tourists is the number of arrivals in hotels, called “tourist entries” or “overnight stays”. For example, the 8 mio tourist arrivals in Pattaya in 2012 are hotel stays and are recorded from hotels. Although such tourist number is useful for comparisons, it does not give the total number of tourists (it does not take into account rentals, serviced apartments, guesthouses, and people who come to their own residence or stay with friends). The number of “visitors” is larger than the number of “tourists” as it includes overnight tourists plus same day visitors. Another indicator of the size of a sea resort is its resident population. If the resort is mainly devoted to tourism, it is likely that the more residents, the more tourist capacity it will have. Many more indicators can be used, such as the number of hotel rooms, rate of occupation, number of rooms per square kilometer, tourists/residents ratio, etc.
Let's now go to Europe in our search for large sea resorts. For climatic reasons, such resort cities will be located in Southern Europe. Among coastal cities, Venice has the record number of tourists, followed by Palma de Mallorca. Although there are somewhat different numbers depending on the source, I believe it credible that Venice has over 10 mio overnight visitors a year, whereas Palma has about 8 mio. But are these two cities real sea resorts? Surely tourism is an important activity for both cities, but it would be difficult to pretend that Venice is mainly devoted to tourism, considering that the city (metropolitan area) has about 2 mio inhabitants, the ratio tourists/population is too small to qualify Venice as a sea resort. Similarly, Palma de Mallorca is an important tourist city, but it is also a large port and an administrative center (capital of the Balearic Islands). None of these two cities appear as sea resorts in tourism statistics. I take it that the largest Spanish sea resort proper is Benidorm, with 5 million visitors (2011), followed by Torremolinos and Marbella. Note also that half of the visitors in Benidorm are Spanish. In Italy, Rimini advertises itself as the largest sea resort in Europe, and it might have been in the seventies, but is not any more. In short, no European sea resort matches Pattaya.
Africa does not get much tourism outside of Morocco and South Africa, but there are no large sea resorts in these two countries as well as in the rest of the continent. Australia, in turn, has important coastal areas and islands devoted to tourism. The case of Gold Coast should be quickly reviewed here: it is a large city of more than 600,000 inhabitants (but the metropolitan area includes more than 3 mio people), where tourism is said to be the main industry. There are 4.5 mio overnight stays a year (and 10 mio “visitors”). Although tourism is “fundamental” to the city, as they mention in official documents, Gold Coast is also an administrative center, it harbors an important film production industry and several universities. And here again, the ratio tourists/residents is too small for the city to qualify as a sea resort.
As to South America, it has a few touristic islands and many cities with beaches (particularly in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay), but no large sea resort with the exception of Mar del Plata in Argentina. This coastal city has 616,000 residents (2010 census) – a number comparable to Pattaya – with tourism as its main income. But it should be noted that Mar del Plata has many concerns other than tourism: it is an important fishing port, it has several universities, it harbors factories making textile, machines, food, packaging. They advertise 8.5 mio “visitors”, a number which, again, includes one day excursionists. Although this number is equivalent to Pattaya's (see the numbers for Pattaya at the end of this article), it should be stressed that Mar del Plata is essentially a weekend resort, with most visitors coming from Buenos Aires for an excursion or a short stay. This is in contrast with Pattaya, where excursionists (same day visitors) are estimated at 1 mio a year only. This allows us to conclude that Pattaya has more tourist entries than Mar del Plata, and a bigger tourist density. In South America, Rio de Janeiro deserves a special mention. Like Honolulu and Miami, it is a large city with part of it being a sea resort. As I mentioned, it is not clear if these touristic areas should be considered as sea resorts proper or as touristic suburbs of a city. Anyway, even if one considers the resorts of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon as one and the same sea resort, it is not as large as Pattaya in terms of number of hotel rooms.
What about North America? In the US, there are no important sea resorts, which is probably due to a system of paid leaves different from Europe's, and therefore a different development of mass tourism. The resorts that look most like European sea resorts are Atlantic City and Fort Lauderdale. which are relatively small. I have already alluded to Miami, where South Beach, the touristic part of the city, gets 3.5 mio tourists a year. Mexico, in turn, has many sea resorts. This country attracts more tourists than Thailand and most of them stay in sea resorts. The largest is Acapulco, a city definitely devoted to tourism, which, just a few years ago, announced 750,000 residents, more than Pattaya. In 2008, Acapulco accommodated 7,200,000 tourists, more than Pattaya too at the same time. In 2008 Acapulco was significantly larger than Pattaya, but around 2009 this Mexican resort started to be victim of drug trafficking gangs, which affected the city dramatically. Since then, there are killings almost every night, sometimes as many as 20 people are shot in one night. Even the tourist office has been attacked twice by armed people. In 2009 tourism started a decline which accentuated in 2010 and 2011. The local newspapers often mention the “cancer” of Acapulco, the decay of infrastructures, and the conspicuous image problem. In 2011, it seems there were only 4,500,000 tourist entries, and this number continues to drop. Inevitably, the resident population must have declined, in foreign as well as in national residents. What is certain is that Acapulco has lost the number one place in the size of sea resorts.
My point is that Pattaya is now the largest sea resort in the world. Even if rankings can always be discussed – particularly when data are not available and/or comparable –, I believe I have presented some arguments allowing Pattaya authorities and business people for marketing the city. I did not dwell on indicators such as tourist density and tourists/residents ratio, although they would speak in favor of Pattaya. The two main points I emphasized are the estimated number of tourists (with tourist “entries” as the main indicator), which exceeds the competing cities of Acapulco and Mar del Plata, and the authentic sea resort character of Pattaya. That last point leads me to add that Pattaya is more of a “pure” sea resort than its immediate competitors. Indeed Pattaya was born out of tourism: it was a rather small fishing port in the sixties. Acapulco, in turn is an old city (which was during several centuries the main Mexican port on the Pacific), which took advantage of the development of mass tourism in the sixties and the seventies and changed its economic focus. The same could be said of Mar del Plata: it is an old city, which took advantage of the development of mass tourism and became a sea resort. Another point that is that the proportion of foreign tourists in Pattaya is about 75%, a proportion only reached in prestigious sea resorts, and an indicator of the city's attractiveness. We have already seen that this is more than Benidorm. As to Acapulco and Mar del Plata, both of these cities depend much more than Pattaya on the flow of visitors coming from the neighboring capital, i.e., from domestic tourism. Important also to mention is that tourism in Pattaya is expected to grow on the long run at the pace of 7-9% a year, even more with political stability, and that the average length of stay is continually increasing, a good sign for the future.
For sure, Pattaya is growing and the number of visitors (and foreigners relocating / retiring there) goes up and up. And I reckon it has a long way to go for there are more and more people who wish to experience Pattaya, and many who have plans to retire there.