According to David Luekens over at Thai Island Quest, Thailand has over 800 islands. Don’t fret if you’ve only been to thirteen of them, as many are nothing more than a pile of rocks—others though, are more. Thailand’s islands range from huge and spoilt, to stuck-in-the-1980s near-deserted fare. There is it seems, something for everyone.
In 2019, Thailand greeted a smidgen under 40 million inbound tourists. At the time, some of the country’s most popular isles weren’t drowning in rising sea levels—that will come later. Instead, they were drowning in tourists, and Ko Phi Phi Leh was the most bandied around on the “sky is falling” front. Then the pandemic came, and the entire planet took a (masked) breath.
Super-size me please. Ko Nang Yuan, 2018. Photo: David Luekens.
Earlier this year, Thailand set a 2027 goal of 80 million inbound tourists (Google cache link, as PRD seems to have nuked the original), and while many feel it is unlikely, and that it flies in the face of any modicum of sustainability, I put all this aside and ask, where it will put them. I ask because, despite this story’s title, the TAT has not announced the discovery of 800 new islands. Indeed, thanks to rising sea levels Thailand may well eventually have less islands, but that’s fodder for another day.
In 2022, Thailand scored around 11 million tourists, so to reach its 2027 goal it needs a 50% increase every year. That will deliver around 83 million by 2027. I don’t know if you had the misfortune to visit Ko Phi Phi in 2019, but if you did, how sexy would it be with twice the tourists? 70 million new bums-on-seats? I would think not too sexy.
The illusion. Ko Lipe, 2018. Photo: David Luekens.
Yes, not all 70 million would be after retracing Leonardo’s frolics on The Beach, but some would. Some will argue that a trickle down effect of sorts, that some will hit the lesser touristed locales may play out, but will it be enough? The TAT seems to be aware of this, and I’ve been told they’re working to spread the butter.
A recent South Thailand familiarisation trip they offered to agents gave two options: Ranong and Chumphon, and Phattalung and Nakhon Si Thammarat. While not “top shelf” traditional destinations, they are, nonetheless, excellent spots. This is a good step, but still I have questions. For every trip like this, how many others ran to the “best hits” destinations? Even if operators add some of these locations into their greater trips, will it at the cost of these better-known spots? Unless it is, all those extra bums are still going to be hitting the best-of lists as well.
The reality. Ko Lipe, 2018. Photo: David Luekens.
As with everywhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand is awash in second- and third-tier destinations that few visit. So for every river in Pai that has so many rafters on it you can’t see the water, there’s another with not a soul on it. I talked to the founder of an inbound tour operator about this, and only half-joking they said:
“Yasothon has heaps of rivers—and legal weed—why not promote there?”
So while the TAT isn’t quite ready to launch the “2024 Get Baked In Thailand” campaign, “2024 Say Yes to Yasothon,” could work. Yet, travel writers have been flogging the northeast of the country for decades with little to show for it. Says Joe Cummings of writing for Lonely Planet back in the day:
“Likewise I touted Isan [the northeast region of Thailand] like crazy especially in the early days. Yet even in the peak tourism era, from 2000 onwards, only around 2% of international visitors bothered with Isan.”
Over the decades from the beginning of the “peak tourism era” Cummings refers to, Thailand’s tourism went from 10 million in 2000 to 16 million in 2010 and 40 million in 2019. Should we expect a better result than two per cent with 80 million? At least the TAT is making some effort to broaden the appeal—does it have a choice?
The under-appreciated beauties of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Photo: David Luekens.
I’d argue that if, with 40 million tourists, 98% of them are ignoring an entire region, then inbound tourism is broken. This is hardly unique to Thailand—look at Bali in Indonesia, Siem Reap in Cambodia, or Hội An in Vietnam. In all, a single destination bears more than its share of the burdens of tourism.
If the TAT got it wrong with 40 million last time, a better approach is to get it right on the second go. They should revise their target—bring it back to 20 million by 2027. In the intervening years they’ve got time to do more outreach, to help people travel better—and in a more sustainable manner. Nobody is suggesting—nor expecting—that 25% of tourists will spend most of their trip in the northeast. They could, but I’m trying to be realistic here, and elsewhere, outside the TAT, people are doing the heavy lifting.
Could Phattalung be Thailand’s hub for sustainable tourism? Quite possibly. Photo: David Luekens.
The TAT could do worse then to support the efforts of serial-Tweeter and incessant travel website maker Richard Barrow. He’s busy building yet another website (I think he has about 34,987 of them) dedicated to travelling the country by train. Aside from this being a shot in the arm for more sustainable travel, he’s also highlighting the lesser known. By the way, The Bangkok Podcast has a fascinating two-part podcast interview with Barrow—well worth a listen.
Much as I wrote in Navigating Nakhon Nowhere, it is always worth getting off the train, even if for a night. You’ll find stuff you didn’t know about before, and you’ll slow down. With this in mind, if the TAT could get to 20 million with 10-15% spending a chunk of time in the northeast, that would be a win. It wouldn’t though be a win that would be nice to have, rather it would be a win they need to have.
As a bonus, they wouldn’t need to find an extra 800 islands.
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