Thailand, land of golden temples, white-sand beaches, smiling hosts. Or of overcrowded airports, epic traffic jams and littered seashores.
Facing a deluge of Chinese tourists that has strained its airports beyond capacity, the Southeast Asian nation is spending billions to upgrade its infrastructure, open up new islands and cities to travellers, and tone down its image of cheap shopping, hotels and sex that underpinned the industry for half a century. But the change will take years and even then may fail to keep up with soaring visitor numbers that have given the Land of Smiles a reputation for delays, overcrowding and government crackdowns.
The military-backed government relies on tourism for 18 per cent of the economy and foreign inflows have made the baht one of the strongest performers in Asia this year, a bright spot amid weak domestic consumer demand and private investment. While it plans to spend more than $5 billion to double capacity at its international airports, it’s planning to increase foreign tourist numbers at a similar pace, reaching 68 million in the next decade. But work won’t be completed until 2022 at the earliest, and the first taste most travellers get of the Thai capital is a long queue at immigration.
“In three to five years time we might not reach our targeted tourist growth due to a lack of airport capacity,” said Thongyoo Suphavittayakorn, a spokesman for the Association of Thai Travel Agents. “The problem with the Thai government is they want to increase the number of visitors but they don’t stop to check first if we’re able to accommodate” them.
Once out of the terminal building, visitors must contend with the Bangkok traffic, the world’s most congested after Mexico City, according to TomTom NV’s traffic index. “We took five hours to go to the hotel just because of the traffic,” said Diogo Matos, a 28-year-old first-time visitor from Portugal. “It was a horrible start to our trip.” Thailand’s ability to attract tourists has defied the effects of a military coup, floods, political protests, a tsunami, airport blockades and the global financial crisis. In the past 15 years, more visitors have arrived from Europe, North America, Japan and Southeast Asia. But it is the explosion in Chinese visitors since the 2012 Chinese road movie Lost in Thailand that has changed the industry.
The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has tripled in the past five years, to 8.8 million in 2016. The sudden influx, boosted by packaged tours arranged in China, led to accusations of so-called zero-dollar tourism, where groups were shepherded through shopping and sightseeing itineraries that provided little benefit to the host country.