Thailand: Record arrival numbers bode well for tourism

With arrivals on the increase from both well-established and new markets, 2013 looks set to be another record-breaking year for Thailand’s tourism industry. However, while the sector’s size has earned the tourism industry a place on the global top-20 list, officials believe the country could still close the gap on its rivals by becoming more competitive in key areas.

Visitor numbers to the country hit 22.3m in 2012, up 15.98% on the previous year and breaking the 22m-barrier for the first time, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expects arrivals to rise to 24.5m in 2013, generating revenues of Bt1.149tn ($38.5bn).

Thailand attracted tourists from a broad range of countries last year, reflecting the nation’s efforts to tap into growing Asian markets. Visitor numbers totalled more than 2m from both Malaysia and China, while tourists from Korea, Japan, India and Russia each either reached or exceeded 1m. Some 6m arrivals entered Thailand from the other nine Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

Visitor numbers from India were up 11.03%, confirming TAT’s observation that Indian tourists have begun visiting destinations further afield, including Phuket and Chiang Mai. Thailand also held its own in key developed markets last year. Arrivals from the UK reached 870,000, a rise of 3%, while visitor numbers from Australia hit 931,000, up 12.1%. Visitors from the US totalled 1.10m, increasing by 13.4%.

The tourism and travel sector contributed Bt825.6bn ($27.99bn), or 7.3%, directly to Thailand’s GDP in 2012, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). Once direct, indirect and induced impact on the economy were taken into account, the sector’s value rose to Bt1.8967tn ($64.3bn), or 16.7% of GDP. Tourism and travel employed just over 2m people directly in 2012, while generating around 4.8m jobs on a broader level. The sector also proved to be a magnet for investment, attracting Bt227.5bn ($7.71bn) in 2012, or 6.8% of the national total for the year.

The WTTC expects tourism’s direct contribution to Thailand’s GDP to grow by an average 6.8% per year between 2012 and 2022, with its overall impact set to rise by 6.5% annually, placing the country 13th globally in terms of long-term growth prospects. Experts point out that most of the countries likely to outpace it are cultivating new tourism markets, while Thailand looks set to generate significant growth from an already sizeable industry base.

While Thailand has one of the world’s strongest tourism industries, a recent report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests the country could further strengthen its competitiveness. The forum’s tourism and travel competitiveness index (TTCI), published in March, ranked Thailand ninth in the Asia-Pacific region, one place behind Malaysia, and 43rd worldwide, down from 41 in 2011. While Singapore took top place on a regional level, Thailand outperformed Indonesia, which came 12th, and Vietnam, which ranked 16th. Outside South-east Asia, Thailand narrowly outscored a number of major tourist destinations, including Turkey and Mexico.

Some of the issues that likely impacted Thailand’s two-place drop, including recent political unrest and natural disasters, fell outside the tourism sector’s control, while others related to broader policy issues, such as patchy environmental protection, uncertain property rights, and red tape on business formation.

However, Thailand notched up high scores in key areas assessed by the TTCI, led by the government’s commitment to tourism, including financial resources, airport infrastructure, price competitiveness and Thais’ enthusiasm for the industry and visitors. Weight was also given to Thailand’s natural resources and places of interest, including its mountains, beaches, UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites and the city of Bangkok, which make it highly appealing to visitors.

Despite the positive performance overall, Thai tourism professionals would like to see a greater effort made to push the country further up the rankings and take on its top-performing neighbours. Mingkwan Metmowlee, president of the Association of Thai Tourism Marketing, told the local press that higher service standards gave Singapore, which ranked 10th worldwide, and Malaysia an edge on Thailand. He added that Singapore’s strong track record in security also provided it with an advantage.

While Thailand benefits from its reputation as a well-established destination for a diverse range of visitors, experts suggest that revenue increases will come from strengthening service, improving infrastructure and reducing red tape, rather than solely through an increase in arrival numbers. By also focusing on growing niches, such as medical and eco-tourism, Thailand could also boost the value-added in its tourism industry, generating more income per visitor.

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