Tourism is a major economic contributor to the Kingdom of Thailand. Estimates of tourism receipts directly contributing to the Thai GDP of 12 trillion baht range from 9 percent (one trillion baht) (2013) to 17.7 percent (2.53 trillion baht) in 2016. When including indirect travel and tourism receipts, the 2014 total is estimated to have accounted for 19.3 percent (2.3 trillion baht) of Thailand's GDP.:1 The global average for tourism revenue is 9 percent of GDP.
Among the reasons for the increase in tourism in the 1960s were the stable political atmosphere and the development of Bangkok as a crossroads of international air transport. The hotel industry and retail industry both expanded rapidly due to tourist demand. It was boosted by the presence of US GIs who started to arrive in the 1960s for rest and recuperation (R&R) during the Vietnam War. Concomitantly, international mass tourism sharply increased during the same period due to the rising standard of living, more people acquiring more free time, and improvements in technology making it possible to travel further, faster, cheaper and in greater numbers, epitomised by the Boeing 747 which first flew commercially in 1970. Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalise on this then-new trend.
Tourist numbers have grown from 336,000 foreign visitors and 54,000 GIs on R&R in 1967 to 32.59 million foreign guests visiting Thailand in 2016. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) claims that the tourist industry earned 2.52 trillion baht (US$71.4 billion) in 2016, up 11 percent from 2015. TAT officials said their revenue estimates, for foreign and domestic tourists combined, show that tourism revenue for all of 2017 may surpass earlier forecasts of 2.77 trillion baht (US$78.5 billion).
In 2015, 6.7 million persons arrived from ASEAN countries and the number is expected to grow to 8.3 million in 2016, generating 245 billion baht. The largest numbers of Western tourists came from Russia (6.5 percent), the UK (3.7 percent), Australia (3.4 percent) and the US (3.1 percent). Around 55 percent of Thailand's tourists are return visitors. The peak period is during the Christmas and New Year holidays when Western tourists flee cold conditions at home.
In 2014, 4.6 million Chinese visitors travelled to Thailand. In 2015, Chinese tourists numbered 7.9 million or 27 percent of all international tourist arrivals, 29.8 million; 8.75 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2016. Thailand relies heavily on Chinese tourists to meet its tourism revenue target of 2.2 trillion baht in 2015 and 2.3 trillion in 2016.
Chinese visitors now account for 27 percent of all foreign travellers to Thailand. It is estimated that the average Chinese tourist remains in the country for one week and spends 30,000–40,000 baht (US$1,000–1,300) per person, per trip. The average Chinese tourist spends 6,400 baht (US$180) per day—more than the average visitor's 5,690 baht (US$160). According to Thailand's Tourism Authority, the number of Chinese tourists rose by 93 percent in the first quarter of 2013, an increase that was attributed to the popularity of the Chinese film Lost in Thailand that was filmed in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Chinese media outlets have claimed that Thailand superseded Hong Kong as the top destination for Chinese travellers during the 2013 May Day holiday. The huge influx of Chinese tourists has not been without its downside. Locals have complained that many Chinese visitors are culturally insensitive and boorish. This has led the Thai government to publish a Mandarin language "etiquette manual" for distribution to Chinese tourists.
In 2015, Thailand hosted 1.43 million Japanese travellers, up 4.1 percent from 2015, generating 61.4 billion baht, up 6.3 percent. In 2016, Thailand expects 1.7 million Japanese tourists, generating 66.2 billion baht in revenue.
To accommodate foreign visitors, the Thai government established a separate tourism police force with offices in the major tourist areas and its own central emergency telephone number.
Thailand's tourism has faced increased competition since Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam opened up to international tourism in the 1980s and 1990s. Destinations like Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang and Halong Bay now rival Thailand's former monopoly in the Indochina region. To counter this, Thailand is targeting niche markets such as golf holidays, holidays combined with medical treatment or visits to military installations. Thailand has also plans to become the hub of Buddhist tourism in the region.
In the MasterCard 2014 and 2015 Global Destination Cities Index, Bangkok ranked the second of the world's top-20 most-visited cities, trailing only London. The U.S. News' 2017 Best Countries report ranked Thailand at 4th globally for adventure value and 7th for cultural heritage.
The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015 published by the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand 35 of 141 nations. Among the metrics used to arrive at the rankings, Thailand scored high on "Natural Resources" (16 of 141 nations) and "Tourist Service Infrastructure" (21 of 141), but low on "Environmental Sustainability" (116 of 141) and "Safety and Security" (132 of 141).
In a list released by Instagram that identified the ten most photographed locations worldwide in 2012, Suvarnabhumi Airport and Siam Paragon shopping mall were ranked number one and two respectively, more popular than New York City's Times Square or Paris's Eiffel Tower.
At the commencement of 2014, the Thai tourist industry suffered due to the political turmoil that erupted in October 2013. A shutdown of Bangkok's governmental offices on 13 January 2014 by anti-government protesters, prompted some tourists to avoid the Thai capital. TAT forecasted that arrival numbers might drop by around five percent in the first quarter of 2014, with the total number of arrivals down by 260,000 from the original projection of 29.86 million. Tourism revenue is also expected to drop slightly from 1.44 trillion.
Tourist arrivals in 2014 totalled 24.7 million, a drop of 6.6 percent from 2013. Revenues derived from tourism amounted to 1.13 trillion baht, down 5.8 percent from the previous year. Kobkarn Wattanavarangkul, Thailand's Minister of Tourism and Sports, attributed the decline to the political crisis in the first-half of 2014 which dissuaded many potential visitors from visiting Thailand. Tourism officials also pointed to the dramatic fall in the value of the Russian ruble which has damaged the economies of popular Russian destinations such as Phuket and Pattaya.
At the beginning of April 2015, Thailand ended martial law, to be replaced by Article 44 of the provisional constitution, granting unrestricted powers to the prime minister. The words "martial law" were toxic to foreign democracies, but, in terms of tourism, even more toxic to foreign travel insurance providers, who decline to provide insurance to those visiting nations under martial law. The tourism industry rebounded swiftly after the lifting of martial law. Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula said that the arrival of high-spending tourists from Europe and the US is expected to increase.
In order to reignite growth in Thailand's tourist industry, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has embarked on a new campaign for 2015 entitled "2015: Discover Thainess". TAT Governor Thawatchai Arunyik said the campaign will incorporate the "twelve values" that Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants all Thais to practice. TAT officials foresee a large increase in tourist numbers due to the "Discover Thainess" campaign. Ms Somrudi Chanchai, Director of the TAT Northeastern Office, has forecasted that tourists to her Isan region will increase by 27.9 million [sic] visitors, generating 65 billion baht in revenue.
Thailand's popularity as a tourist destination owes a great deal to its benign climate. Thailand predominantly has a tropical wet and dry or savannah climate while the south and the eastern tip of the east have a tropical monsoon climate.
Most of Thailand has three seasons:
Deeper south on the Kra Isthmus with its tropical monsoon climate, daytime temperatures year-round tend to hover around 31 Celsius with only a marked increase in rainfall during the monsoons. The west coast is affected by monsoons from May to October, the southeast coast of the isthmus is affected from October to January.
In their justifications for constructing a new coal-fired power plant in Krabi Province (2015), the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) presumes that by 2032 Thailand will receive more than 100 million tourists a year, 40 percent of them visiting Phuket and neighbouring areas such as Krabi. On average, the power consumption of a tourist is four times higher than that of a local resident.
In 2015 some segments of Thailand's hospitality industry enjoyed their best year in over two decades, according to research firm STR Global. Thailand closed the year with an overall hotel occupancy of 73.4 percent, an increase of 13.6 percent over 2014, as arrivals rose to near the 30 million mark, driven by demand from the Chinese market. December 2015 was a particularly strong month as occupancy levels reached 77.4 percent, the highest level since 1995.
Despite the increasing number of tourist arrivals, some businesses catering to the tourist trade report declining numbers. Mr Sompoch Sukkaew, chief legal counsel of the Patong Entertainment Business Association (PEBA) in Phuket, said in January 2016 that entertainment businesses are suffering. "Over the past three years, most bars were averaging about B90,000 revenue per day at this time of year,...now they're making just B40,000. Small bars...used to average B40,000 to B50,000 a day, now they're down to just B10,000 per day....PEBA members generated about B1.5 million per day during the peak season. Now it's down to about B540,000 per day." PEBA members number 500 in Patong, with about 200 businesses in the Bangla Road entertainment area. PEBA President Weerawit Kuresombat attributed the decline to the rise in Chinese tourism. "...most of them [Chinese tourists] come on complete tour packages....This means they spend very little on extras....They rarely venture out for the nightlife or even visit independent restaurants. They just don't spend much", he said.
The Thai government expects revenue from foreign tourists to increase by 8.5 percent to 1.78 trillion baht (US$49.8 billion) in 2017. Deputy Prime Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn attributed the increase to the improving outlook for global tourism as well as Thailand's investments in infrastructure. In 2016, Thailand had 32.6 million visitors, a rise of nearly nine percent from 2015. Thanasak expects daily tourist spending to increase to 5,200 baht per person in 2017, up from 5,100 baht in 2016. Local tourists are expected to contribute an additional 950 billion baht in tourism revenues in 2017.
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Of the 26.74 million visitors recorded by TAT in 2013, 11.23 million were men suspected by NGOs to have come to Thailand explicitly to engage in prostitution. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, named Thailand's first female tourism minister in 2014, has pledged to eradicate Thailand's sex industry. "We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone," Ms Kobkarn told Reuters. "Tourists don't come to Thailand for [sex]. They come here for our beautiful culture." She has named Pattaya, with its thousands of bars, brothels, and massage parlours, her "pilot project" in the cleanup campaign. Kobkarn was replaced as tourism minister in November 2017.
On 21 February 2017, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha announced that he will order the police to dismantle Pattaya's sex industry. "I don't support prostitution", said Prayut.
The governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said the agency aims to increase income from the gastronomy business from 20 percent of total tourism income forecasted for 2017 to 25 percent in 2018. In 2017, TAT aims for 2.77 trillion baht in tourism revenue, 20 percent of which is projected to come from gastronomy. In 2018, tourism revenue is expected to climb to three trillion baht, with gastronomy accounting for 750 billion baht.
TAT, in early-2017, approved a budget of 144 million baht to commission the Michelin Guide to rate restaurants in Thailand for the five-year period 2017–2021. The first guide, Michelin Guide to Bangkok, was released on 6 December 2017. It bestowed Michelin stars on 17 Bangkok restaurants, ten of which do not serve Thai food. Guides to other cities will follow.
In 2016, gastronomy was Thailand's fourth-largest tranche (20 percent) of tourism income, after accommodation (29 percent), transport (27 percent), and shopping and souvenirs (24 percent). TAT estimates that Chinese tourists spent 83.3 billion baht on food in Thailand in 2016, followed by Russians at 20.8 billion baht, Britons at 18.4 billion baht, Malaysians at 16.1 billion baht, and Americans at 13.9 billion baht.
Elephant trekking has been an attraction for tourists in Thailand for decades. Ever since logging in Thailand was banned in 1989, elephants were brought into camps to put on shows for tourists and to give them rides. The Asian elephant is the main species found in elephant camps, being native to Thailand and found in the wild there. Despite this elephant being classified as endangered since 1986, it continues to be an attraction for tourists.
In the early-1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand. The majority of these elephants worked in the logging industry, dragging tree trunks. In 1989 the government banned logging in protected areas due to rampant deforestation—only around 30 percent of Thailand's forest remained. Many mahouts were then unable to care for their elephants and left them in the wild. In the five years after the logging ban, tourism in Thailand rose by 28 percent. Elephants came back into demand and those with low economic value were placed into camps. The tourism boom gave elephants a place to work and be cared for. It increased their economic value. Today there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand.
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Among animal rights groups there has been a growing concern over elephant welfare. Elephants in Thailand have fewer health problems than those in circuses, but often their health is not robust. Overall their welfare and treatment depends on how much money their mahouts make. Elephants in larger camps have been observed in better health that those in smaller camps. Baby elephants are highly valued as they are very popular among tourists. Many mahouts thus mate their female elephants. Unfortunately, natural insemination and birthing is time consuming and expensive. An easy way around this is the illegal capture of baby elephants from wild herds. To be able to take a baby elephant from the herd, its mother needs to be killed as she will try to protect the infant. Baby elephants are then placed in artificial herds to please tourists. Elephants in these herds are often all from different provinces.
Elephants can sustain injuries related to giving rides, or going on treks, with tourists. The elephant's spine is curved and not optimised to carry heavy loads. While they are able to carry up to 300 kilograms, they can only carry a maximum of 200 kilograms comfortably. When tourists ride two at a time they can weigh over that amount. The chairs or benches often used for the tourists to sit on upon the elephant can cause abrasions and chafing on the elephant's back, sides, and torso. During treks mahouts control the elephants with hooks and can use excessive force, resulting in puncture wounds.
The law pertaining to domesticated elephants is the Beast of Burden Act 2482 B.E. (1939). This act classifies elephants as draught animals along with horses, donkeys, and oxen. It allows domesticated elephants to be treated as private property. This act has no additional measures for animal welfare protection. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, B.E. 2535 (1992) protects wild elephants, but excludes registered draught animals.
Common training practices include being chained, cut, stabbed, burned and hit to varying degrees. Inexperienced mahouts are more likely to further harm their elephants and beat them into submission. Hooks are the common tool used to discipline and guide an elephant during treks.
Medical tourism is a large and growing sector within Thailand's extensive tourism and healthcare industries. The country is attractive to potential medical tourists and international patients for a number of important reasons: Thailand was the first Asian country to achieve Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation in 2002. As of April 2014, 35 hospitals were JCI-accredited.; experienced, often Western-trained, medical professionals; the latest medical technology; and significantly lower costs of treatment when compared to corresponding procedures in the West. Taken together, all these factors—plus the country’s reputation as a popular tourist destination—have made Thailand one of the world's most popular medical tourism destinations.
Foreigners seeking treatment for everything from open-heart surgery to gender reassignment have made Thailand's private hospitals the world's number one destination for medical tourism, attracting an estimated 2.81 million patients in 2015, up 10.2 percent. In 2013, medical tourists pumped as much as US$4.7 billion into the Thai economy, according to government statistics.
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