Changing Thailand's cheap and cheerful image

Thanks to our selection of affordable vacations, the strong Chinese economy and the box office hit Lost In Thailand, which indirectly promoted Chiang Mai and Thai culture, the number of visitors from China is expected to pass the 3 million mark this year. It is tipped to grow 12% from the 2.8 million people who visited last year.

Qin Yusen, the Cultural Counsellor of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, cited the convenience of travelling here as well as the well-known beauty of the country among the reasons why Chinese people love to visit the Kingdom. There are many direct flights from China's major cities to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, while travelling around the Land of Smiles is also easy.

"First-time Chinese travellers always head to Bangkok and Pattaya as well as nearby small islands. More seasoned visitors will go further afield to Phuket, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai," he said. "They love to come back because of Thai hospitality, delicious food and shopping as many things here are not expensive."

As a result, the number of visitors from the Middle Kingdom has kept increasing over the past couple of years. There were 1 million visitors in 2010, jumping 70% to 1.7 million in 2011. Then we saw a 65% growth to 2.8 million last year. From Saturday to Feb 14, about 400 charter flights from China will bring in almost 77,000 tourists who will spend their long Chinese New Year holiday here. Qin reckons that the total number of Chinese travellers this year might even reach 4 million.

Thailand is associated with low prices _ indeed many things here are amazingly cheap. For example, you can get rice with an omelette for 15 baht, while a bowl of noodles can be had for 35 baht. You can spend less than 100 baht a day on three meals _ while the same amount of money can only buy one meal in Beijing, two in Manila or Jakarta, and two-and-a-half in Luang Prabang.

However, being cheap does not please everyone.

Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) CEO Martin Craigs said: "Thailand should maintain high quality and should not be too cheap."

He cited hotel prices as a prime example. "Hotel rates are very low here in relation to the quality of their service and facilities," he said.

Five-star hotels in the UK are two or three times more expensive than their Thai counterparts and you will not get the same kind of service, he observed.

Those hotel rates should be raised. The perception should also be changed. Thailand should focus more on "quality travellers" such as long-haul travellers because they spend more and stay longer, Craigs said.

"One British visitor might spend the same amount as four Chinese visitors," he said.

He added that in order to encourage more visitors from the UK, the Air Passenger Duty (APD) charged on passengers flying from UK airports needs to be overhauled. But that's another story.

Things are changing, however. High spenders are not only from Europe.

We are seeing more and more big spenders from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan who stay in five-star hotels and who travel in smaller groups. Tourists from the Middle East are another burgeoning market, as are Indian bridal couples who like to hold week-long wedding ceremonies in Thailand.

"We do not promote our country as a 'cheap destination', rather we are good value for money," said the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Suraphon Svetasreni.

"The word 'cheap' can mean poor quality, but we are not. We also offer good quality. For example, our seafood is fresh, tasty and inexpensive.

"Our brand-name products are good quality and are lower priced than those offered in China. It is better to say that we are not costly."

However, he accepted that many travellers still perceive Thailand first and foremost as a cheap destination.

The TAT has worked hard to change that image, gearing its policy towards high-income travellers, meaning those who earn more than US$60,000 (1.8 million baht) a year, Suraphon said.

"Our tourism revenue target for 2015 is 2 trillion baht," he said. "This can be achieved not only by increasing the quantity of travellers, but also boosting the quality of tourists. We intend to attract those with high purchasing power _ people who want to have luxury holidays and quality products and services to match their taste.

"We have many choices of packages to cater to their specific needs such as spas, golf, cruises, health, weddings and Mice [meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions]. We will also see more upmarket facilities like pool villas and luxury malls to serve high spenders in many provinces."

Changing perceptions will take time, but whether they are high-income travellers or backpackers, the most important thing is that our country is a safe place to travel.

Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe
Position: Travel Reporter