Religion emerges as major visitor draw card
The rising world trend of religious tourism has reached Southeast Asia with Thailand emerging as the nucleus for Buddhism.
Interest has spread from standard temple tours to meditation courses and retreats both in Bangkok – the home of the World Fellowship of Buddhists – and rural locales.
Classes covering a range of techniques and stays in sanctuaries can run from 10 days to a month.
Close to 1,000 foreign visitors a year take courses at Wat Mahathat's International Buddhist Meditation Centre (IBMC), Bangkok's primary centre for meditation studies, and the number continues to grow.
Canada, Germany, the UK and the US comprise more than half its international student body, which includes learners from 45 different countries.
Outside Bangkok, Buddhamonthon (Buddhist town) occupies 2,500 rai in Nakhon Pathom, and is one of the Kingdom's most revered religious sites.
It offers vipassana (insight meditation) training the first weekend of the month.
Also teaching vipassana to foreign followers is Wat Suan Mokkh in Surat Thani, which houses the International Dhamma Hermitage.
Founded by the late Buddhadasa Bikkhu, the temple offers 10- day silent retreats.
In Ratchaburi, Wat Dhammakaya School of Buddhist Doctrine holds meditation study courses for lay persons and is endorsed by the Buddhist Ecclesiastical Council.
Forest retreats are also becoming popular on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail.
Wat Sunandavanaram in Kanchanaburi welcomes 5,000 visitors per year for Dhamma and Buddhist meditation.
The temple sits on 1,000 rai at the base of Khao Ngu peak and Khao Mon, and offers accommodation for 150 persons.
HOME STAY AND AGRI-TOURISM
Traditional Thai way of life attracts Asian travellers
Home stays and its more hands-on cousin, agritourism, have been gaining momentum in recent years due to increasing demand from visitors to Thailand for an experience that combines culture with learning.
The greatest levels of interest in this niche sector are coming from Asian markets where industry experts say greater cultural familiarity with the Thai way of life is breeding demand.
"The target in my eyes is the Asian market, from the Chinese to the Koreans.
Home stays are much bigger for Asians than Europeans," said leading travel and tourism consultancy, The Winning Edge, chief executive officer Bert van Walbeek.
"The reason is that there is a big difference between European and Thai culture.
Very few Europeans can do it because of the cultural differences, but with the Taiwanese and Koreans there is potential.
These cultures are starting to exchange information and learn from one another.
" Mr van Walbeek suggested that the intra- Asian market should be much more aggressively targeted for this type of tourism activity.
Over 50 villages have been certified by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to ensure they meet a high level of standards, with criteria covering eight areas, from accommodation to marketing.
Mr van Walbeek said destinations in the north are starting to show promise for home stays and agri-tourism.
"Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hon Son are becoming more popular as there is more to see and do.
" He added that the many ethnic minorities also make the north more attractive.
Baby boomers create growing grey market
The number of baby boomers staying in Thailand longer than 30 days has been annually climbing at over 7% in recent years, and accounts for close to 5% of total visitor arrivals, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The top three markets – Germany, the UK and the US – combine for close to half the total, with Sweden also a major contributor.
Thailand has immigration procedures and visa regulations aimed at long-stay visitors over 50 years of age, but complicated rules and regulations are factors that are hindering faster growth of this niche.
Market demand remains strong as Thailand is eyed as a perfect complement for many people looking to get away from cold winters and enjoy the extra value afforded to their retirement income which goes so much further in the Kingdom than it does back at home.
A combination of these two drivers is particularly attractive to older people with physical aliments which are soothed in a warm climate and who can also get inexpensive, high-quality medical care in Thailand.
The trend for retirees to settle in Thailand, Europeans in particular, is expected to grow as Europeans enjoy growing old in tourist hubs, with evidence of a Dutch community already emerging in Hua Hin, and a community of Scandinavians near Sattahip.
ULTRA SIX STAR
Ultra luxury finds a home in Thailand While Thailand
has always catered to most levels of travellers' budgets adequately, it has never been seen in the league of a Monaco or Cannes for high-end luxury.
This is changing.
After years of international and local investment in high-quality accommodation and residential villas along Thailand's popular costal areas, the country now boasts tourism products that can command 40,000 baht and more a night.
This is a market Thailand should chase, although current regulations for private aircraft – the plaything of the mega rich – landing in the Kingdom remain somewhat murky.
If these regulations did become a lot clearer, then more very affluent travellers may consider making the effort to fly to Bangkok and Thailand's other airports.
Maybe this is a sector those running Don Mueang could do more to cater to.
Apart from the travelling to Thailand and the unrivalled villa-style accommodation, those with money to burn have many other ways to enjoy their stay once in Thailand and they are happy to pay for it.
Like them or loathe them, designer-shop dominated shopping malls will continue to thrive in Thailand.
Helicopter charter companies are doing their best to remain viable and offer airport-toresort transfers – especially in the Andaman coast area.
With the pool of wealthy and demanding tourists expanding, there is definitely a market for this type of ultra high-end tourism.
Phuket has pockets of this, but where are the companies in Thailand making the effort to cater to this sector?
THAI ART GALLERIES
Thai contemporary art taps Asian art boom
Thailand's contemporary art scene is taking off, with scores of galleries cropping up in Bangkok and around the Kingdom attracting more notice from foreign aficionados.
An international trend towards eastern art and the recent hype in Chinese and Indian art has turned a lot of attention to Thai artists, according to local art critic and international lecturer professor Thanom Chapakdee.
Accolades are following and many artists are being invited to participate in international shows and cultural exchange programmes.
Leading the vanguard of galleries to promote Thai contemporary art is 100 Tonson Gallery, which represents many of the country's leading contemporary artists including Chatchai Puipia, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Porntaweesak Rimsakul, Yuree Kensaku and Pichaya Khunnawat.
Just this year alone, this group has participated in seven international shows, four in Japanese museums, with one each in Istanbul, Karlsruhe (Germany) and Shanghai at Asia's top art fair, SHContemporary, organised by the former director of ArtBasel.
Mr Thanom said: "Thailand's history of independence has made their works natural and not influenced deeply by certain styles. That way they are unique.
" Another reason behind the growing popularity of contemporary Thai art is price.
"Tourists or foreign visitors know that the relative value of artwork by Thai artists is still cheaper and very interesting, compared to those available overseas," Mr Thanom said.