Tourism rises to post-pandemic challenge

Tourism rises to post-pandemic challenge

The country will need to respond to higher expectations among visitors as it strives to revive tourism

Guests at the Chiva-Som wellness resort in Hua Hin enjoy a run along the beach.
Guests at the Chiva-Som wellness resort in Hua Hin enjoy a run along the beach.

The tourism industry, which previously contributed 18-20% of GDP during the few years prior to the pandemic, is poised to face a tremendous challenge when the country reopens its borders without quarantine from November with a new target.

The government is attempting to pivot from mass tourism by gaining 50% of 2019's revenue in 2022 but with four times fewer tourists compared with the 40 million arrivals recorded in 2019.

The country might have some established products like medical and wellness tourism which are regarded as one of the key pillars of quality tourism, but in the view of a veteran who has run a wellness business for over 10 years, the country may need a lot more efforts and has a long way to go before achieving this target.

"It's possible for us to turn to 'high value-low impact tourism' by replacing 40 million tourists with 11.58 million tourists but still maintaining 50% of pre-Covid revenue. Even though this path will not be easy, this is the right direction for our natural resources that were overly exploited in the past by an influx of tourists," said Chiva-Som International Health Resort chairman and chief executive, Krip Rojanastien.

He said resource consumption, such as electricity, water and waste management, for each tourist could cost around 358 baht per day regardless of how much they spend in the country.

In the past, Thailand was mainly driven by mass tourism which meant there were high rates of resource consumption against a lower level of revenue contribution.

He said this kind of situation should never be repeated once international tourism resumes.

"We have quite a strong reputation for hospitality and both natural and cultural resources to attract the quality market. But these components are not enough as travellers will come with higher expectations on customer journeys from the first step at the airport to well-organised public infrastructure, cleanliness of cities and safe environments. These are the issues we have to tackle before pursuing this goal," he said.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), to maximise tourism revenue with a more limited headcount, spending per head should increase by 66%, from 49,700 baht per trip to 82,576 baht.

As an operator of a wellness resort that saw guests spending over 210,000 baht on average for a seven-day package, Mr Krip said there is pent-up demand awaiting the country's reopening and they are willing to spend on high quality products.

But to build a strong foundation for the wellness industry, luxury accommodations or well-crafted health packages alone are not enough.

Mr Krip pointed out that wellness development still needs a support from the government as seen with the few countries where this kind of service is not developed just for foreigners, but should also benefit local residents and communities.

WELLNESS HUB

By November, Chiva-Som will expand its brand and management overseas for the first time as it has partnered with a sovereign wealth fund in Qatar to develop Zulal Wellness Resort by Chiva-Som spanning over 180 rai in the north within a 1.5-hour drive from Doha.

The largest wellness resort in the country is part of the Qatari government's plan to improve national public health and develop Qatar as a world-class wellness destination for global travellers, particularly those from European countries which take only five hours to reach the country by air.

Mr Krip said Chiva-Som will use its expertise to help deliver holistic health services which highlight Traditional Arabic and Islamic Medicine (TAIM).

He said TAIM and other traditional medicines in Asia, including Thailand, mostly share the same origins which have made Thai hospitality compatible for services everywhere in the world.

"Thai therapists have the highest pay rate and are the most wanted staff globally. We had to send our staff from Thailand to train local staff in Qatar for the upcoming project," said Mr Krip.

He said this state-owned project is also giving an idea of how the government can help leverage indigenous traditions to international markets, create awareness and knowledge about healthcare among local residents, particularly young people, to start looking after their health from an early age.

"Qatar will be the host country for FIFA World Cup 2022 which is another big leap for sport development after it invested intensively in medical services. The next big step is wellness development that will have this project as a milestone," he said.

Mr Krip said Thailand should also adopt this approach when rolling out high-value tourism by adding health and wellness studies to school curricula to prepare human resources in these fields, supporting traditional healthcare to be a part of key quality products, and conducting research and development to provide new and comprehensive treatments for those who have been physically and mentally exhausted by the years-long pandemic.

HIGH TIDE

Krod Rojanastien, president of the Thai Spa Association and head of the Hua Hin Recharge programme -- the reopening scheme for inoculated tourists in Prachuap Khiri Khan, said the government should also capitalise on the rising wellness economy globally during the pandemic as this segment was unfazed by the pandemic with double-digit growth in the past five years.

As Hua Hin is a renowned wellness retreat destination with a number of Scandinavian villages and villas for senior living that attracted tourists from the UK and Germany prior to the pandemic. When the province reopens from November, those familiar guests have already expressed an intention to visit the area again after waiting for almost two years.

"Tourism will change as people tend to look for travel experiences that provide safety, hygiene, rich nature and sustainability, particularly Generation X and Generation Y which are mature markets who are ready to explore new quality products," said Mr Krod.

These new requirements will also match Hua Hin which has a slow pace of life as the selling point.

He said even Chinese travellers might not come back as big tour groups as young travellers, especially well-educated tourists, will seek more individual trips that are more meaningful than any leisure trip.

"We have Krailart Niwate Mangrove Ecosystem Preservation & Science Education Centre with which Chiva-Som has partnered with local communities to turn wasteland into blue zone by planting over 5,000 mangroves in the past 10 years," he said.

"This preserved site gained a lot of attention from international guests who want to learn more about ecology and local communities. This could illustrate why environmental development is also important if we want to turn to high-value tourism."

Mr Krod said Thailand should push forward the reopening plan without mandatory quarantine as planned on Nov 1.

"We cannot take any steps backwards, or else we might fall behind other countries that have started to ease travel restrictions for international tourists," said Mr Krod.

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