Local tourism is reaping a windfall from the rising popularity of Naga Cave located at Phu Langka National Park in Bung Kan which has become a social media sensation as celebrities and locals flock to see the giant snake-shaped rock.
Hotel businesses, particularly in Bung Khong Long district where the cave is located, saw a surge in bookings as tourists have to spend at least one night to prepare for the four-hour round trip to the visit the cave.
Phumpan Boonmatun, president of the Tourism Council of Bung Kan and president of Bung Kan Tourism Association, said the average occupancy of 20 hotels with 200-300 rooms in the district stands at 90% as guests from various locations headed to Naga Cave.
Meanwhile, 58 hotels with 800-900 rooms in the province saw 70% occupancy, compared to less than 50% prior to the hype surrounding Naga Cave as hotels were then solely dependent on hosting groups from state agencies.
Mr Phumpan said Naga Cave gained public attention via social media in May 2020 when a team from the council visited the national park to clean up water tanks for monks and discovered the site.
The rock formations resemble a mythical creature widely known in the northeastern region as a naga, which is thought to bring about prosperity.
Stories of the visitors whose hopes had been fulfilled after making the trip led more people to visit the attraction.
As the policy of the national park allows just 500 tourists per day, tourists are required to pre-book via the QueQ application.
Mr Phumpan said reservations for the next 60 days had been fully booked in an instant.
In light of this, most visitors prefer to buy a tour package that can guarantee their entry to the site which has been able to help tour operators struggling from the tourism meltdown amid the pandemic to get their livelihoods back.
The council submitted a letter to the governor of Bung Kan last November in an effort to increase the daily quota to 1,000 tourists, extend the advanced booking period to one year and receive 150 walk-in guests in order to generate more tourism opportunities.
Even though the cave must temporarily close during the rainy season in June and July, hoteliers can maintain occupancy at 60% as the province has gained greater recognition for other tourism sites in close vicinity such as Kham Somboon Beach and Koh Don Pho.
Mr Phumpan said Naga Cave is expected to be a magnet over the long term as it can attract devotees, tourists interested in nature or hiking, along with those seeking to participate in meditation studies from the guidance of well-known monks.
"Bung Kan has a growing potential from cross-border trade and tourism, especially when the construction of the fifth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge is completed in 2023, followed by Bung Kan airport in 2028," Mr Phumpan said.
Thanaporn Pulperm, director of the Udon Thani office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said the office plans to promote and connect three provinces to Naga Cave routes with tour packages to capitalise on the hype surrounding spiritual tourism.
Apart from Naga Cave, Wat Kham Cha Not in Udon Thani and the twin naga statues in Nong Khai are among other popular nearby destinations among local tourists.
The average occupancy rate in the three provinces exceeded 70% in January thanks to the resumption of meetings and seminars.
Ms Thanaporn said TAT offices in the northeast are working with Thai Smile to offer packages in each province.
The agency has also introduced a new campaign related to Chinese zodiac signs which heavily influence the beliefs of Thai-Chinese tourists.
Thapanee Kiatphaibool, TAT deputy governor for domestic marketing, said a new website provides the Chinese horoscope for this year and recommends spiritual tourism sites to ward off bad luck based on each person's Chinese zodiac sign, date and time of birth.
Tourists will receive recommendations for restaurants or national parks that can be found during their trips as well as relevant tour packages.
Ms Thapanee said spiritual tourism has been promoted since last year under the "WAT: Worship, Activities and Tradition" campaign in order to serve growing needs among people who want moral support for better lives amid a period of uncertainty.