Cashing in on superstition
Thais are increasingly turning to the lucrative business of faith products
published : 13 Mar 2023 at 04:01
newspaper section: Business
writer: Pitsinee Jitpleecheep
In an uncertain world, people become anxious or worried for various reasons, including emerging diseases and epidemics, high living costs, war and job instability.
Adjusting personal behaviour or business strategy seems an inadequate response for some people, leading to superstition playing a prominent role in the lives of Thai Buddhists.
In the wake of the pandemic, many people turned to good luck charms, superstitious objects and occult rites, known as mutelu, by visiting revered places or relying on talismans.
Products related to faith, available in famous temples, retail shops and online channels, are in high demand as people believe they can fix their problems.
Although the pandemic eased and most businesses returned to normal operating conditions, many corporations, organisations and individuals still use faith practices to sustain their good luck.
Some people believe faith is an essential tool to drive long-term tourism operations in each province.
People offer flowers for worship at a Buddhist temple.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has been promoting mutelu tourism in Udon Thani, Bueng Kan and Nong Khai provinces in collaboration with airlines and tour agents since 2020, drawing many visitors to the areas and encouraging longer stays.
The scheme includes places where tourists can pay their respects day and night, and the TAT expects to attract more domestic and foreign tourists.
"We are extending this scheme by leveraging the market opportunity presented by foreign tourists, particularly those from China who share similar beliefs with Thais. We expect a 60% increase in the number of tourists, both foreign and domestic, visiting Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Bueng Kan provinces this year," said Thanaporn Pulperm, director of the TAT's Udon Thani office.
"In addition to welcoming Thais, TAT Udon Thani will also welcome the first Chinese tour agents to participate in its faith tourism programme on March 16, with two more trips scheduled for next month."
Ms Thanaporn said since the inception of the faith tourism programme in 2020, the TAT has attracted more visitors to the three provinces. As a result, the authority intends to extend the programme to encourage more spending and longer stays.
Boonying Kongarchapatara, chair of the marketing programme at the College of Management at Mahidol University, said a recent university study titled "Marketing in the Uncertain World" revealed that many Thais still rely on superstitions and trust influencers, interacting with online communities to alleviate their loneliness.
To address this trend, the university's marketing research team created "Certain Strategy", a crucial communication marketing strategy that enables businesses to respond to the needs of consumers and target them effectively.
Mr Boonying said faith plays a significant role in the lives of Thais, including most groups. Therefore, one effective way to reach consumers is to engage with faith content.
Given the current uncertainties, all generations have found ways to cope with their stress, he said.
Ms Thanaporn says faith tourism has attracted more tourists to Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Bueng Kan provinces since the programme's inception in 2020.
According to Commerce Ministry data, the business of belief-based activities is rising as people believe in mystical arts and worship sacred objects, amulets, charms and fortune-enhancing practices. This has led to more businesses being established that specialise in these areas, according to the ministry.
Deputy Commerce Minister Sinit Lertkrai said a recent survey by the Business Development Department found the registration of legal entities for belief-based activities increased every year from 2019-21.
People utilise belief-based practices to enhance their work, financial situation, fortune, love and luck. There are also growing concerns about uncertain economic conditions, new diseases and environmental issues, he said.
These factors created an opportunity for entrepreneurs to start businesses to leverage various beliefs, generating income, Mr Sinit said.
In 2019, there were 11 new registrations of belief-based businesses with registered capital of 7.59 million baht. In 2020, new registrations rose to 20 with registered capital of 81.8 million baht.
The next year there were 24 new businesses with registered capital of 15.1 million baht.
In 2020, companies engaged in belief-based activities generated total revenue of 28.8 million baht, up 18.5% year-on-year, with total assets of 47.3 million, according to ministry data.
In 2021, total revenue for this segment was 61.3 million baht, up 113%, with total assets worth 71.1 million, an increase of 50.2%.
These figures indicate investments expanded to support growth after the pandemic subsided, he said.
Most of the investors in such businesses are Thai, with a total investment value of 98.6 million baht, accounting for 96.6% of the total, according to ministry data.
Chinese investors contributed 2.45 million baht, accounting for 2.40%, while French investors allotted 980,000 baht, accounting for 0.96%.
Mr Boonying says faith plays a significant role in the lives of most Thais.
BY THE NUMBERS
"Despite the growing trend of businesses promoting marketing activities related to beliefs, we found there are still relatively few registered corporations in this sector compared with the total number of operators in the belief market," said Mr Sinit.
"A majority of operators are individual entities. We invite operators who want to establish a trustworthy business or expand their services to consider registering as a corporation, which can greatly enhance their credibility and potential for growth."
Some 93 businesses in Thailand operate in the belief-based activity sector, which is 0.01% of the total operating enterprises as of Jan 31, 2023.
The total value of their capital is 102 million baht, only 0.0005% of the capital of all Thai enterprises.
Most operators in this sector are small businesses in Bangkok, comprising 46 companies with registered capital of 60.3 million baht, which is 59.2% of the total registered capital for the sector, according to ministry data.
The central region has 22 enterprises with registered capital of 17.4 million baht; the eastern region six enterprises with capital of 5.90 million; the Northeast six enterprises with capital of 5.55 million; and the northern region five enterprises with capital of 1.29 million.
The southern region has 55 enterprises with registered capital of 9.40 million baht, while the western region has three enterprises with capital of 2.10 million.
The College of Management at Mahidol University reported the top five Thai superstitious beliefs are: fortune-telling (daily, monthly, weekly), astrology, palm reading, Tarot cards; sacred amulets; lucky colours; lucky numbers; and supernatural phenomena.
The main ways of accessing superstitious information and content are social media and websites, followed by consultations with so-called experts in the respective fields, according to the college.
People travel to pay respects at Wat Chedi Ai Khai in Nakhon Si Thammarat province. Nutthawat Wicheanbut
Worawoot Ounjai, deputy leader of the Chart Pattana Kla Party, said the party pledges to promote Thai spiritual tourism in various provinces as a means to improve the economy.
The former president of the Thai Retailers Association cited the success of the spiritual tourism model in Chachoengsao, where a large reclining statue of Lord Ganesha at Wat Saman Rattanaram attracts a significant number of tourists each year.
This attraction resulted in a positive impact for businesses in the area, including food and beverage, car rentals, tours, hotels, shopping, and small and medium-sized enterprises, with an expected circulation of 3 billion baht in the province, he said.
Another example is Wat Chedi Ai Khai, a temple known for its religious significance, which has in the past attracted huge numbers of daily visitors.
"The party aims to promote Thai spiritual tourism in every province, believing it will serve as a strategy to stimulate local economies," said Mr Worawoot.
"Many provinces have stories that can be developed for spiritual tourism. It is not simply about superstition, but rather a story that resonates with people's psychology and is tangible. However, the implementation of this model requires four components: paying respect to Buddha, travelling, enjoying delicious food and shopping."