A southern jewel waits for polishing

A southern jewel waits for polishing

Nakhon Si Thammarat lacks proper amenities but still holds promise

Visitors walk with lighted candles around Wat Phra That, the main Buddhist temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Visitors walk with lighted candles around Wat Phra That, the main Buddhist temple in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is using its “2015 Discover Thainess” campaign to lure foreign tourists to hidden gems — 12 provinces most people miss on their trips here.

The provinces are Lampang, Nan, Phetchabun, Buri Ram, Loei, Samut Songkhram, Ratchaburi, Trat, Chanthaburi, Trang, Chumphon and Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The Bangkok Post has already looked at the tourism potential of four provinces. Our fifth hidden gem is Nakhon Si Thammarat, a big province in the South, 780 kilometres from Bangkok.

Potential

Thailand’s second-largest southern city, also called Nakhon Si Thammarat, has a long and interesting history and used to be a centre of Buddhism in the South.

Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan Temple, or Wat Phra That, is the most important and famous temple in the South of Thailand. Millions from all over Asia, especially Chinese and Malaysian tourists, visit the shadowless golden pagoda every year. Many tourists bring their children to be ordained there during the school break. There are more than 100 temples in the city.

The phenomenon of the Jatukam Rammatep amulet during 2003-07 led Nakhon Si Thammarat to become better known among Thais and foreign visitors alike.

The bottom line is, Nakhon Si Thammarat has the potential to grow as an alternative tourism destination.

Apart from temples, the province has other interesting places like Kiriwong Village, the popular Khanom Beach, Swallow’s Condo in Pak Panang and Khao Luang National Park, which is dubbed the “backbone” of southern Thailand and features the beautiful Krung Ching waterfall.

Given these tourism attractions, the TAT calls Nakhon Si Thammarat the “Pure Indulgence City”.

Napasa Khakhai, director of the TAT office in Nakhon Si Thammarat, says the number of tourist arrivals in the first four months of the year rose by more than 6% to 600,000 and the figure is expected to reach 2.8 million for the whole of 2015.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “I believe tourism in Nakhon Si Thammarat will grow significantly in the next decade because foreign tourists from Phuket and Krabi are looking for a new, peaceful destination and Nakhon Si Thammarat will be a good choice.”

The average occupancy rate of hotels in the province is forecast at 50% year-round, up from 20-30% in the past decade.

Temple renovation

Nakhon Si Thammarat governor Peerasak Hinmuangkao says provincial authorities have set up a panel to prepare a proposal to list Wat Phra That as a world heritage site.

The renovation of the pagoda and temple area will conclude in 2016 with a combined budget of more than 200 million baht.

Electric wires along Ratchadamnoen Road, the main street in downtown Nakhon Si Thammarat, will be put underground to beautify the cityscape.

Mr Peerasak says the province has a small budget with which to promote tourism, with most spending used to support agriculture and boost household income. Even so, the province continues to pursue its plan to renovate Wat Phra That and secure world heritage status. “Worshipping the Buddha images and visiting temples remain major tourism activities for Nakhon Si Thammarat,” he says.

The TAT has conducted marketing campaigns and roadshows in Malaysia to promote southern tourism, especially among Malaysians who have Thai ancestry.

Problems and suggestions

Although Nakhon Si Thammarat has 200 hotels with 6,000 rooms altogether, a small number have a high standard of service.

Just two hotels can serve large groups of seminar participants. Consequently, the occupancy rate of these hotels is 50% all year long, and room rates are as high as 1,200-2,500 baht a night.

But the province’s notorious image as a home to gunmen and perceived negative attitude among locals towards foreign tourists have obstructed the tourism trade  compared with other destinations.

Sirikamol Kaewsaeng-orn, president of the Nakhon Si Thammarat Tourism Association, acknowledges that most hotels in the province are substandard.

The province also lacks personnel in the tourism sector because most graduates in the field go to Samui and Phuket.

According to the association, the hotel business in Nakhon Si Thammarat livened up three years ago when Chevron began building its gas and oil production base in the Gulf of Thailand.

Some 3,000 Chevron employees arrived in the province and the hotel business flourished. Some hotels were built to serve Chevron in particular, and half the guests at several hotels were Chevron workers. Leisure tourists played a small role in the local hotel business.

“Many tour operators have little knowledge of Nakhon Si Thammarat, and most local residents were not excited when their province was chosen as one of 12 hidden gems,” Ms Sirikamol says.

Therefore, TAT should put more promotional effort for the province.

Ms Sirikamol says only Khanom district is properly equipped to serve long-haul foreign visitors. The urban area is not a draw; most visitors stop by to worship at some temples, then leave.

No tourism leaders are seriously promoting Nakhon Si Thammarat. The province suffers from insufficient tourism infrastructure and weak support from the government.

For example, while merit-making activities in the 10th lunar month draw a crowd to the province, hotel rooms are not fully occupied. Hotels do not have good yields to show for the impressive number of visitors.

Khanom beach, which offers marine attractions, has been tapped for proper development to draw Thai and foreign tourists.

At present, major restaurants along the beach are closed on weekdays and a few convenience stores do business in the centre of Khanom district, but not near the beach.

Alongkot Vatcharasint, managing director of Nakhon Si Grand Tour and president of the Khanom Tourism Business Club, says some tourists are charged 100 baht round-trip to visit convenience stores inside the district.

Khanom is unlikely to capture high-end tourists because of the dearth of activities and international hotels. Its best bet is as an addition to tour packages for Surat Thani and Koh Samui, some 70
kilometres away.

Weekend room reservations can account for 80% of total expense in Khanom, while weekday bookings make up just 10%. A campaign for weekday visits seems in order.

Mr Alongkot says Nakhon Si Thammarat should have more and bigger hotels to serve the incentives market, with function rooms large enough to hold 80-250 guests.

“We want to increase the number of foreign travellers, but major hotels are crowded on weekends,” he says. “Many foreign clients check out to avoid big seminar groups. We have no choice because meetings and incentives help us stay afloat.”

With more hotels for the meetings and incentives market, the province could welcome more foreign guests at weekends.

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