When talking about tourism destinations, only a few visitors might consider visiting the Northeast, or Isan, as most foreigners still flock to established destinations such as Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai.
Post-pandemic, the government and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) have vowed to boost tourism traffic in secondary cities, seeking to raise the income of local communities.
Last month, the TAT started promoting Isan to Chinese tourists at the China International Travel Mart 2023, in the hope of stimulating more overland trips.
The cabinet this week also hosted its first roaming meeting in Nong Bua Lam Phu, the poorest province in the country, while it plans to visit other provinces in Isan in the hope of resuscitating the region's economy and elevating tourism.
Northeastern tourism operators have high hopes for the government's aim to prioritise tourism.
They hope that development covering all aspects will be initated, particularly in terms of public infrastructure, which remains a weak point.
NONG KHAI: NEW MARKETS
Nalumon Raksapakdee, vice-president of the Tourism Council of Nong Khai, said the province's tourism has been hampered by sluggish border trade and the weak Lao kip.
These factors led to a decline in visitors from Laos who normally help stimulate the local economy, while Lao people unfazed by rising costs tend to bypass Nong Khai for major tourism cities such as Bangkok and Phuket.
As it has been heavily reliant on domestic and Lao tourists, the province needs to attract new markets to sustain tourism, including expats and Chinese tourists, said Ms Nalumon.
She said operators in Nong Khai, under the Tourism Council and the Chamber of Commerce, submitted a proposal to the cabinet during its roaming meeting, requesting a programme to provide training to staff in Chinese language skills and establish a new Chinese consulate in the province.
The consulate office would assist Chinese tourists coming in from Laos who travel via the China-Laos railway.
At the same time, foreigners residing in Thailand can apply for a Chinese visa more easily if they wish to combine a trip to China's southern cities with a visit to Nong Khai and Laos.
The province is well equipped with tourism products such as food and natural beauty as well as faith and spiritual attractions which might encourage tourists to start their short trip in Nong Khai before travelling to Laos.
"Nong Khai should be combined with Laos and China to attract both leisure and business travellers, in order to increase revenue," said Ms Nalumon.
She said the government should actively cooperate with Laos on cross-border tourism, accelerating the double track railway connecting Nong Khai with Khon Kaen and other provinces, which would drive greater connectivity in the region.
A train operated by the China-Laos railway at Vientiane railway station.
KHON KAEN: UNIQUE CULTURE
Poppon Kasemsan Na Ayutthaya, president of the Tourism Council of Khon Kaen, said the government's pledge to stimulate the economy via soft power is a step in the right direction, as Khon Kaen could also use its unique culture to help promote tourism in the region.
These include the reputation for Isan food, Mudmee silk, mor lam folk music and Isan-style massage, all of which may not been widely known among foreign tourists, said Mr Poppon.
He said the province is well prepared since it was listed as a world craft city for Mudmee by the World Craft Council.
As one of the Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) cities under the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, Khon Kaen hosts many domestic business events per year, thanks to large-scale meeting venues and having its own airport.
The province has also positioned itself as a trade hub among CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) operators.
"Khon Kaen and Isan have plenty of room to cater to overflowing tourists from major cities, and it only lacks good promotion," said Mr Poppon.
Lesser-known attractions that have the potential to lure foreign tourists include the Silk Museum, Phu Pha Man national park and Singha Park Khon Kaen golf club.
He said he hoped the government would elevate Khon Kaen's status as a major city for business meetings and trade in the Greater Mekong Subregion, attracting more business opportunities as well as international flights. It should also develop the province's public transportation.
KORAT: SUSTAINABILITY DRIVE
Panchana Vatanasathien, president of the Khao Yai Tourism Association and vice-president of the Tourism Council of Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat, said the government should consider other long-term initiatives to boost Isan tourism, in addition to the visa-free policy.
For example, educating operators and staff about sustainable tourism, particularly universal design development and waste reduction, said Ms Panchana.
Tourism operators in Khao Yai have been active in sustainable initiatives through waste management campaigns and car-free days. However, they hope to further develop tourism through the provision of investment and support from the government.
As Korat Geopark was recently certified by Unesco, education-based tourism should be highlighted to promote the province to foreign tourists as well as children visiting the province with their parents.
This should use the same methods used to attract international tourists to Egypt, China's Xian or the British Museum in London to experience their historical objects and visit archaeological and geological sites. This unique angle would help increase the value of tourism and attract visitors from new tourism markets, she said.
Accordingly, Ms Panchana said the government should develop transport projects, including public transport within the city as well as accelerate the Korat motorway, improve its logistics and tourism competitiveness.