In the aftermath of the pandemic, faith tourism has emerged as a trend as more people seek peace of mind and motivation.
Temples and holy places have swelled with crowds as money piles up in donation boxes across Thailand.
According to Future Markets Insight, faith-based tourism across the world tallied US$13.7 billion in 2022 and is forecast to reach $40.9 billion in 2033.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) projected the value of superstition tourism in the nation at 15 billion baht in 2023, up from 10.8 billion in 2019.
Last year, the agency launched a special campaign promoting faith destinations across 12 routes in Thailand, targeting both domestic and foreign tourists.
The agency plans to continue promoting the segment this year to help tourism operators benefit from the buoyant demand.
NEW SOFT POWER
"The global pandemic left many people feeling hopeless about their health and wealth. Some turned to spiritual and religious belief for an anchor," said Buranakan Chatupornpaisan, vice-president of the Association of Domestic Travel (ADT).
Mr Buranakan said it is not surprising this tourism segment recovered quickly from the pandemic crisis.
Faith tourism components such as religious attractions or amulets can be regarded as a form of soft power, he said. Each community or region has its own unique stories to tell.
For instance, Bangkok has the Erawan Shrine at Ratchaprasong junction, widely worshipped by foreign tourists, while Samut Songkhram is home to the god of wealth, the Thao Wessuwan worship statue.
Mr Buranakan, also managing director of Jumbo Journey & Events, a destination management company based in Kanchanaburi, said popular faith destinations, such as King Naresuan monument and the elephant god stone at Thapsila temple, are often included in itineraries.
He said faith tourism should be used as a tool to help second-tier provinces as the revenue could be directly distributed to local communities. Many locals develop and sell faith collectibles and other products at the destinations.
The elephant god stone in Kanchanaburi is popular with faith tourists.
"Despite slow economic growth, spiritual charms and amulets are well known and Thais are eager to spend on them. Some people even save up to travel to holy attractions, not to worship or seek fortune, but rather to donate money for merit," said Mr Buranakan.
He said in some cases, travellers donate more money to the religious site than the tour package price.
Somradee Chitchong, TAT deputy governor for domestic marketing, said faith tourism is an opportunity for agents to increase the number of domestic trips as the segment is not prone to seasonality and potential destinations are located across all regions. The segment can be promoted year-round, she said.
Ms Somradee said the value of faith tourism revenue this year should at least equal the previous year and is projected to grow steadily.
ADT hosted a combined event in Kanchanaburi on Jan 20, inviting tourists to make merit by offering robes to monks in a Buddhism ceremony at the Khwae River, then join seminars and concerts by famous singers.
CALL FOR FACELIFT
Each destination has its own legends to lure passionate believers and tourists.
The Northeast, including Udon Thani, is home to the "naga", a dragon-like deity that is visited by tourists annually.
Pornpimol Kungwantrakul, president of the Tourism Council of Udon Thani, said faith tourism is a major driver for the province.
Each year, around 30-40% of visitors to the province visit faith attractions such as Kham Chanod, a temple where nagas are believed to reside, she said.
Udon Thani attracted more than 3.9 million tourists during the first 11 months of 2023, with 80% domestic travellers.
Faith tourism is popular not only for domestic tourists from other regions of Thailand, but also foreigners from Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and China.
Laotians often hop across the border to Udon Thani for business, shopping and healthcare, in addition to visiting faith tourism spots, said Ms Pornpimol.
Kham Chanod, located roughly 80 kilometres from Udon Thani city centre, attracts more than 5,000 daily visitors on weekends and holidays.
Its popularity helps to spur income for nearby businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, she said.
Kham Chanod, located around 80 kilometres from Udon Thani city centre, attracts more than 5,000 daily visitors on weekends and holidays.
Faith tourism is thriving in Thailand as tourists are ready to spend, even for longer trips than typical leisure holidays, said Ms Pornpimol.
The newly developed China-Laos railway has attracted more tourists to visit Udon Thani and nearby provinces such as Nong Khai and Bueng Kan, which host various sacred sites, before they head to Vientiane and Luang Prabang, home of many temples.
"As faith tourism demand grows, the authorities should invest in developing the supply side to seize the fortune-seeker segment and increase tourism income," she said.
These efforts should include developing quality transport facilities, sufficient foreign language signs and learning centres at sites, as well as improving local staff skills at each attraction, said Ms Pornpimol.
She said an outstanding example is at Wat Pa Dong Nong Tan, a temple popular with fortune seekers, known for granting wishes to people who want to win the lottery.
Wat Pa Dong Nong Tan, a temple in Udon Thani popular with fortune seekers, especially those wanting to win a lottery.
Various organisations in Udon Thani have been developing sufficient facilities for tourists, from road access and a mobile cellular network to a plan to construct a museum for artefacts discovered under a temple site, said Ms Pornpimol.
The government should also increase domestic flights and return international flights to Udon Thani to the pre-pandemic level to elevate the faith tourism market, she said.
The ancient capital of Ayutthaya, which has hundreds of temples, remains a focal point for "nine-temple tours".
In Thailand, nine is considered an auspicious number. If anyone can visit and pray at nine temples in one day, people believe they will be blessed by gods in those places.
Chongwiwat Tantisayanan, owner of Ayutthaya Boat Trip, said he is confident Ayutthaya remains a preferred destination for Thai tourists, despite fierce competition from other faith tourism sites nationwide.
Notable temples attract visitors all year round, unlike beach or seaside provinces that peak during the winter season, he said.
The riverside temple tour is the most popular boat package, comprising 70% of sales, with on-board dining and elephant sightseeing making up the remainder, said Mr Chongwiwat.
He said three-temple tours were the best-selling routes because of their short duration of only two hours, compared with four hours required for a visit to nine temples.
With fewer temples to visit, most tourists combine their boat trip with other activities, said Mr Chongwiwat.
Three-temple packages typically start from 1,000-1,200 baht per trip for a small boat, accommodating up to eight passengers.
During the New Year holiday, the company recorded robust bookings for temple tours as Thais wished for good fortune to start 2024. Many groups book up to three months in advance.
Foreign tourists are interested in temple tours for their history and culture, not to seek fortune, he said.
Ideally the government should provide more holidays for Thais to plan domestic trips, as boat tourism has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels, said Mr Chongwiwat.
The authorities should promote temple tours as a combined package with other trendy activities such as cafe hopping or wearing traditional Thai costumes to attract both new and frequent visitors, he said.
In addition to domestic tourism, Thais have always been keen to travel abroad to visit spiritual destinations, especially in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Myanmar.
Chotechuang Soorangura, vice-president of the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA), said faith tourism packages have recovered to 60% of the 2019 level.
The slow resumption was attributed to fewer Myanmar tour packages as political turmoil there created safety concerns among tourists, he said.
Mr Chotechuang said Myanmar was previously the most popular faith tourism destination, attracting tourists in every season in groups of all sizes.
Many booked a one-day trip to Myanmar, visiting temples in Yangon, paying only 6,000-7,000 baht.
More than 10,000 Thais visited Myanmar monthly in tour groups via scheduled and chartered flights before the pandemic, he said. Now the number shrank to 500-1,000 visitors a month.
As travel costs rose, those with limited budgets pivoted to domestic destinations to save on expenses, said Mr Chotechuang.
The market share of faith tourism among the outbound market was estimated to decrease to 12% last year, down from 25% in 2019, he said.
However, destinations such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have been recovering as flight frequency resumes, said Mr Chotechuang.
Visitors are opting for longer stays to visit many places instead of short trips for only spiritual destinations, he said.
For instance, in the past a Hong Kong package would be for two days and one night, visiting the famous Che Kung Temple and Guanyin at Repulse Bay, said Mr Chotechuang.
Most packages now are for at least 3-4 days, combining faith tourism with other leisure activities as tourists want to make high airfare costs worthwhile.
As managing director of NS Travel and Tours, he said the company is hosting a special tour to celebrate the birthday of goddess Guanyin on March 6 to Macau and Hong Kong.
People take part in a Bai Sri ceremony in Kanchanaburi.