Various projects have moved to the forefront recently in the hope of converting the three restive southernmost provinces into tourist destinations.
To stimulate tourism in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, the cabinet a few years ago granted a special budget of 5 billion baht for building and improving infrastructure in the three provinces.
If the projects are completed in 2020 as planned, the government is confident that the improved infrastructure will provide more convenience for both locals and travellers and eventually help boost economic growth, which has been deterred by the lengthy insurgency of the past decade.
Several government agencies and local communities are taking the initiative. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is laying strategies to boost tourism in the area, while the Transport Ministry is on plan to construct the 1.9-billion-baht Betong airport, scheduled to open in 2020.
The Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta) signed an agreement with eight educational institutes and local communities to promote tourism sites in the three provinces as new tourist attractions.
Boost local tourism
Deputy Prime Minister Chatchai Sarikulya, who was assigned by the government to oversee economic development plans for the three provinces, says the tourism business has been used as a key tool to drive local economies and build prosperity and stability in the region since 2016.
Many landmarks in the provinces can be developed as new attractions, but local people have to learn about tourism and how they can share in the benefits.
"The tourism business will improve the economy and bring peace to these areas," Gen Chatchai told local authorities and community leaders at a recent meeting in Songkhla province. "We believe that local people can exchange tourism knowledge, and they have the chance to interact with visitors from other countries or other regions of this country."
Data from several studies shows that despite instability in some areas, tourism business in the southernmost provinces is improving, as indicated by the growing number of visitors.
Last year, more than 1.5 million Thai and foreign tourists visited the three provinces, generating 4.6 billion baht in income. Most of the foreign visitors were from Malaysia and Singapore.
In 2015, 8.7 million tourists travelled to the five deepest provinces (Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun and Songkhla). Of the number, 5.4 million were Thais and 3.3 million were foreigners, mostly from other Southeast Asian countries.
Tourists from Western countries preferred to visit natural geological sites in Satun province and famous attractions in Songkhla.
The Bank of Thailand says average spending by tourists in these provinces remains low, at about 1,916 baht per person per day, lower than the 3,183 baht daily average of foreign tourists countrywide.
The construction of Betong’s airport is under way, with the project’s completion expected some time in 2020. PATIPAT JANTHONG
Dasta in communities
The agreement Dasta signed with eight organisations -- the Tourism and Sports Ministry, Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, Thai Research Fund, Thai Health Promotion Foundation, Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla Rajabhat University -- has the objective of developing tourism products and services, improving marketing strategies and branding the region as a new destination.
The eight bodies will assist in community-based tourism (CBT) development, which Dasta has been applying to other areas nationwide.
Under the agreement, 32 communities in the three provinces have been selected as pilot projects and will be promoted as destinations over the next three years. These communities comprise 8,500 families with a total population of 35,000.
Tourists pose for a selfie at Betong’s border checkpoint. PATIPAT JANTHONG
Link with Asean
In a study titled "Community Based Tourism Marketing in Five Southern Border Provinces (Satun, Songkhla Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat) Connecting to Asean", conducted by Prachyakorn Chaiyakot, provinces in the five southernmost provinces can be developed as new destinations for Thai and international tourists. The provinces offer a unique mix of culture, religious tourism, gastronomy, natural places, history and cross-border activity.
"The region has nine land borders with Malaysia excluding ports, and international airports can serve travel between the two countries all year round," Mr Prachyakorn said.
Mr Prachyakorn, who is vice-president of Thai Responsible Tourism Association (TRTA), specifies 10 communities with strong potential as tourism destinations.
The communities are Ba Kan Yai and Kwan Pho in Satun province; Klong Dam Tha Hin and Node Nale in Songkhla; Sai Khao and Bangpu in Pattani; Chulabhorn Pattana 9 and Chulabhorn Pattana 10 in Yala; and Chumchon Wat Cholthara Singhe and Chulabhorn Pattana 12 in Narathiwat.
The clock tower is a symbol of Betong, a popular destination in Yala. PATIPAT JANTHONG
The selected communities are able to draw Malaysian tourists from the four northernmost states in Malaysia, namely Kelantan, Perak, Kedah and Perlis. Thais can cross the border to visit Malaysia cities as well.
One highlight of the five southernmost provinces is learning about the history of the Communist group that used to live in the forests. Homestay and traditional activities are offered to visitors who can visit rice fields, mangrove forests and fish farms.
Mr Prachyakorn said tourism authorities, communities and travel companies should form a business alliance to carry out a marketing campaign abroad, especially in Southeast Asia.
When Betong airport opens, it's expected to become a new hub in the South and a link to other countries, complementing the airport in Hat Yai.
Seeking more foreigners
Sarin Seangkiatiwong, a representative of Chulabhorn Pattana Village 10 in Yala province, said his village offers tourists one-day, two-night tours costing 1,700 baht per person and a three-day, two-night package charging 3,990 baht per person.
The price includes meals, accommodation and attractions such as historical museums, trekking, kayaking, waterfalls and a hundred-year-old tree.
Roughly 100 tourists from Malaysia and Singapore, as well as locals from nearby provinces, visit the community each month.
"We are promoting our village as community-based tourism," Mr Sarin said. "The China market will be the next target because there are many ethnic Chinese living in the village and they are still speaking the Chinese language."
Chana Sae-oo, a representative of Chulabhorn Pattana Village 9, said his village offers packages starting at 1,000 baht per person for a group of 10 people for a two-day, one-night tour. Services including meals, accommodation, camping, trekking, a local product workshop and rafting.
Mr Chana began planting avocados at his own farm, which is now an attraction at the village. The community still needs more marketing support from authorities, however.
In Satun, the Bangpu community is promoting a 200-year-old mosque, one of the earliest in the country. The mosque took 28 years to build, reportedly the longest construction period for a mosque in Thailand. The community is building a tourist port to cope with the influx of guests.
Although the southernmost provinces have many attractive places, security is never far from people's minds.
"The violence often happens in the three southernmost provinces, but in fact it never happened in these 10 villages," Mr Prachyakorn said.
Apart from safety issues, other basic fundamental infrastructure such as water, ports, accessibility (including public bus service) and a tourist information centre are needed to serve visitors.
To lure more tourists, local communities and operators have been advised to create a variety of travel packages for tourists to choose, while tour operators have been urged to use social media such as Line, Facebook and websites to reach targeted clients.
Multiple languages may be required to penetrate foreign markets directly.
"In the future, the five provinces can be developed as a hub of Muslim tourism, thanks to the huge opportunity of 200 million Muslims living in Southeast Asia," Mr Prachyakorn said.
TAT's food focus
In order to strengthen tourism business in the region, the TAT plans to promote local foods and communities to tourists, said Klissada Ratanapruk, the TAT's executive director for the southern region.
Southern foods are expected to gain in popularity when the Michelin guide for Phuket and Phangnga is published later this year.
The TAT predicts that gastronomy will attract Thais and foreign tourists, especially free independent travellers, to the region. Moreover, groups meeting for business or events are apt to consider the region for their next venue, especially during the low season.
Mr Klissada expects to welcome more business travellers to the region, another aspect that will help improve the southern economy.