Thai boxing, widely known as Muay Thai, is a combat art that has long been considered a quintessential part of Thai culture.
The kingdom's "Art of Eight Limbs" has been a popular draw for martial arts students and fans all over the world for several decades, and now it can also be a passport to a longer stay in the country for those brave enough to sign up and study the brutal combat sport.
Likely to be rolled out in March, foreign tourists can apply for a 90-day visa to allow them to complete a basic Muay Thai training camp.
According to Pimol Srivikorn, chairman of a government subcommittee driving sports-related activities, foreigners who come to Thailand to train in the combat sport can stay for 30 days longer than those arriving under a standard 60-day tourist visa.
If visitors want to extend their stay to a year, they must be of a proven standard and already under contract to fight professionally on the domestic circuit, he said.
Muay Thai is seen as another means of utilising industries and skills in which Thailand shines, as another means of "soft power" to drive the economy out of recession.
Promoting soft power to generate income and boost the economy was among the promises which the ruling Pheu Thai Party made during its election campaign.
The National Soft Power Strategy Committee was established recently and chaired by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Pheu Thai leader Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
The committee comprises well-known figures and experts in various fields including recreation, entertainment, finance, business and foreign affairs.
The industries regarded by the committee as havens for soft power are food, sport, festivals, tourism, music, food, books, film, games, art, design and fashion.
Muay Thai is seen as crucial to the scheme due to its international popularity and Thai heritage.
According to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, the market value of sports-related tourism in 2018 was 120 billion baht.
Muay Thai alone was estimated at more than 100 billion baht, with an average increase of 5% annually.
In 2019, the market value for Muay Thai rose by 10% or more than 120 billion baht. Thai boxing is now popular in Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
In addition, on Jan 11 last year, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee approved Muay Thai as a new member.
It was also listed as a new sport in the European Games 2023, which saw 16 nations field fighters hoping to win a medal.
PM Srettha recently posted on X that Muay Thai has already generated considerable income for the country. It has helped boost tourism, especially in Koh Samui in Surat Thani and Phuket, home to famous gyms where famous fighters are often spotted training.
Mr Pimol, also an adviser to the prime minister, suggested that foreigners interested in Thai boxing can search the internet for registered Muay Thai gyms online.
"They can review the star rating of the trainers and prices of each course. Some programmes also offer Muay Thai training along with a tour as a package," he said.
Gyms must make the grade
Muay Thai gyms that want to register to train foreign students must ensure their equipment is of a suitably high standard.
The committee expects there will be tens of thousands of foreigners travelling to Thailand each year to learn Muay Thai.
The project will also benefit the tourism sector and boost the export value of Muay Thai equipment, including the elaborately designed ceremonial robes and boxing shorts.
The committee has asked Burapha University in Chon Buri province to work with Muay Thai trainers to set new standards and regulations for Muay Thai training courses from basic to advanced levels.
"We need a strategy to drive and support Muay Thai. We also want to promote the export of Muay Thai trainers to help other Muay Thai gyms in foreign countries," said Mr Pimol.
According to him, more than 5,000 Muay Thai gyms exist in the United Kingdom. These gyms require Muay Thai trainers, and the pay is better for instructors who are Thai nationals, he said.
"As Muay Thai is part of Thai history and is popular among foreigners, we can take it as a good opportunity to further promote it," said Mr Pimol.
To boost the opportunities for Muay Thai coaches to work abroad, the committee has joined hands with the Labour Ministry's Skill Development Department to launch a course for Thai trainers. After completing it, they will be given a certificate guaranteeing their suitability to work abroad in China, the Middle East and countries in Europe.
Making the grade
The Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) plans to establish a Muay Thai testing centre, with the government to coordinate with foreign countries needing experienced coaches.
Culture Minister Sermsak Pongpanich said boosting the skills of Thai-trained fighters and promoting those who become known on the world stage will also be a vital way of demonstrating Thai expertise in the sport and a huge draw for tourism and professional fighters who wish to hone their skills.
Apart from that, increasing the value of business operators and supporting the issuing of licences for operating Muay Thai gyms are also necessary.
"The government will help support the individuals, seek funds and manage marketing to elevate Thai soft power," said Mr Sermsak.
Muay Thai will be a spearhead as the process will be expanded to include other traditional sports. "But we need to see how popular they are in the eyes of foreigners," he said.
Phusit Rattanakul Serererngrit, director-general of the Department of International Trade Promotion, said the department has worked with the SAT and International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) to organise the Muaythai Global Power event.
The event will serve as a first step in this new campaign to showcase Muay Thai's potential to play a key role in presenting several home-grown sectors to a much larger audience.
Pimol: Touts registered gyms
Sermsak: Thai boxing a huge draw