DestinationsThe authorities view the pandemic as a chance to reshape the industry, but the private sector sees stronger merit in retaining the country's existing playbook as a destination offering top value, health and safety

Can Thailand forge a post-pandemic future as a high-end tourism destination?

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Phuket is envisioned as a resort island "prototype" under the government's push to attract high-end travellers from abroad. Credit: Sabina Berezina/Getty Images
Phuket is envisioned as a resort island "prototype" under the government's push to attract high-end travellers from abroad. Credit: Sabina Berezina/Getty Images

Thailand has long harboured dreams of becoming a high-end tourism destination, and global marketing efforts in recent years have reflected the tourism authorities’ keenness to attract a new breed of high-end clientele.

As the country looks to reopen its borders and talks of ‘travel bubbles’ with selected countries in Asia Pacific go underway, the Covid-19 crisis offers an opportunity to market the country as an exclusive destination for big spenders seeking privacy and social distancing in the post-pandemic era, Thailand Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.

The government wants to focus its post-pandemic strategy on attracting high-end tourists from abroad to resort islands such as Phuket, Samui, Phangan and Phi Phi, where they will be accommodated at luxury properties for a minimum period of time before being able to move freely elsewhere.

A reboot of the tourism sector, said the minister, will enable Thailand to pull away from its mass market roots and reduce its traditional reliance on Chinese groups and backpackers, Bloomberg reported.

Taming the mass market beast

But the minister’s proposal to revive travel recovery by prioritising the high-end segment for Thailand, whose tourism foundation was built on catering to diverse visitor market segments, is met with skepticism across the sector.

Given the sheer size and diversity of Thailand’s tourism offerings, it is untenable to many industry players that the destination’s post-pandemic recovery could focus on any particular segment.

Bill Barnett, managing director at Phuket-based C9 Hotelworks, thinks there is an “absolute disconnect” between Thailand’s public and private sector regarding tourism at the moment. “Given there are between 500,000 to one million hotel rooms in the country, it makes no sense to say the country only wants [wealthy] tourists,” he said.

“Thailand is not the Maldives, tourism here is a beast that must be fed. A top-down approach is nice to talk about in theory but the reality is that every hotel reopening in Thailand is now throwing down on rates just to fund the payroll,” added Mr Barnett.

Jakub Piwowarski, general manager at Cosi Pattaya Wong Amat Beach, added: “The reality is that the country and its infrastructure has already options in place for both budget-economy and for the higher-end luxury market. It would be unrealistic to expect that the budget-economy market, in some places with tendencies towards mass tourism, would or could disappear."

The idea of a reset, in his opinion, is “interesting but has probably little real merit”.

A true reset on tourism, said Chris Bailey of BTM Services, a hospitality and tourism consultancy, will entail significant investment by the Thai government, “not just a major repositioning communication to the potential markets and customers around the world, but also retraining Thai people to do different jobs”.

If such a major restructure happens, Mr Bailey expects that many of the current jobs will cease to exist in the sector. But in the short to mid term, it is unlikely that the government would be able to provide the support, especially financial, needed for Thailand to make the transition into a luxury destination, he added.

Furthermore, such a strategy will pit Thailand against countries which have already successfully positioned themselves as luxury destinations on the global travel map.

“If you look at international wish lists, consumers are already looking at destinations that have an exclusive reputation such as Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Caribbean Islands like St Lucia,” noted Mr Bailey. “This will certainly favour smaller destinations in the region and resorts in places like exclusive parts of Bali, Malaysia’s east coast and the Philippines.”

Health is wealth

While the pandemic may have elevated travellers’ sense for cleanliness and safety, what is clear is that demand for excellent value proposition remains unaltered.

In view of Thailand’s success in containing the Covid-19 outbreak, Mr Piwowarski believes the kingdom’s post-pandemic value proposition lies in its medical support, health and safety, with its range of modern, well-equipped medical infrastructure and highly trained professionals, and a established healthcare system that is ranked among the world’s top.

He added: “I don't think that we should focus on a certain traveller market based on their wallets, but rather take the opportunity to showcase the advantages that Thailand has over other destinations, especially on the health and safety part, and to attract a broader and more diverse range of travellers.”

As the Thai travel and hospitality sectors gradually resume business, Mr Bailey also cautioned against an over-emphasis on safety and cleanliness at the expense of the experience component of tourism offerings.

“Right now in Thailand, I see a focus on the safety aspect with brands communicating care and cleanliness at their priority,” he noted. “What’s missing is the enjoyment and experience of the trip which will urgently need to be worked on to be relevant in this competitive global environment.”

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