Tourism in Thailand

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Detail of the chedi of Wat Chang Kham in Nan, Thailand

Tourism is a major economic factor in the Kingdom of Thailand, directly contributing an estimated 7.3% to Thailand's GDP in 2012. When including the indirect effects of tourism, it accounted for 16.7% of Thailand's GDP.[1] On 1 June 2013, Time magazine reported that Bangkok was identified as the most visited city in the world by the 2013 Global Destination Cities Index, while Suvarnabhumi Airport was the world's most geotagged location on Instagram in 2013.[2][3] The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) uses the slogan "Amazing Thailand" to promote Thailand internationally.


Statue of a mythical Kinnon at Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

Among the reasons for the increase in tourism in the 1960s were the stable political atmosphere and the development of Bangkok as a crossroads of international air transport. The hotel industry and retail industry both expanded rapidly due to tourist demand. It was boosted by the presence of US GIs who started to arrive in the 1960s for rest and recuperation (R&R) during the Vietnam War.[4] Concomitantly, international mass tourism sharply increased during the same period due to the rising standard of living, more people acquiring more free time, and improvements in technology making it possible to travel further, faster, cheaper and in greater numbers, epitomised by the Boeing 747 which first flew commercially in 1970.[5] Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalise on this then-new trend.

Thai woman working silk looms at the famous Jim Thompson House

Tourist numbers have grown from 336,000 foreign visitors and 54,000 GIs on R&R in 1967[4] to over 24 million international guests visiting Thailand in 2014.[6] The average duration of their stay in 2007 was 9.19 days, generating an estimated 547 billion Thai baht, around 11 billion Euro.[7] In 2013, Thailand was the 10th most visited country in the World Tourism rankings with 26.5 million visitors.[8]

In 2008, Bangkok ranked 3rd behind London and New York in Euromonitor International's list of "Top City Destinations" with 10,209,900 visitors, Pattaya 23rd with 4,406,300 visitors, Phuket 31st with 3,344,700 visitors, and Chiang Mai ranked 78th place with 1,604,600 visitors.[9] The Global Destinations Cities Index of 2013, compiled by the MasterCard Worldwide corporation, ranked Bangkok as the "top destination city by international visitor arrivals", while London, United Kingdom (UK) and Paris, France were second and third respectively.[2]

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand,[10] 55% of tourists in 2007 came from the Asia Pacific region, Japanese and Malaysians forming the two biggest groups. The largest groups of Western tourists come from the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, the United States and Scandinavia. The number of tourists arriving from Russia is on the rise.[11] Around 55% of Thailand's tourists are return visitors. The peak period is during the Christmas and New Year holidays when Western tourists flee cold conditions at home.

In 2011, 1.7 million Chinese visitors travelled to Thailand and this figure was expected to rise to 2 million in 2012.[12] The Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association declared in February 2013 that Chinese tourists are the main supplier of Thailand's tourism industry and 3.3 million Chinese tourists are expected in 2013. The association has also calculated that the average Chinese tourist remains in the country for one week and spends THB30,000-40,000(US$1,000-1,300) per person, per trip.[13] According to Thailand's Tourism Authority, the number of Chinese tourists rose by 93% in the first quarter of 2013, an increase that was attributed to the popularity of the Chinese film Lost in Thailand that was filmed in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Chinese media outlets have claimed that Thailand superseded Hong Kong as the top destination for Chinese travellers during the 2013 May Day holiday.[14]

From January to April 2013, TAT reported that 8,841,730 trips to Thailand were registered.[15]

Domestic tourism has also grown significantly in the past decade. Revenues from domestic tourism have gone from 188 billion baht in 1998 to 380 billion baht (approximately 7.8 billion Euro) in 2007.[7]

Asian tourists primarily visit Thailand for Bangkok and the historical, natural and cultural sights in its vicinity. Western tourists not only visit Bangkok and surroundings but in addition many travel to the southern beaches and islands. The north is the main region for trekking and adventure travel with its diverse ethnic minority groups and forested mountains. The region receiving fewer tourists is Isan in the northeast. To accommodate foreign visitors, the Thai government established a separate tourism police with offices in the major tourist areas and its own central emergency telephone number.[16]

Sex tourism also contributes to arrival numbers. Although officially illegal, prostitution in Thailand is monitored and regulated by the government to stem the spread of STDs and to prevent excesses. Prostitution catering to foreigners is believed to be around 20% of the total prostitution scene in Thailand, and is concentrated in a few major red-light districts such as Pattaya, Patpong and Patong Beach.[17]

Thailand has been receiving increased competition ever since Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam opened up to international tourism in the 1980s and 1990s. Destinations like Angkor Wat, Luang Prabang and Halong Bay now contest Thailand's former monopoly in the Indochina region. To counter this, Thailand is actively targeting niche markets such as golf holidays, or holidays combined with medical treatment. Thailand has also plans on becoming the hub for Buddhist tourism in the region.[18] According to Lonely Planet, Thailand ranks as the second "best value destinations for 2010" after Iceland; the latter having been hit very hard by the subprime mortgage crisis.[19]

2013-2014 Thai political crisis[edit]

At the commencement of 2014, the Thai tourist industry suffered due to the political turmoil that erupted in October 2013. A shutdown of Bangkok's governmental offices on 13 January 2014 by anti-government protesters, prompted some tourists to avoid the Thai capital. TAT forecasted that arrival numbers might drop by around 5% in the first quarter of 2014, with the total number of arrivals down by 260,000 from the original projection of 29.86 million. Tourism revenue is also expected to drop by THB0.01 trillion from THB1.44 trillion.[20]

Tourist arrivals in 2014 totalled 24.7 million, a drop of 6.6% from 2013. Revenues derived from tourism amounted to THB1.13 trillion, down 5.8% from the previous year. Kobkarn Wattanavarangkul, Thailand's Minister of Tourism and Sports, attributed the decline to the political crisis in the first-half of 2014 which dissuaded many potential visitors from visiting Thailand. Tourism officials also pointed to the dramatic fall in the value of the Russian ruble which has damaged the economies of popular Russian destinations such as Phuket and Pattaya.[6]

"Discover Thainess" tourist initiative[edit]

In order to reignite growth in Thailand's tourist industry, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has embarked on a new campaign for 2015 entitled "2015: Discover Thainess".[21]TAT Governor Thawatchai Arunyik said the campaign will incorporate the "twelve values" that Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wants all Thais to practice.[6] TAT officials foresee a large increase in tourist numbers due to the "Discover Thainess" campaign. Ms Somrudi Chanchai, Director of the TAT Northeastern Office, has forecasted that tourists to her Isan region will increase by 27.9 million [sic] visitors, generating 65 billion baht in revenue.[22]


Annual statistics[23][edit]

"Amazing Thailand" - Thailand Tourism booth at a Travel and Tour Expo
Year Arrivals  % Change
2014 24,779,768 -6.66%
2013 26,546,725 +18.8%
2012 22,353,903 +15.98%
2011 19,230,470 +20.67%
2010 15,936,400 +12.63%
2009 14,149,841 -2.98%
2008 14,584,220 +0.83%
2007 14,464,228 +4.65 %
2006 13,821,802 +20.01%
2005 11,516,936 -1.15%
2004 11,650,703 no data

Top 20 arrivals by nationality[23][edit]

Rank Country or territory 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
*  ASEAN 6,620,231 7,396,297 6,253,480 5,594,577 4,534,235 3,968,579 3,971,429 3,520,051 3,389,342
1  China 4,623,806 4,705,173 2,789,345 1,721,247 1,122,219 777,508 826,660 907,117 949,117
2  Malaysia 2,644,052 2,996,071 2,560,963 2,500,280 2,058,956 1,757,813 1,805,332 1,540,080 1,591,328
3  Russia 1,603,813 1,736,990 1,317,387 1,054,187 644,678 336,965 324,120 277,503 187,658
4  Japan 1,265,307 1,537,979 1,371,253 1,127,893 993,674 1,004,453 1,153,868 1,277,638 1,311,987
5  South Korea 1,117,449 1,297,200 1,169,131 1,006,283 805,445 618,227 889,210 1,083,652 1,092,783
6  India 946,249 1,049,856 1,015,865 914,971 760,371 614,566 536,964 536,356 459,795
7  Laos 934,253 1,106,080 951,090 891,950 715,345 655,034 621,564 513,701 276,207
8  United Kingdom 909,335 906,312 870,164 844,972 810,727 841,425 826,523 859,010 850,685
9  Singapore 864,681 936,477 821,056 682,364 603,538 563,575 570,047 604,603 687,160
10  Australia 835,517 907,868 930,599 829,855 698,046 646,705 694,473 658,148 549,547
11  United States 764,745 826,350 767,420 681,748 611,792 627,074 669,097 681,972 694,258
12  Germany 717,631 744,363 681,566 619,133 606,874 573,473 542,726 544,495 516,659
13  France 632,242 614,455 572,996 515,572 461,670 427,067 398,407 373,090 321,278
14  Vietnam 557,135 787,301 617,804 496,768 380,368 363,029 338,303 237,672 227,134
15  Cambodia 553,809 468,366 424,766 265,903 146,274 96,586 85,790 99,945 117,100
16  Indonesia 508,171 589,079 448,748 370,795 286,072 227,205 247,930 237,592 219,783
17  Hong Kong 483,883 581,871 472,699 411,834 316,476 318,762 337,827 367,862 376,636
18  Taiwan 392,758 503,157 394,475 447,610 369,220 362,783 393,176 427,474 475,117
19  Philippines 338,055 326,245 288,889 268,375 246,430 217,705 221,506 205,266 198,443
20  Sweden 324,780 337,812 350,565 373,856 355,214 350,819 392,274 378,387 306,085
Selling umbrellas at the Sunday evening market in Chiang Mai


Phanom Rung is a Khmer temple complex set on the rim of an extinct volcano in Buriram Province

Thailand's attractions include diving sites, sandy beaches, hundreds of tropical islands, nightlife, archaeological sites, museums, hill tribes, flora and bird life, palaces, Buddhist temples and several World Heritage sites. Many tourists follow courses during their stay in Thailand. Popular are classes in Thai cooking, Buddhism and traditional Thai massage. Thai national festivals range from Thai New Year Songkran to Loy Krathong. Many localities in Thailand also have their own festivals. Among the best-known are the "Elephant Round-up" in Surin, the "Rocket Festival" in Yasothon and the "Phi Ta Khon" festival in Dan Sai. Thai cuisine has become famous worldwide with its enthusiastic use of fresh herbs and spices.

Bangkok shopping malls, offer a variety of international and local brands. Towards the north of the city, and easily reached by skytrain or underground, is the "Chatuchak Weekend Market". It is possibly the largest market in the world, selling everything from household items to live, and sometimes endangered,[24] animals. The "Pratunam Market" specialises in fabrics and clothing. The night markets in the Silom area and on Khaosan Road are mainly tourist-oriented, selling items such as T-shirts, handicrafts, counterfeit watches and sunglasses. In the vicinity of Bangkok one can find several floating markets such as the one in Damnoen Saduak. The "Sunday Evening Walking Street Market", held on Rachadamnoen Road inside the old city, is a shopping highlight of a visit to Chiang Mai up in northern Thailand. It attracts many locals as well as foreigners. The "Night Bazaar" is Chiang Mai's more tourist-oriented market, sprawling over several city blocks just east of the old city walls towards the river.

In a list released by Instagram that identified the ten most photographed locations worldwide in 2012, Suvarnabhumi Airport and Siam Paragon shopping mall were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, more popular than New York City's Times Square or Paris's Eiffel Tower.[25]

Elephant tourism[edit]

Elephant trekking has been an attraction for tourists in Thailand for decades. Ever since logging in Thailand was banned in 1989, elephants were brought into camps to put on shows for tourists and to give them rides. The Asian elephant is the main species found in elephant camps, being native to Thailand and found in the wild there. Despite this elephant being classified as endangered since 1986 [26] they continue to be an attraction for tourists.


In the early 1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand.[27][28] The majority of these elephants worked in the logging industry, primarily dragging tree trunks. In 1989 the government banned logging in protected areas due to rampant deforestation—only around 30% of Thailand's forest remained.[29] Many mahouts were then unable to care for their elephants and left them in the wild. In the five years after the logging ban, tourism in Thailand rose by 28%. Elephants came back into demand and those with previous low economic value were placed into camps. The tourism boom gave elephants a place to work and be cared for, as well as to help grow their economic value. Today there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand.[30]


Among animal rights groups there has been a growing concern over elephant welfare. Elephants in Thailand have fewer health problems than those in circuses, but often their health is not optimal. Overall their welfare and treatment depends on how much money their mahouts make. Elephants in larger camps have been observed in better health that those in smaller camps. Baby elephants are highly valued as they are very popular among tourists.[30] Many mahouts encourage pregnancy among their female elephants because of this. That method is more time consuming and expensive. Female elephants often continue work throughout their pregnancy. The illegal capture of baby elephants from wild herds is another way to obtain baby elephants. To be able to take the baby elephant from the herd, the females in the herd need to be killed due to them trying to protect the infant. Baby elephants are then placed in artificial herds for the sake of appearance to please the tourists. Elephants in these herds are often all from different provinces.[29]

Elephants can sustain injuries related to giving rides, or going on treks, with tourists. Their spine is curved and not optimal to carry heavy loads. While they are able to carry up to 300 kilograms, they can only carry a maximum of 200 kilograms comfortably. When tourists ride two at a time they can weigh over that amount. The chairs or benches often used for the tourists to sit on upon the elephant can cause abrasions and chafing on the elephant's back, sides and torso. During treks mahouts control the elephants with hooks and can use excessive force, resulting in puncture wounds.[30]


Domesticated elephants are found under the Draught Animal Act of 1992. This act classifies them as draft animals along with horses, donkeys and cows. It allows domesticated elephants to be treated as private property. This act has no additional measures for animal welfare protection.[30]


Common training practices include being chained, cut, stabbed, burned and hit to varying degrees. Inexperienced mahouts are more likely to further harm their elephants and beat them into submission.[30]Hooks are the common tool used to discipline and guide an elephant during treks.[29]


Dawn at Patong Beach, Phuket Province

Thailand predominantly has a tropical wet and dry or savannah climate while the south and the eastern tip of the east have a tropical monsoon climate.[31]

Most of Thailand has three seasons:

  • The cool dry season from late-November to February. Temperatures in December for Chiang Mai average around 15 Celsius at night, rising to around 28 Celsius during the day with clear sunny skies. Higher up in the mountains, temperatures may drop to near freezing at night. In Bangkok and in the central and northeastern plains of Thailand, midday temperatures during the cool dry season average around 30 Celsius and the humidity is much lower.
  • The hot dry season from March to May can see daytime temperatures in the mid- to high-30s. This is the time for holding festivals (such as Songkran and Rocket Festival) to mark the coming of the rainy season.
  • The rainy season from May to October has daytime temperatures in the low-30s with nighttime temperatures in the mid= to high-20s. Some areas have a relatively short rainy season, such as Ko Samui where it is typically only approximately 6 weeks, starting in October and running to November.[32] Rain showers mainly occur late-afternoon or early-evening. Typically, humidity is high.

Deeper south on the Kra Isthmus with its tropical monsoon climate, daytime temperatures year-round tend to hover around 31 Celsius with only a marked increase in rainfall during the monsoons. The west coast is affected by monsoons from May to October, the southeast coast of the isthmus is affected from October to January.[33]

Medical tourism[edit]

Medical tourism is a large and growing sector within Thailand’s extensive tourism and healthcare industries. The country is extremely attractive to potential medical tourists and international patients for a number of important reasons: it has many internationally accredited hospitals, including 30 JCI-accredited hospitals; it has experienced, often Western-trained medical professionals; it has the latest medical technology; and, it has significantly lower costs of treatment when compared to corresponding procedures in the West. Taken together, all these factors—plus the country’s reputation as a popular tourist destination—have made Thailand one of the world’s most popular medical tourism destinations.[34]

Some of the primary destinations for medical tourism in Thailand are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Koh Samui, Pattaya/Chonburi and Phuket.[35]

Thailand has the largest private hospital in Asia: Bumrungrad International Hospital.[36] Thailand was also the first Asian country to achieve the prestigious[citation needed] Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation in 2002. As of September 2013, 30 hospitals were JCI-accredited.[37]


According to Thailand's Board of Investment (BOI) nearly 2.5 million medical tourists from countries around the world came to Thailand for medical treatment in 2012, bringing in about 122 billion baht (US$3.7 billion).[38]

Foreigners seeking treatment for everything from open-heart surgery to gender reassignment have made Thailand the world's number one destination for medical tourism, luring as many as 1.8 million overseas visitors in 2013. That makes Thailand the go-to destination for international patients. In 2013, medical tourists pumped as much as US$4.7 billion into the Thai economy, according to government statistics.[39]

Major destinations[edit]

Map of Thailand

Central and eastern seaboard Thailand

Northern Thailand

Northeastern Thailand

Southern Thailand

See also[edit]

The Ho trai (temple library) of Wat Tung Sri Muang in Ubon Ratchathani
A woman of the Karen ethnic group
Grilled prawns are just one of the many dishes in Thai cuisine


Art and culture[edit]

Nature and sports[edit]




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Additional reading[edit]

External links[edit]