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. Estimates of tourism receipts directly contributing to the Thai GDP of 12 trillion baht range from nine percent (1 trillion baht) (2013) to 17.7 percent (2.53 trillion baht) in 2016.[1][2] When including indirect travel and tourism receipts, the 2014 total is estimated to have accounted for 19.3 percent (2.3 trillion baht) of Thailand's GDP.[3]:1 The global average for tourism revenue is nine percent of GDP.[1]

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) uses the slogan "Amazing Thailand" to promote Thailand internationally. In 2015, this was supplemented by a "Discover Thainess" campaign.[4]


Statue of a mythical Kinnon, 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.[5] 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.[6] Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalise on this then-new trend.

Thai woman working silk looms, Jim Thompson House

Tourist numbers have grown from 336,000 foreign visitors and 54,000 GIs on R&R in 1967[5] to 32.59 million foreign guests visiting Thailand in 2016.[7][8][9] The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) claims that the tourist industry earned 2.52 trillion baht (US$71.4 billion) in 2016, up 11 percent from 2015.[7] TAT officials said their revenue estimates, for foreign and domestic tourists combined, show that tourism revenue for all of 2017 may surpass earlier forecasts of 2.77 trillion baht (US$78.5 billion).[7]

Phra Pathommachedi at night, Nakhon Pathom

In 2015, 6.7 million persons arrived from ASEAN countries and the number is expected to grow to 8.3 million in 2016, generating 245 billion baht.[10] The largest numbers of Western tourists came from Russia (6.5 percent), the UK (3.7 percent), Australia (3.4 percent), and the US (3.1 percent).[11] Around 55 percent of Thailand's tourists are return visitors.[citation needed] The peak period is during the Christmas and New Year holidays when Western tourists flee cold conditions at home.

Mime on Walking Street in Pattaya.

In 2014, 4.6 million Chinese visitors travelled to Thailand.[11][12] In 2015, Chinese tourists numbered 7.9 million or 27 percent of all international tourist arrivals, 29.8 million; 8.8 million more Chinese are expected in 2016.[10] Thailand relies heavily on Chinese tourists to meet its tourism revenue target of 2.2 trillion baht in 2015 and 2.3 trillion in 2016.

Chinese visitors now account for 27 percent of all foreign travellers to Thailand.[13] It is estimated that the average Chinese tourist remains in the country for one week and spends 30,000–40,000 baht (US$1,000–1,300) per person, per trip.[14] The average Chinese tourist spends 6,400 baht (US$180) per day—more than the average visitor's 5,690 baht (US$160).[10][12] According to Thailand's Tourism Authority, the number of Chinese tourists rose by 93 percent 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.[15] The huge influx of Chinese tourists has not been without its downside. Locals have complained that many Chinese visitors are culturally insensitive and boorish. This has led the Thai government to publish a Mandarin language "etiquette manual" for distribution to Chinese tourists.[16]

Asian tourists primarily visit Thailand for Bangkok and the historical, natural, and cultural sights in its vicinity.[citation needed] Western tourists not only visit Bangkok and surroundings, but in addition many travel to the southern beaches and islands.[citation needed] The north is the chief destination for trekking and adventure travel with its diverse ethnic minority groups and forested mountains.[citation needed] The region hosting the fewest 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.[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 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]

International rankings[edit]

In the MasterCard 2014 and 2015 Global Destination Cities Index, Bangkok was ranked number two of the world's top-20 most-visited cities, trailing only London.[19][20]

The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015 published by the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand 35 of 141 nations. Among the metrics used to arrive at the rankings, Thailand scored high on "Natural Resources" (16 of 141 nations) and "Tourist Service Infrastructure" (21 of 141), but low on "Environmental Sustainability" (116 of 141) and "Safety and Security" (132 of 141).[21][22]

In 2013, Thailand was the 10th "top tourist destination" in the world tourism rankings with 26.5 million international arrivals.[23]:6

In 2016, Bangkok ranked 1st surpassing London and New York in Euromonitor International's list of "Top City Destinations" with 21 million visitors.

In 2008, Pattaya was 23rd with 4,406,300 visitors, Phuket 31st with 3,344,700 visitors, and Chiang Mai ranked 78th place with 1,604,600 visitors.[24]

2013–2015 Thai political unrest[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 five percent 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 slightly from 1.44 trillion.[25]

Tourist arrivals in 2014 totalled 24.7 million, a drop of 6.6 percent from 2013. Revenues derived from tourism amounted to 1.13 trillion baht, down 5.8 percent 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.[26]

At the beginning of April 2015, Thailand ended martial law, to be replaced by Article 44 of the provisional constitution, granting unrestricted powers to the prime minister. The words "martial law" were toxic to foreign democracies, but, in terms of tourism, even more toxic to foreign travel insurance providers, who decline to provide insurance to those visiting nations under martial law. The tourism industry rebounded swiftly after the lifting of martial law. Deputy Prime Minister Pridiyathorn Devakula said that the arrival of high-spending tourists from Europe and the US is expected to increase.[27]

"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".[4][28] 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.[26] 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.[29]


Thailand's popularity as a tourist destination owes a great deal to its benign climate. 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.[30]

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 six weeks, starting in October and running to November.[31] 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.[32]


Annual statistics[33][edit]

"Amazing Thailand" – Thailand Tourism booth at a Travel and Tour Expo
Year Arrivals  % Change
2016 32,588,303 +8.91%[34]
2015 29,881,091 +20.44%
2014 24,809,683 -6.54%
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

In their justifications for constructing a new coal-fired power plant in Krabi Province (2015), the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) presumes that by 2032 Thailand will receive more than 100 million tourists a year, 40 percent of them visiting Phuket and neighbouring areas such as Krabi. On average, the power consumption of a tourist is four times higher than that of a local resident.[35]

In 2015 some segments of Thailand's hospitality industry enjoyed their best year in over two decades, according to research firm STR Global. Thailand closed the year with an overall hotel occupancy of 73.4 percent, an increase of 13.6 percent over 2014, as arrivals rose to near the 30 million mark, driven by demand from the Chinese market. December 2015 was a particularly strong month as occupancy levels reached 77.4 percent, the highest level since 1995.[36]

Despite the increasing number of tourist arrivals, some businesses catering to the tourist trade report declining numbers. Mr Sompoch Sukkaew, chief legal counsel of the Patong Entertainment Business Association (PEBA) in Phuket, said in January 2016 that entertainment businesses are suffering. "Over the past three years, most bars were averaging about B90,000 revenue per day at this time of year, they're making just B40,000. Small bars...used to average B40,000 to B50,000 a day, now they're down to just B10,000 per day....PEBA members generated about B1.5 million per day during the peak season. Now it's down to about B540,000 per day." PEBA members number 500 in Patong, with about 200 businesses in the Bangla Road entertainment area. PEBA President Weerawit Kuresombat attributed the decline to the rise in Chinese tourism. "...most of them [Chinese tourists] come on complete tour packages....This means they spend very little on extras....They rarely venture out for the nightlife or even visit independent restaurants. They just don't spend much", he said.[37]

The Thai government expects revenue from foreign tourists to increase by 8.5 percent to 1.78 trillion baht (US$49.8 billion) in 2017. Deputy Prime Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn attributed the increase to the improving outlook for global tourism as well as Thailand's investments in infrastructure. In 2016, Thailand had 32.6 million visitors, a rise of nearly nine percent from 2015. Thanasak expects daily tourist spending to increase to 5,200 baht per person in 2017, up from 5,100 baht in 2016.[34] Local tourists are expected to contribute an additional 950 billion baht in tourism revenues in 2017.[38]

Top 25 arrivals by nationality[edit]

Rank Country or territory 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006
*  ASEAN 8,658,051 7,886,136 6,641,772 7,282,266 6,281,153 5,594,577 4,534,235 3,968,579 3,971,429 3,520,051 3,389,342
1  China 8,757,466 7,934,791 4,636,298 4,637,335 2,786,860 1,721,247 1,122,219 777,508 826,660 907,117 949,117
2  Malaysia* 3,533,826 3,423,397 2,613,418 3,041,097 2,554,397 2,500,280 2,058,956 1,757,813 1,855,332 1,540,080 1,591,328
3  South Korea 1,464,218 1,372,995 1,122,566 1,295,342 1,263,619 1,156,283 885,445 758,227 889,210 1,183,652 1,092,783
4  Japan 1,439,629 1,381,690 1,267,886 1,586,425 1,373,716 1,277,893 993,674 1,004,453 1,153,868 1,277,638 1,311,987
5  Laos* 1,409,456 1,233,138 1,053,983 976,639 975,999 891,950 715,345 655,034 621,564 513,701 276,207
6  India 1,193,822 1,069,149 932,603 1,050,889 1,013,308 914,971 760,371 614,566 536,964 536,356 459,795
7  Russia 1,089,992 884,085 1,606,430 1,746,565 1,316,564 1,054,187 644,678 336,965 324,120 277,503 187,658
8  United Kingdom 1,003,386 946,919 907,877 905,024 873,053 844,972 810,727 841,425 826,523 859,010 850,685
9  United States 974,632 867,520 763,520 823,486 768,638 681,748 611,792 627,074 669,097 681,972 694,258
10  Singapore* 966,909 937,311 844,133 955,468 831,215 682,364 603,538 563,575 570,047 604,603 687,160
11  Germany 835,506 760,604 715,240 737,658 682,419 619,133 606,874 573,473 542,726 544,495 516,659
12  Vietnam* 830,394 751,091 559,415 725,057 618,670 496,768 380,368 363,029 338,303 237,672 227,134
13  Australia 791,631 805,946 831,854 900,460 930,241 829,855 698,046 646,705 694,473 658,148 549,547
14  Hong Kong 749,694 669,165 483,131 588,335 473,666 411,834 316,476 318,762 337,827 367,862 376,636
15  France 738,763 681,097 635,073 611,582 576,106 515,572 461,670 427,067 398,407 373,090 321,278
16  Cambodia* 686,682 487,487 550,339 481,595 423,642 265,903 146,274 96,586 85,790 99,945 117,100
17  Indonesia* 535,625 469,226 497,592 594,251 447,820 370,795 286,072 227,205 247,930 237,592 219,783
18  Taiwan 522,231 552,624 394,149 502,176 394,475 394,225 369,220 362,783 393,176 427,474 475,117
19  Myanmar* 341,641 259,678 206,794 172,383 129,385 110,671 90,179 79,279 71,902 72,205 62,769
20  Philippines* 339,486 310,975 304,813 321,571 289,566 268,375 246,430 217,705 221,506 205,266 198,443
21  Sweden 332,866 321,663 324,865 341,398 364,681 373,856 355,214 350,819 392,274 378,387 306,085
22  Italy 265,532 246,066 219,875 207,192 200,703 185,869 168,203 170,105 159,513 171,328 150,420
23  Canada 244,268 227,306 211,059 229,897 219,354 194,356 168,393 169,482 180,900 183,440 183,094
24  Netherlands 235,708 221,657 211,524 218,765 208,122 198,891 196,994 205,412 193,541 194,434 180,830
25   Switzerland 208,967 206,454 201,271 199,923 191,147 170,044 155,761 148,269 143,065 146,511 140,741

* Country in ASEAN

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,[39] 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.

Siam Paragon in Bangkok. One of the largest shopping malls in Thailand

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 number one and two respectively, more popular than New York City's Times Square or Paris's Eiffel Tower.[40]


Sex tourism contributes to tourist arrivals. 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 percent of the total prostitution scene in Thailand, and is concentrated in red-light districts such as Pattaya, Patpong, and Patong as well as other tourist destinations.[41]

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, named Thailand's first female tourism minister in 2014, has pledged to eradicate Thailand's sex industry. "We want Thailand to be about quality tourism. We want the sex industry gone," Ms Kobkarn told Reuters. "Tourists don't come to Thailand for [sex]. They come here for our beautiful culture." She has named Pattaya, with its thousands of bars, brothels, and massage parlours, her "pilot project" in the cleanup campaign.[42]

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 [43] they continue to be an attraction for tourists.


In the early 1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand.[44][45] 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 percent of Thailand's forest remained.[46] 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 percent. 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.[47]


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 robust. 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.[47] Many mahouts thus mate their female elephants. Unfortunately, natural insemination and birthing is time consuming and expensive. An easy way around this is the illegal capture of baby elephants from wild herds. But to be able to take a baby elephant from the herd, its mother needs as she will try 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.[46]

Elephants can sustain injuries related to giving rides, or going on treks, with tourists. The elephant's spine is curved and not optimised 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.[47]


The law pertaining to domesticated elephants is the Draught Animal Act of 1992. This act classifies elephants as draft animals along with horses, donkeys, and oxen. It allows domesticated elephants to be treated as private property. This act has no additional measures for animal welfare protection.[47]


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.[47] Hooks are the common tool used to discipline and guide an elephant during treks.[46]

Medical tourism[edit]

Medical tourism is a large and growing sector within Thailand's extensive tourism and healthcare industries. The country is attractive to potential medical tourists and international patients for a number of important reasons: Thailand was the first Asian country to achieve Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation in 2002. As of April 2014, 35 hospitals were JCI-accredited.;[48] experienced, often Western-trained, medical professionals; the latest medical technology; and 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.[49]

Some of the primary destinations for medical tourism in Thailand are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Ko Samui, Pattaya/Chonburi, and Phuket.[50]

Foreigners seeking treatment for everything from open-heart surgery to gender reassignment have made Thailand's private hospitals the world's number one destination for medical tourism[citation needed], attracting an estimated 2.81 million patients in 2015, up 10.2 percent.[51] In 2013, medical tourists pumped as much as US$4.7 billion into the Thai economy, according to government statistics.[52]

Major destinations[edit]

Map of Thailand

Central Thailand and eastern seaboard

Northern Thailand

Northeastern Thailand

Wat Phra That Phanom, Nakhon Phanom

Southern Thailand

Phra Nang Beach covered with tourists.

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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