Thailand’s tourism sector is making a steady comeback, having welcomed over 15 million tourists between January and July 2023. The total revenue from tourism reached 1.08 trillion baht (US$29.38 billion), with international visitors contributing 638.16 million baht (US$17.37 million). This resurgence is primarily driven by tourists from Malaysia, China, South Korea, India and Russia.
To further bolster tourism, various initiatives have been implemented this year, including a temporary visa-free program for select target markets, a focus on promoting lesser-known cities in Thailand and an emphasis on longer stays.
Leading the charge in these efforts is Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Under the stewardship of its new governor, Thapanee Kiatphaibool, who officially assumed office on September 1, TAT has set ambitious goals. It aims to generate 1.92 trillion baht (US$52.92 billion) from 35 million foreign tourists and an additional 1.08 trillion baht (US$29.38 billion) from 200 million domestic trips in 2024.
“Under my tenure,” says Kiatphaibool, “TAT will focus on creating and delivering meaningful experiences tailored to meet the diverse demands of discerning travelers.” The sector is shifting its attention from quantity to quality, both in terms of its target audience and the offerings it provides.
Leading Reopening Efforts
Kiatphaibool played a pivotal role in Thailand’s post-Covid-19 reopening efforts. For example, she initiated the Special Tourist Visa (STV) scheme, which paved the way for subsequent entry programs such as Villa Quarantine, Yacht Quarantine, Golf Quarantine and the Phuket Sandbox, regarded internationally as a model for the country’s reopening.
She was also recognized for her leadership in initiating the Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA) certification program that enabled hotels and services to meet specific health and safety standards. The program subsequently became mandatory for hotels seeking registration as quarantine facilities during the period of stringent Covid-19 control measures.
Building Strength From Within
Having been with TAT since 1999, Kiatphaibool has observed the evolution of Thailand’s tourism sector over the years. She says, “The sector now places a strong emphasis on building strength from within—uplifting and supporting local businesses and communities.”
“Furthermore,” she adds, “there’s a growing commitment to the management of tourist attractions and destinations to ensure the preservation and conservation of our natural resources. Today, many attractions limit daily visitor numbers to align with their carrying capacity, and national parks are periodically closed to allow nature time to recover.”
For instance, Maya Bay, which gained international fame through the Hollywood film The Beach, was closed for nearly four years due to overtourism, resulting in the destruction of coral reefs and its marine ecosystem. Since the park reopened in 2022, it has capped tourist numbers to about 4,000 a day and swimming in the bay is no longer allowed.
Other attractions such as the Thi Lo Su Waterfall in Tak’s Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary will take advantage of the monsoon season from July to August each year to close, providing the ecosystem with an opportunity to heal.
Shaping the Future of Tourism
During Kiatphaibool’s four-year term as governor, she will implement a strategic vision called PASS to shape Thailand’s tourism future. The strategy focuses on these four priorities:
P: Partnership 360—Foster collaboration with industry partners to enhance Thailand’s appeal to international and domestic travelers.
A: Accelerate Digital Access—Utilize innovation and technology for sustainable tourism growth, including leveraging digital content and virtual influencers to lure Generation Y and Z travelers.
S: Subculture Movement—Target influential subculture groups to drive impactful travel trends through online platforms.
S: Sustainably Now—Promote sustainability through the Sustainable Tourism Goals (STGs), aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, featuring the STAR (Sustainable Tourism Acceleration Rating) system to certify businesses for sustainability.
Additionally, the Thai government’s Bio-Circular Green economy (BCG) model has found its way into various tourism segments, including health and wellness, responsible tourism and gastronomy. For instance, TAT partnered with the Thai Organic Consumer Association to establish a marketplace that connects farmers directly with mid-stream consumers, including hotels and restaurants that serve downstream consumers and tourists.
This not only reduces carbon emissions but also expands the benefits of the circular economy. Initially launched in Phuket, the project has since expanded throughout Thailand.
Balancing Tourism and Environmental Goals
Indeed, TAT has undertaken a commendable effort in advancing the cause of sustainable tourism throughout the country, spanning both its major and secondary cities. This endeavor stands as a pivotal force in the revitalization of Thailand’s tourism sector.
Kiatphaibool states, “Sustainability principles encompass environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development. Striking a harmonious balance among these three aspects is paramount for ensuring the long-term viability of tourism. Yet, the pursuit of sustainability in tourism must not compromise the overall satisfaction of tourists, but rather should enrich their experiences by fostering a heightened awareness of sustainability issues.”
Notably, TAT has recently introduced 20 low-carbon routes across the country with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the ecological footprint. The success story of Koh Mak, recognized as Thailand’s first low-carbon destination, serves as an exemplary model for promoting responsible and sustainable tourism practices. Nestled within the pristine expanse of Trat province, Koh Mak has preserved its idyllic charm by embracing development practices that have minimal impact on the environment and local community. Visitors to the island are actively encouraged to engage in activities that minimize their carbon footprint and support local businesses.
Ultimately, the balance between tourism and environmental stewardship remains a paramount goal, and Thailand, through TAT, is leading the way toward a more sustainable and enriching travel experience for all.