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 9 percent (one trillion baht) (2013) to 17.7 percent (2.53 trillion baht) in 2016. 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.
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.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. Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalise on this then-new trend.
Tourist numbers have grown from 336,000 foreign visitors and 54,000 GIs on R&R in 1967 to 32.59 million foreign guests visiting Thailand in 2016. 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. 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).
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. 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). Around 55 percent 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 2014, 4.6 million Chinese visitors travelled to Thailand. In 2015, Chinese tourists numbered 7.9 million or 27 percent of all international tourist arrivals, 29.8 million; 8.75 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2016. 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. 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. The average Chinese tourist spends 6,400 baht (US$180) per day—more than the average visitor’s 5,690 baht (US$160). 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. 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.
In 2015, Thailand hosted 1.43 million Japanese travellers, up 4.1 percent from 2015, generating 61.4 billion baht, up 6.3 percent. In 2016, Thailand expects 1.7 million Japanese tourists, generating 66.2 billion baht in revenue.
To accommodate foreign visitors, the Thai government established a separate tourism police force with offices in the major tourist areas and its own central emergency telephone number.
Thailand’s tourism has faced increased competition 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 rival Thailand’s former monopoly in the Indochina region. To counter this, Thailand is targeting niche markets such as golf holidays, holidays combined with medical treatment or visits to military installations. Thailand has also plans to become the hub of Buddhist tourism in the region.
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.
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).
In 2013, Thailand was the 10th “top tourist destination” in the world tourism rankings with 26.5 million international arrivals.
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.
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.