In the face of a continued surge in tourist arrivals throughout the first nine months of 2015 (the general pattern was: dwindling numbers of Russian tourists, but double as many new arrivals from China and other East Asian countries), it was only a question of time until Thai tourism officials would jump for joy, pat themselves on the official back and forecast a record 30 million visitors this year.
But well, if you believe the official statistics, this isnât just wishful thinking either. Given the arrival numbers for the first nine months of 2015, itâs actually more than likely that Thailand this year will break its previous (2013) record and for the first time hit 30 million tourist arrivals.
In fact, we already forecast this in July:
Preliminary figures suggest that Thailand has welcomed 15.81 million visitors between January and July 12. This mid-year record high marks a 30.31% increase over the same period of last year and shows that the country is well on its way to achieve its ambitious target of 28.8 million tourist arrivals this year. Who knows, they might even hit the 30 million mark until the end of the year?
In Thailand, itâs primarily the face that counts – or numbers in this case, and the tourist numbers so far this year obviously give reason to optimism. In fact, the tourism council has last week officially forecast a record 30.3 million visitors until the end of 2015, an increase of 22% from last year. Only Chinese tourists, who account for nearly a third of arrivals now, are expected to total 8.1 million.
Never mind a bomb attack in downtown Bangkok just two months ago (some 20 people, mostly Chinese and East Asian tourists were killed.) Never mind that the politically divided nation is effectively still under military rule and a return to (Thai-style) democracy isnât really on the horizon yet. Thailand is going for gold and setting new records in tourist arrivals.
The Associated Press comments:
The bounce back reinforces the teflon reputation of Thai tourism which employs millions and has thrived over the past decade despite two coups, episodes of deadly street fighting, airport occupations and natural disasters.
Teflon Thailand – like a permanent Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Then again, if you take a closer look at the situation on the ground (and beyond the pretty face of sheer numbers) – is there really much reason for optimism? Most insiders will likely agree that tourism-wise Pattaya has seen its quietest year in at least a decade; and what we hear from other destinations across the country wonât let you jump for joy either.
The nominal high season – due to kick off in November – is just a couple of weeks away now, but an upwards trend is barely noticeable. No, it wonât get any worse; just how much busier will it get over the next months?
With the exception of perhaps Soi Buakhao (thanks to the loyal Brits), most bars and restaurants around Pattaya are currently still as empty or half-empty as a month or two ago. The same applies to the beaches (never mind the busloads of Chinese on Koh Larn). Bar owners are struggling to make it through the last weeks of the low season and can only bank on the upcoming âpeak seasonâ (which last year was pretty much a no-show or just a slightly busier off-season.)
The bar girls arenât happy and not making any money, shop owners and street vendors are moaning, condo prices keep on falling and the property market (which relied on Russian buyers for years) is struggling since the collapse of the Russian Ruble.
Walking Street, the good old epicenter of nightlife in Pattaya, has deteriorated it seems to some kind of early-evening tourist attractions for Chinese tour groups taking photos and spending little or no money. Soi 7 and Soi 8 in Central Pattaya â well, theyâve definitely seen better days (and thatâs to say it with a euphemism.)
No beating around the bush – itâs been a bad year for tourism in Pattaya.
Of course, there are the busloads of Chinese who tour around Pattaya 24/7. But aside from tour bus companies, Chinese (owned) restaurants, the Pattaya Floating Market and day trip destinations popular with the Chinese, whoâs actually making money with them? Surely not Pattayaâs bar industry.
Yes, certain sources claim that Chinese tourists are actually the biggest spenders in Thailand. But whereâs the evidence, and what are they spending these record sums of money on? Granted, most hotels would be empty without the Chinese; but hotel owners are effectively forced to give massive discounts to heavyweight Chinese travel companies in order to sell their rooms. Finally, other than Western tourists, the Chinese mostly spend just a day or two in Pattaya â simply too little time to inject significant amounts of money into the local economy.
Most people probably wonât mind much that the number of Russian tourists has fallen sharply since the beginning of the year â Russian visitors now arenât even in the #10 of visiting nationalities anymore. Granted, the ever-growing Russian tourist population of the last 10 years has put many Western return visitors off from coming back to Pattaya. So thereâs something good about the disappearance of the Russians. On the downside, without the Russians large parts of Pattaya and especially the beaches have been empty for the last six months or so. Simply ask the deckchair guys on Jomtien beach, for example.
Where are the Europeans? According to the official tourism statistics, their numbers have remained stable or even risen slightly this year. Just where are they? Sure, the loyal Brits are still all over the Soi Buakhao area. But where are the Germans, the Americans, Scandinavians etc.? To judge from the official arrival stats, theyâve got to be somewhere in Thailand but for some reason largely appear to stay clear of Pattaya, thatâs unless the statistics havenât been faked as increasing numbers of observers suggest in an attempt to explain the obvious gap between official numbers and the situation on the ground?
Unfortunately, there are no tourism stats specifically for Pattaya available at the moment but weâll likely have to wait until the beginning of next year until the city releases visitor numbers for 2015. But weâd suggest that – if you exclude the Chinese – visitor numbers have significantly decreased over the course of the last two years (and we donât just mean the disappearance of the Russians.)
Why would that be? The Baht is currently relatively weak, so foreign exchange rates cannot really be blamed. Have Pattaya and Funtownâs traditional âattractionsâ like bars and girls become too expensive? Perhaps. On the other hand, unless the cost of living in Thailand (including rental prices for shophouses and bar structures in Pattaya) decreases again – which is unlikely – itâs just as unlikely that prices will drop.
So whatâs in store for the upcoming âhigh seasonâ – aside from regular announcements by happy-as-a-clam Thai tourism officials that visitor numbers for 2015 have broken all previous records?
Only time will tell â and this pretty soon. But you better donât hold your breath.