Once upon a time not so long ago, high season in Pattaya would last as long as five or six months each year, from November through March or even April. But that was then. In recent years, it appears, the peak season has gradually been getting shorter and shorter, with the biggest influx of visitors over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. In fact, we’d suggest that the nominal “high season” (or whatever remains of it these days) now only lasts from December to sometime late January or February. That’s it. The rest of the year is but one long low season, just with some months even lower than others.
So was the 2015-2016 peak season, in terms of numbers and turnover, a good season for Thailand? How well (or how badly) did Pattaya fare in particular? And what’s the outlook for the rest of 2016?
To answer the last question first: The Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT), a representative of tourism industry operators in the kingdom, is obviously as upbeat as ever, pointing out that foreign tourist arrivals had “shown an upward trend since the beginning of the year.” Earlier this week, the Bangkok Post quoted the TCT president as predicting that
[as] many as 33.83 million foreign tourists could visit Thailand in 2016, up 13.22% on the 29.8 million in 2015. (…)
A total of 8.81 million international arrivals were expected in the first quarter, up 12.23% year-on-year, and 7.82 million in the second quarter, or growth of 11.56% (…)
But is the optimism of Thai tourism officials justified? And was the bygone “high season” really that fantastic? To start with, let’s look at the arrival numbers for the first two months of the year, and then undertake a “reality check” and contrast the official arrival stats with the tourism situation on the ground. (Please scroll down to the bottom of this post for a complete breakdown of tourist arrivals by nationality for the first two months of 2016.)
Tourist Arrival Stats for January, February 2016
In comparison with the steady upward trend of the first three quarters of last year, the arrival stats for December 2015 had been relatively disappointing. Granted, numbers increased again year-on-year (albeit just by a moderate 4,69%). But while arrivals from East Asia – now the biggest tourism source market for Thailand – grew just by a meagre 10%, visitor numbers from Europe – traditionally a key source market for Pattaya – even fell by almost 7% year-on-year. No, “high season” didn’t start really well. So what would 2016 have in store?
As far as numbers are concerned, the TCT president was obviously absolutely right when he noted the above mentioned upward trend in tourist arrivals since the beginning of the year. Visitor numbers from East Asia alone grew by 22.25% in January; that includes a 45.37%-increase in arrival numbers from China. In February, arrivals from East Asia continued to grow by nearly 20%. Visitors from China (up 22.77%) accounted for more than 31% or nearly one third of all tourist arrivals to the kingdom.
What is interesting to note is that the combined number of arrivals from East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East accounted for approx. 70% of all visitors in the first two months of 2016. Granted, tourists from traditional source markets such as Europe, the United States and Australia are clearly becoming a minority. But that doesn’t mean that their numbers are shrinking.
With the exception of arrivals from Australia, which were slightly down year-on-year in the first two months, Farang arrivals (we mean white Westerners) actually surged since the beginning of the year. Visitors from the US were up almost 15% in both January and February, while arrivals from Europe, including Russia, increased by 3,25% in January and by 10,93% in February.
As for visitors from European key source markets such as the United Kingdom (up 10,66% in January, 13,30% in February), Germany (7,14%, 10,26%), France (6,52%, 12,10%) and Sweden (11,22%, 14,10%), their numbers have all increased year-on-year. Most importantly perhaps, the one-year downward trend in arrivals from Russia (up 14,29% in February) appears to have been reversed.
So while the combined number of arrivals from Europe and the United States accounted for just over one fourth of total arrivals in the first two months of 2016, their numbers have actually been rising and the assumption that Farangs were increasingly shying away from Thailand simply cannot be confirmed.
Judging by the sheer numbers one simply can’t help but agree with the TCT’s current optimism – the 2016 stats look absolutely brilliant so far. In fact, the total of just above three million tourists that visited the country in January (up 14,99%), and the almost 3.1 million arrivals in February (up 15,96%), are absolute all-time record numbers. Never have more foreign tourists visited Thailand in just two months.
Yes, even the relatively “disappointing” 2,987 million arrivals in December actually marked a new all-time high for that month of the year, so Thailand, one should assume, has just approached the happy end of the best high season ever, right? Then again, is size so-to-say really all that matters?
Reality Check – Where Are The Tourists?
We obviously can’t speak for the whole of Thailand and individual stats for Pattaya haven’t been made available yet, so here’s just a brief assessment of the tourism situation in Pattaya over the past three to four months of the traditional annual peak season from your webmaster’s point of view.
To be fair, the “new type” of tourists who are visiting Pattaya in ever-growing numbers – we mean the virtual millions of Chinese group travelers, East Asians, Indians etc. that literally overrun the city in their tour buses – certainly make for fully booked hotel rooms and excellent turnover at all the notorious tourist attractions. The gradual return of the Russians is surely not to be underestimated either. Pattaya and its tourism landscape have been shaken up considerably in recent years, and while the numbers of traditional Farang visitors aren’t actually dwindling they’re obviously becoming a minority in the urban landscape of Pattaya. Granted, the Chinese tour groups are apparently also spending a few Baht. Then again, that’s not the Pattaya “we” used to know.
Pattaya was built on its nightlife and adult entertainment industry. Pattaya used to be bars and girls, and the beaches, markets and tourist attractions were just there to keep you entertained during the day. Now Walking Street has deteriorated to some kind of night-time tourist attraction for hordes of Asian tour groups chasing after an umbrella. Many of the traditional beer bars that would typically cater to Western males are empty these days or half-empty at best. The girls are bored. The atmosphere is gone. Bar owners are struggling to make a living, and it doesn’t need a Nostradamus to predict that over the course of the upcoming low season many bars will be forced to shut up shop.
There’s a number of reasons for the gradual downfall of the “old” Pattaya we Farangs used to love. In a post from last summer dealing with the obvious decline of Soi 7 and Soi 8 we posed a couple of questions pertaining to why so many bars were empty even during the peak season. Most are obviously rhetorical and may be answered in the affirmative.
- Has Pattaya and its “adult entertainment industry” become too expensive for the average Joe?
- Are the girls no longer what they used to be (not as attractive or friendly as they used to be) and demand too much money for too little services?
- Are the Thai Baht exchange rates to blame?
- Is there simply too much competition (too many bars)?
- Have the Russians, Indians etc. put the more “traditional” Western sex tourists off and destroyed the illusion this place was their home?
But that all doesn’t solve the following dilemma: If the tourists are there, arrival numbers even better than ever, then why would most long-time observers, or at least those familiar with the bar industry, agree that the bygone “high season” (sic) was in fact just another all-time low? Indeed, where do all these Farangs go that – if we trust the official arrival stats – obviously still visit Thailand? No, we haven’t got an answer to this riddle.
Foreign Tourist Arrivals by Nationality
Here’s a breakdown of foreign tourist arrivals by nationality for the first two months of 2016, as compiled by the Immigration Bureau (source: Department of Tourism.)