Tourists walk along Patong Beach on Phuket Island, Thailand. This year, India has become the main source of tourists to the popular island.
On May 1, Thailand scrapped its “Test and Go” entry program involving mandatory RT-PCR testing and up to two nights of quarantine to boost the country’s tourism industry recovery. Soon after this change, India had become the main source of foreign tourists to Phuket, Thailand’s world-famous resort island.
The five-month arrivals record updated by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) further highlights India’s growing presence in Thailand’s tourism scene. Data from January 1 to May 24 confirm that Indians have made up the largest proportion of foreign arrivals to Thailand so far this year with 100,884 visitors, overtaking the British (89,745) and Germans (74,104). With the lifting of all quarantine requirements for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated tourists from June 1, Thailand can expect to see a new influx of Indian tourists.
On closer inspection, the numbers above should come as no surprise. India, with its growing middle class and rising purchasing power, was considered one of Thailand’s fastest growing source markets even before the arrival of COVID-19. Notably, in 2019, Thailand attracted nearly 2 million Indians, from which it generated an income of $2.5 billion. That year, Phuket, a popular wedding destination among Indians, saw a 298% year-on-year increase in Indian arrivals. Nevertheless, given the overwhelming presence of Chinese, Russian and European travelers in the pre-pandemic era, the Indian market was not a priority.
Now that Chinese and Russian mass markets have been taken out of the equation due to Beijing’s sustainable “zero COVID” strategy and international sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine, and accelerating global inflation which discourages long-distance travel from Europe, the spotlight has shifted to incoming Indian visitors. Frankly speaking, reaching out to India is no longer an option but a necessity for Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy.
Among the Thai government‘s efforts to woo Indians are the recent launch of an airline bubble facilitating direct flights, various joint promotions and active online marketing campaigns. It is also worth mentioning that this year’s South Asia Travel and Tourism Exchange in New Delhi brought together several senior Thai officials, highlighting Thailand’s new commitment to the Indian market. Thai companies have also made operational adjustments to adapt to the new reality. Bangkok’s largest water park, commonly known as Suan Siam, for example, has included Indian breakfast in its offerings, specifically to target early morning Indian arrivals.
The growth of post-pandemic tourism in Thailand adds to the potential for collaboration with India in the field of well-being. Although ‘wellness’ is not a new trend in Thailand, the term has become obsessive following the revelation of the government’s ambitious target to gain 10% of the global wellness market by 2027 To achieve this, tourism provinces along the Andaman Coast are to be consolidated into a “wellness corridor” and a “wellness single license” allowing businesses to flexibly offer a combination of wellness services. health – traditional medicines, spas and beauty treatments, rehabilitation, elderly care and e-health. Whether Thailand’s wellness effort will bring any real success remains to be seen. But it is clear that India, the center of Ayurvedic medicine with its own large and growing wellness market, will become a valuable partner in this regard.
Additionally, Thailand and India have embraced and demonstrated a strong devotion to digitalization. Thailand’s fintech and e-commerce platforms, as well as 5G rollouts, have been advancing rapidly during the COVID shutdown. Meanwhile, India – now home to 100 unicorn startups – has seen an unprecedented level of digital adoption across its public and private agencies. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for digital cooperation. In fact, India’s Trade and Industry Minister, Anupriya Patel, has already promised to give start-up advice to Thailand, should any Thai investors decide to join Indian ventures.
More fortuitous was the unexpected success of a Bollywood biographical film “Gangubai Kathiawadi” in Thailand. The film, depicting the life of a sex worker turned social activist for women’s rights, debuted on Netflix Thailand last month and has since sparked discussions ranging from protecting and legalizing prostitution in Thailand to the extent of India’s soft power. The film also inspired Thai celebrities and non-celebrities alike to recreate the “Gangubai look”, dressing in a white sari and copying the protagonist’s alluring yet powerful poses. The cosplay went viral to the point that Piti Srisangnam of Chulalongkorn University raised concerns about the risks of romanticizing sex work and sending misleading messages to Indians.
Indeed, despite deep-rooted religious and cultural ties, myths, misconceptions and prejudices remain huge obstacles to fruitful interactions between Thais and Indians. These barriers need to be removed, perhaps through systematic outreach activities, for Thailand-India relations to reach their full potential.