Surtourism in Thailand: a heavenly destination welcomes you again, but only if you are “upscale”

Thailand’s strict COVID measures have resulted in international travel stopping during the pandemic. But now with tourism is starting up again, the country is not sure it wants the same type of visitors to return to its shores.

Historically, the country has attracted large numbers of tourists, from unruly backpackers on sabbaticals to large groups of tourists who care little about the environment.

Now Thailand wants to break out of its “hedonistic” history of mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus should be on “high-end travelers, rather than large numbers of visitors.”

The Phi Phi Islands, world famous for their white sand beaches and clear blue waters, would be a place that would be happy to see a change. As the closures kept international travelers away, this region was quietly recovering from years of overtourism.

Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Park received more than 2 million visitors each year, of which 6,000 people per day made their way to famous Maya Bay. This uncontrollable mass tourism left the region’s fragile ecosystem in disarray.

“Coral cover has shrunk by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok told AFP.

The problem became so serious that in 2018, Thon pushed the authorities to close part of Maya Bay. It has since been closed, and with strict travel restrictions meaning the number of visitors to the area has dropped to almost zero, nature has started to recover.

Endangered whale sharks have been sighted off the coast, turtle species have returned, and more than 40% of the coral fragments replanted in Maya Bay have survived.

Thon describes it as “a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.

However, to fully recover, these coral reefs would need another two decades without visitors.

Reinvent travel to Thailand

However, many people in Thailand still depend on tourism as a source of income and the Thai government is now hoping to revive the industry with an emphasis on a more sustainable type of visitor.

In the wake of the pandemic, she is preparing to launch a long-term residency program that targets four types of people. Visas, tax incentives and relaxed ownership rules aim to attract professionals wishing to country work, alongside highly skilled people, wealthy citizens of the world and retirees.

To attract “quality” visitors, the government is also relaxing the regulations around boating and reviewing taxes on personal effects and luxury products.

Thailand Tourism Authority Governor Yuthasak Supasorn said that for the country’s tourism sector to be sustainable in the future, it must attract high-value travelers.

Phi Phi is also hoping to change its reputation as a tourist, and National Park chief Pramote Kaewnam insists the same mistakes will not happen again.

Boats will no longer be allowed to enter Maya Bay, but will be redirected to a jetty far from the famous cove on the other side of the island. Only eight boats will be able to dock, with a number of visitors limited to 300 people at a time. Tourists will only be entitled to a one-hour tour.

Areas dedicated to nautical activities have also been set up in an attempt to limit the impact on ocean life.

Across the country, the focus is on quality over quantity as Thailand’s tourism industry recovers from its nearly two-year shutdown.

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