Interview: Weerasak Kowsurat, Minister of Tourism and Sports

How do you assess the promotion of Thailand as a preferred tourism destination?

WEERASAK KOWSURAT: Thailand enjoyed 35m international arrivals in 2017, an increase of 4%, and anticipates 36m in 2018. This generated €51bn in tourism revenue from international visitors, up 8% from 2016. As generating further growth is considered less of a problem for the years ahead, we are now turning our attentions more towards sustainable tourism.

The central goal is to position Thailand as a preferred destination for visitors that offers quality products and services. With travel and tourism now widely recognised as a key contributor to grassroots economies and income distribution, I am emphasising further tourism promotion to local communities, because this will ensure a fairer distribution of tourism income, especially for the rural population. When local communities grow, so does the country.

It is also important to point out that Thailand has a long track record of tourism promotion. We have experienced enough to monitor trends, remove obstacles, take advantage of opportunities, reinvent ourselves and take all necessary measures to ensure that our visitor flows remain active. Thailand has been hit by many crises over the years, both man-made and natural, but we have always managed to bounce back. I expect this will remain the case in the years ahead.

In order to compensate for the drop in medical tourist arrivals from the Gulf, what new growth markets are being targeted?

WEERASAK: Thailand has a broad diversity of visitors coming here for health and wellness. Clients from the Gulf countries have certainly been a very important part of that, but in recent years the market has diversified to include visitors from elsewhere, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and China. Certainly, we do not wish to be overexposed to only one market or region. We are very pleased with the confidence that our health, wellness and medical tourism facilities enjoy among these markets.

Eventually, it will be the private sector, especially the health and wellness facilities themselves, that will react to market conditions accordingly. The responsibility of the ministry will basically be to help support them in their endeavours.

What potential is there for tourism development outside of the traditional areas and segments?

WEERASAK: Promoting travel and tourism outside of its traditional centres has been regular policy for decades, but promoting secondary tourism destinations and local communities is now the central priority. Most new tourism will emerge in areas where infrastructure has recently been developed, such as the Asian Highway Network and new airports. We expect that the border provinces with neighbouring countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion will also attract significant investment in the future.

One promising segment that is emerging is Buddhist tourism. This niche market not only draws newcomers from international markets to the kingdom, but it also boosts travel to the wider ASEAN region. To tap this opportunity, I plan to develop connecting routes for those who are interested in Buddhist philosophy as well as faith-based visitors taking part in pilgrimages. This will include people who are interested in meditation, as well as those visitors who are keen to learn more about the cultural and historical aspects of Buddhism, such as its art, shrines, architecture and way of life.

The government is also launching several other projects to improve tourism services and safety, such as improving roads to attractions, training sector personnel, and building more ramps for elderly and disabled visitors. This will also be in line with our “Tourism for All” concept aimed at promoting universal design at key attractions to ensure equal access.