Thai­land’s at­trac­tion: tol­er­ance

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE STYLE TRENDS - By THOMAS FULLER

BANGKOK — Tol­er­ance, the Thais have learned, is good for busi­ness.

In re­cent mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, the govern­ment here in “the land of smiles” has ac­tively sought cat­e­gories of tourists that for rea­sons of po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity or out­right dis­crim­i­na­tion are shunned in some neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

It is the only Asian coun­try, travel in­dus­try an­a­lysts say, that has a gov­ern­mentspon­sored cam­paign — “Go Thai. Be Free.” — aimed at gay and les­bian trav­el­ers.

Thai­land, which is over­whelm­ingly Bud­dhist, is also mar­ket­ing it­self to Mus­lims as a place where food pre­pared ac­cord­ing to Is­lamic pre­cepts is read­ily avail­able and where “ha­lal spas” of­fer sep­a­rate fa­cil­i­ties for women and men. Lead­ing shop­ping malls have Mus­lim prayer rooms — a far cry from the anti-Mus­lim feel­ings in neigh­bor­ing Myan­mar.

Such in­clu­sive­ness pays: tourist ar­rivals have surged in re­cent years, notably from many pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries, and the 22 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year were dou­ble the level of a decade ago. Tourism earned the coun­try more than $31 bil­lion last year, the govern­ment said.

“I can’t think of a mar­ket that we wouldn’t wel­come,” said Wisoot Bua­choom, the di­rec­tor of the Tourism Au­thor­ity of Thai­land’s of­fice in the north­ern city of Chi­ang Mai.

Thai­land’s cam­paigns might not raise eye­brows in the West. But among its im­me­di­ate neigh­bors, laws against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and re­li­gious or eth­nic hos­til­i­ties keep some tourists away.

Malaysia and In­done­sia, both Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity coun­tries, bar Is­raelis from vis­it­ing for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Thai­land, by con­trast, Poyp­iti Amatatham con­trib­uted re­port­ing. has long been one of the most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for Is­raeli trav­el­ers, with 120,000 Is­raelis vis­it­ing Thai­land in 2012.

Among Thai­land’s South­east Asian neigh­bors — Brunei, Malaysia, Myan­mar and Sin­ga­pore — some or all forms of sex­ual con­tact be­tween men are il­le­gal, al­though the laws are loosely or se­lec­tively en­forced.

Thai­land’s gay and les­bian cam­paign be­gan two years ago from the Thai tourism pro­mo­tion of­fice in New York, fea­tur­ing the slo­gan, “Go for the freedom.”

“We go af­ter the af­flu­ent gay trav­eler,” said Steve John­son, who over­sees the Thai govern­ment’s gay and les­bian cam­paign from New York.

At a bar in Silom, a dis­trict of Bangkok that is pop­u­lar with gay men, Alex Cross, an Aus­tralian gay trav­eler who came to Thai­land with his part­ner, said he en­joyed vis­it­ing Thai­land be­cause “I feel there is no judg­ment here.”

“We’ve been to coun­tries where it’s il­le­gal to be gay,” Mr. Cross said. But in Thai­land it is com­mon to see gay cou­ples, lo­cal and for­eign, hold­ing hands in shop­ping malls and other pub­lic places. “Here we can ex­press our­selves,” he said.

A short drive away, at a mosque near the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Huzam Kalam, a Mus­lim flight at­ten­dant from Sri Lanka who was on his third visit to Bangkok, ex­pressed a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment. “I don’t feel like I’m out of place here,” he said.

Thai­land’s ef­forts stand in con­trast with anti- Mus­lim sen­ti­ments in Myan­mar, where Bud­dhist mobs have killed scores of Mus­lims over the past year.

Thai­land has also strug­gled with vi­o­lence be­tween Mus­lims and Bud­dhists. But Fazal Ba­hard­een, who rates des­ti­na­tions for con­ve­nience and friend­li­ness to Mus­lims, says Thai­land has con­vinced out­siders that the at­tacks are small and iso­lated.

The com­pany ranks Thai­land as the third-best “ha­lal-friendly hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion” of coun­tries out­side the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Is­lamic Co­op­er­a­tion. The sur­vey is based on the avail­abil­ity of ha­lal food, prayer fa­cil­i­ties and other man­i­fes­ta­tions of sen­si­tiv­ity to Mus­lim needs. (Sin­ga­pore, which has a siz­able Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, was the top-rated des­ti­na­tion, fol­lowed by Bos­nia.)

Thais are “in­her­ently hos­pitable peo­ple,” Mr. Ba­hard­een said.

“I keep telling tourist or­ga­ni­za­tions: it’s Mar­ket­ing 101,” he said. “You’re spend­ing your own money,” he said of for­eign trav­el­ers. “Why would you want to go to a place that doesn’t wel­come you?”

Maor En­gel, of the Bangkok Tourist Cen­ter where about 90 per­cent of clients are Is­raeli, said: “In other coun­tries, they will ask you where are you from and why are you here or your sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. Here they don’t care.” He added, “You just come here with money, that’s it.”

Thai­land is over­whelm­ingly Bud­dhist, but wel­comes Mus­lim vis­i­tors with ha­lal food and prayer rooms.

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