THAI THE KNOTS
Eastern Thailand is developing its MICE and infrastructure
hailand chalked up 35 million visitor arrivals in 2017 – up 8.77 per cent – with China, US, Russia, Korea and Japan driving inbound business. The tourism tills have been ringing with revenues totalling US$3.5 billion, up 11.66 per cent, and while the Middle East is relatively small (616,168 visitors in 2017), numbers rose 5 per cent on the back of abundant airline capacity.
This year looks to be more of the same with Tourism Authority Thailand targeting 8 per cent growth target in tourism revenue from international markets.
Against such favourable statistics, there might be a temptation for TAT to rest on its laurels, not change the messaging and watch business and leisure travellers continue their well-worn paths to Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. But TAT Governor Yuthasak Supasorn is keen for visitors to travel beyond the honeypot destinations and see the country’s wider appeal.
To this end, it hosted Thailand Travel Mart Plus for the first time in Pattaya – a destination which, to many, is more synonymous with adult entertainment than MICE. Yet in line with TAT’s desire to reshape it as a ‘quality leisure destination’, international media were flown in to hear the new promotional messages (‘Million Shades of Romance’) at the attractive Ocean Marina Yacht Club, before being treated to a Thai gastronomic showcase at the Cartoon Network Amazone Chon Buri family theme park. The suit-free event was a novel MICE experience, and seemed in keeping with the ‘ bleisure’ times.
Given its beaches, weather and hospitality allure, you would think Thailand is already on many newly weds’ lists – but this is a key segment moving forward, and TAT is aiming for 5 per cent growth in 2018, specifically targeting the pre-wedding, wedding and honeymoon markets. The fourth Destination Wedding Planners Congress, held in Phuket last year, attracted delegates from 65 countries, and unsurprisingly, China and India are the two primary targets, although TAT also has US and European honeymooners in its sights.
Few places have transformed quite like Pattaya. Once a small fishing village, this neon-lit, entertainment-oriented strip draws in hordes of international tourists. Clubs dedicated to India and Russia show how they’re geared up to cater for key source market; Indian visitors to Thailand grew 15 per cent in the first half of 2017 on the back of more direct flights.
But as with any destination, you can always find different perspectives. We had a tour of the five-star Cape Dara resort, which boasts an attractive seaview pool beyond the airey entrance, and the best views are from the upper floor room terraces where you see Pattaya in one unbroken sweep. One stunning residence, featuring a lounge where you can gaze up at the stars, costs a cool $10,000 a night and the series Yah
Leum Chan (“Forget me not”) was shot here. The sightseeing highlight is The Sanctuary Of Truth, a stunning all-wooden, waterside tribute to Buddhism and Hinduism, and a short drive away from the centre. Thai businessman Lek Viriyaphant started the project in 1981 and 37 years later, work is ongoing with carvers meticulously working on sculptures inside and out. It aims to complete by 2050. The soothing grounds, where streams cascade with the paths, are frequented by elephants and horses, and it’s a pleasant antidote to the Walking Street beats.
ECONOMIC OPENINGS WITH EEC
Changes planned for the Eastern Seaboard aim to take this region to a new level – and business travellers may be venturing out of Bangkok faster than those in flip-flops.
Around $43 billion is being pumped into developing infrastructure in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) which will link Thailand and Cambodia, and the goal is for Pattaya to become the centre of investment for the trio of eastern provinces (Chonburi, Rayong and Chachoengsao) and gateway for the EEC. There are also plans to develop gastronomy tourism and an ‘Eastern Fruit Corridor’ in Rayong, Chanthaburi and Trat.
“Since EEC was injected, I see a huge improvement in Pattaya and there is close collaboration with TAT and local authorities,” said Tanes Petsuwan, Deputy Governor for Marketing Commmunications at TAT. “We have a long way to go, but it’s getting better. In the near future we will see more investment from international hotels along with golf courses, new exhibition halls and department stores.”
U-Tapao airport’s passenger capacity will increase from its current 800,000 to 3 million and a second runway will be built in a bid to boost connectivity while Laem Chabang and Map Ta Phut ports are to be upgraded. Also on the drawing board is a high-speed railway from Bangkok to Rayong which will connect three international airports (Don Muang, Suvarnabhumi, and U-Tapao) within one hour.
It remains to be seen how long these projects take to come to fruition, but the tourism and commercial jots appear to be joining.
Sports, health/wellness and film tourism are other sectors earmarked for growth. Hangover 2 was filmed at Lebua Hotel Bangkok and Lost in Thailand has drawn in large numbers of Chinese visitors (10 million are estimated in 2018).
Few places have transformed quite like Pattaya. Once a small fishing village, this neonlit, entertainment-oriented strip draws in hordes of international tourists.
UNWIND ON KOH CHANG
It took five hours to drive from Bangkok to Trat province, from where you can catch the half-hour ferry to Koh Chang. Those on less time can take the one-hour flight on Bangkok Airways from the capital.
This way you see the rural landscape in all its diversity, from the abundant gold-and-red temples to the tree-lined avenues near the bustling Sri Ban Phe pier – where ferries cross to Koh Sahmet – to the trucks laden with Durian fruits. We stopped off at a small market, brimming with fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, and I listened in as a stall holder tapped the Durian with a stick to test its ripeness.
On the way we passed the Rayong Marriott Resort & Spa which boasts a range of indoor and outdoor spaces totalling just under 25,000sqft.
The ferry, crammed with cars and motorbikes, was prompt on the way over but subject to a 90-minute delay on the return, so factor in time should you need to head back to Bangkok quickly.
The Centara Koh Chang Tropicana Resort boasted spacious grounds and convenient access to a vast beach, though having plastic on my mind (see July-August cover story), parts of it could do with a clean-up. The standalone spa had welcoming water features and the treatment was relaxing, rounded off with a ginger tea as wind swept through the palm trees.
My room was close to reception and attractively designed splash pool, with jacuzzi sections that merged into it, though the wood-heavy design made it curiously dark at day break. Standing outside in the rain on arrival was a restorative refresher after the bus journey. The buffet breakfast was impressive with delicious mango and papaya jams amid all the regular offerings.
On the morning beach walk, I snapped a beautiful collared Kingfisher and in the afternoon, zoomed in on one of the monkeys munching on leaves near the panoramic View Point. The highlight of the short stay was traipsing along a rocky and tree-covered path to the impressive Khlong Phlu waterfall, and having fish nibble our feet as we soaked them on the return.
We had lunch at the beach-side 15 Palms, devouring chicken satay skewers and Thai Green Curry under leaden skies and choppy seas and the final night, ate freshly grilled prawns and seabass from a humble roadside restaurant.
Back on the mainland, we had one last lunch near the tranquil Laem Ngob lighthouse and Pier before driving back towards Bangkok, arriving at Grand Hyatt Bangkok shortly after sunset.
WALDORF MAKES REGIONAL DEBUT, ACCOR EXPANDS WITH NOVOTEL-IBIS STYLES
Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, located at the bustling Ratchaprasong junction, opened its doors at the end of August and marks the luxury brand’s first foray into South-East Asia. The 171-room hotel, designed to resemble a Magnolia flower springing from the ground, is the handiwork of architect André Fu and design studio AFSO.
The top three floors (55-57) feature three dining outlets from New York concept firm AvroKO. Rungthiwa Chummongkhon (Chef Fae) will bring her experience of working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe to head the Front Room, which will present an elegant new blend of ‘new Nordic and Thai flavours’ in a relaxed setting.
Novotel ibis Styles Sukhumvit 4 is targeting an October launch, and the dual-brand development follows the opening of ibis Styles in Phra Khanong district earlier this year. Accor has also signed a contract to manage the 251room Pullman Khao Lak Resort from 2021.
Coming up on the horizon, work on the riverside Capella Bangkok and Four Seasons Private Residences are around three-quarters complete, and on track for Q4 and Q1 2019 openings respectively. The Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok is 60 per cent finished and also due to open early 2019.
At time of going to press, it is unclear on the status of the Bangkok Edition – widely reported to open this year – and Ritz- Carlton Residences in the architecturally striking MahaNakhon building. A Marriott spokesperson said: “The MahaNakhon building has undergone a change in ownership in recent months. Marriot International has no additional information to share at this time.”
Best Western Hotels & Resorts will introduce its newest brand, BW Signature Collection by Best Western, to Asia for the first time this year, following the signing of Tawaravadee Resort in the historic Prachinburi province.
Nestled in Thailand’s countryside, approximately 160km from Bangkok, this low-rise resort was inspired by the ancient Dvaravati culture that thrived in the area between the 6th-11th centuries.
MICHELIN ADDS THAI FLAVOURS
The first 2018 edition of the Michelin Guide Bangkok ( print and digital) will be expanded to include Phuket and Phang-nga in 2019. TAT Governor Yuthasak Supasorn, said: “In line with TAT’s policy, The Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket, and Phang-nga will help in sustaining the momentum … in promoting Thailand as an international gastronomic destination.”
WATCH LIVE TV ON THAI
Thai Airways is rolling out free in-flight live TV, showing channels such as CNN, BBC, NHK and Sport 24. Live TV on Board is being introduced on the airline’s 12 Airbus A350-900 aircraft flying between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Singapore, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, Shanghai, Rome, Milan, and Brussels, as well as its eight Boeing B787-8 and 787-9 aircraft flying between Bangkok and Dubai, Tokyo, Taipei, Vienna, Brisbane, Auckland and Manila.
BELOW: Pattaya RIGHT: Koh Chang
ABOVE: Waldorf Astoria Bangkok Deluxe Room
BELOW: Pullman Khao Lak Resort rendering
ABOVE: Collared Kingfisher, Koh Chang beach