The Charmed life of Thai Islands
by Jules Kay
Although it may not be true for the whole country, on Thailand's tropical islands tourism has always been king. Hotels have learned to expect a steady flow of bookings to keep their staff employed, developers have enjoyed consistent interest in second home investments, even taxi drivers can generally guarantee a minimum number of daily fares. The common denominator for most island businesses is a continuous stream of visitors and even in uncertain economic times that trend looks set to continue.
From an international perspective, most islands in Thailand seem to live a charmed economic life. The obstacles facing them have not always been minor, yet they have managed to draw visitors nonetheless. When 9/11 caused strict anti-terrorist regulations in airports and on planes, few people were deterred from flying from Europe to places like Phuket and Koh Samui, when the Tsunami rocked the Andaman's image as a safe place to holiday, it quickly bounced back as a number one destination, SARS and Bird Flu introduced new health worries but they soon subsided. Then last year, when the world economic slowdown and consequent exchange rate fluctuations made Thailand less affordable that it had once been, the islands continued to develop and grow, enticing an ever more diverse range of visitors from a multitude of countries around the world.
Even in the face of tense and sometimes violent political situation in Bangkok, Easter was a boom period on Thailand's resort islands, particularly at the luxury end of the market, and although many hotels report that bookings are down for the summer season, last minute enquiries still form a major part of the islands' business, so July, August and September may yet attract a healthy number of arrivals.
"Before the demonstrations in Bangkok, Koh Samui was having a very good year," explained Alex Andries GM at Zazen Boutique Resort in Bophut, one of the island's most famous design hotels which will launch a unique high-end restaurant and Tea Bar concept this year. "International agents saw strong demand for rooms on Samui and even the larger hotels were receiving plenty of bookings. Of course, everyone has lost out since the travel warnings, but last minute enquiries will definitely go a long way to making up the shortfall and with the political crisis behind us we should recover quite quickly. "
In terms of hotel development, destinations outside Bangkok like Phuket and Koh Samui continue to attract plenty of interest from regional and global investors. Thailand's resort areas have seen a steady flow of new openings with high profile hotel arrivals like W Hotels, Langham, Banyan Tree and Conrad. Large brands attract a different breed of clientele and their global reach will certainly help promote the islands in the long term. Private villa rentals are also becoming increasingly popular with a significant number of new luxury residences being added to the rental pool, as well as new fractional ownership options and condominium projects that will attract repeat visitors.
To help boost tourism countrywide, the Tourism and Sports Ministry recently earmarked 1.6 billion Baht to be spent on promoting various locations around the country. Targeted campaigns have been launched to drive domestic tourism, as well as to recapture visitors from key markets such as China, Australia and Japan. Regular events such as music and food festivals, regattas, golf tournaments and exhibitions also help maintain arrivals, while at the same time promoting island destinations to an ever wider source of visitors.