Despite the growing concerns about overtourism, Thai authorities have indicated that they are still very much committed to continued rapid growth in arrivals.
In late May, the board of the public company Airports of Thailand approved the construction of two new airports for Chiang Mai and Phuket. The two new airports will each be designed to accommodate some 10 million passengers a year and will each be allocated $1.88 billion (60 billion baht) for construction, which will begin in 2019 and completion expected by 2025.
The Southeast Asian nation attracted 35 million tourists last year, which is starting to put a strain on communities and the environment. Most famously, in March, authorities ordered the shut down of the famed Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands. The four-month shut down started on June 1.
Thai tourism authorities have indicated a desire to attract more high-end visitors, which might be profitable and less taxing on local communities than low-end tour group travelers.
Increasing the airport capacity at major Thai destinations implies that authorities in Thailand still plan to focus on maintaining long-term, rapid growth and are willing to shoulder the substantial costs of building the infrastructure to make that happen.
While Thailand is famous all over the world as a travel destination, its biggest source market by far is China. Thailand attracted 9.8 million Chinese arrivals last year. That’s higher than the number of arrivals for all ASEAN countries, which stood at 9.1 million. The second-biggest single-nation source market was neighboring Malaysia, with 3.4 million arrivals. For 2018, authorities are expecting the number of Chinese visitors to pass 10 million.
One solution to the high number of tourists coming to Thailand is to make more efforts to attract fewer lower-spending tourists and attract more high-spending tourists to make up the difference.
To the credit of Thai authorities, they have attempted to do just that by cracking down on exploitative “zero-dollar tours.” Such tours are famous for busing a large number of Chinese tourists around to Chinese-owned shops and restaurants chosen by tour guides, often forcing tourists to purchase goods or services to make up for the relatively low price of the tour. However, these tours, now operating in a legal gray area, can be hard to crack down on because identifying them remains a challenge.
Another solution to tackle overtourism was posited by Jiraporn Prommaha, Director of the International Affairs Division at the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports, is community-based tourism (CBT). Prommaha noted at a panel earlier this year, “We are trying to push for CBT to disperse tourists away from popular sites beyond Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the beaches to promote the ‘unseen Thailand.’”
Such a strategy could prove useful. While 35 million is by no means a small number, Thailand is also not a particularly small nation with a population of 68.7 million. There are quite of few regions in Thailand that are virtually untraveled by foreign tourists. By encouraging travelers to visit different destinations, it could ease the strain that tourism places on Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket etc.
On the other hand, building new airports in Chiang Mai and Phuket seem counterproductive to the goals outlined by a CBT strategy. The new airports will likely encourage more tourists to choose those destinations over lesser-known Thai getaways with little tourism infrastructure.