China is a growth market for us; Thailand gets eight million tourists from China and it is still growing. We must learn from the Thai experience
Thailand gets 25 million tourists a year. Sri Lanka gets close to two million tourists. Why? It is good to probe and could provide useful insights.
There is some turbulence on the economic front. Major shortage of revenue and foreign reserves. The economic strategies unveiled (Port City, Free Trade Agreements, foreign-owned export industries, etc.) are all long gestation projects. They will take quite some time to bloom and blossom to impact revenue, foreign reserves or employment.
But it is not all gloom. Tourism is the one bright star. Tourism is not a long gestation project. It is up and running nicely. It is inclusive, wraps in all sectors of the economy, and there is potential to accelerate the rate of growth.
A lot in common
Learning from the Thai success story could be very helpful, as Sri Lanka and Thailand have a lot in common. Sun, sand, and sea, well-preserved ruins of ancient cities, a plethora of temples, wild life parks, rolling green hills covered with tea bushes, Buddhism, and, people who are very friendly.
The way forward
If we had a good tourism institute, it would probe why Thailand gets 25 million and we get two million. This may provide slivers of insights and information to share with the industry to help it to develop our strategy. The object of this article is just to illustrate the type of work we need to do to succeed.
The first thing a country has to do is to create awareness of it as a tourist destination. Thailand has a huge advantage in creating awareness. For many years it has had over 20 million tourists. When they go back home, if everyone tells five people about the wonderful holiday in Thailand, they get the message across to 100 million people every year. On a comparative basis our visitors will only get the message across to 10 million.
Word of mouth is a very potent form of promotion. We cannot match the numbers that Thailand can get.
Sri Lanka will have to counter with strong destination branding to create awareness of Sri Lanka and its Brand promise. If we spread our media message to all parts of the world the impact on every part will be limp. The difficult questions of targeting must be addressed.
To do this well we need to go back to basic marketing. We need to identify the needs of tourists from the East and the West. See what we have to offer to meet their needs, and then identify the target groups for whom we have the best comparative advantage.
Profile of Thai market
China provides eight million tourists, India one million, UK one million, ASEAN countries 7.9 million.
China is a growth market for us. Thailand gets eight million from China and it is still growing. We must learn from the Thai experience. We should look carefully at the Thai brand promise directed at China. What are the needs it promises to satisfy? What is the mix of media they use to communicate their brand promise? The results prove that their branding is working very well. It is pulling in eight million tourists.
We should also commission exit interviews with departing Chinese tourists to find out how the expectations that brought them to Thailand were met. Good branding is making a promise and then delivering on it. Exit interviews are to find out whether the Brand promise was delivered.
With this information, we can then explore whether we can develop a similar branding for the Chinese market, and deliver a comparable or better experience for those who visit. I have used China as an example, but the same methodology can be used for other countries.
Why do tourists come to Thailand?
The figures suggest that sun, sand and sea is a dominant reason. The beach resorts of Pataya and Phuket together had 7.8 million. I could not find a figure for Hua Hin, a well-known beach resort (the king of Thailand has a summer palace in Hua Hin) and there appear to be no stats for some of the favourite haunts of backpackers Ko Samui and the other islands. If they each get a million, Thailand gets 10 million tourists a year for sun, sand and sea.
This is something we must bear in mind when formulating our strategies. We have concentrated on the many attractions theme and sun, sand and sea have slipped back in prominence.
Attraction of sun, sea and sand
It is easy to understand the figures. Hundreds of millions in China have not seen the sea. Hundreds of millions in India have not seen the sea. Many millions in central Europe and Russia, far away from the coast, have not experienced the sea. To those who have not it becomes, “a must do, before I die”!
Places like the West Indies have not much else to offer other than sun, sand and sea and yet get millions of tourists.
Does sex tourism drive the numbers in Thailand?
I do not think so. This is an old myth. When the USA had large numbers of troops in the Asian region, they all came to Thailand for rest and relaxation (R&R as it was called). Then both sides of the famous street Patpong, in Bangkok, was lined with bars with go-go dancers. It was like supermarket shopping, pick and take.
Now Patpong is lined on both sides with upmarket restaurants and bars and the centre of Patpong is a vibrant night market that sells everything imitation, watches, designer clothes, etc.
Prostitution is reputed to be the oldest profession in the world. You will find it in every city around the globe. Any tourist can find it easily. Ask the man at the door in the hotel or ask a taxi driver. He will tell you and also take you.
In the developed countries of the West it is now the common practice for students to take a gap year wandering around before going to university. Their generic profile is young, frugal, seeking adventure and a new experience. 37% travelled alone, 52% with friends and with partners 11%.
There are cheap hotels and hostels in Bangkok with large numbers of backpackers and large numbers in Ko Samui and the other islands. They are not sex tourists. They are from the generation where sex is no big deal. They will not pay for sex. They are frugal. They are the sort of meet today and end up in bed today generation. The backpackers play an important role in making tourism inclusive, taking in the small hotels, guest houses, restaurants, and bars.
If Sri Lanka wants to increase the numbers of backpackers to support inclusive tourism, Thailand is a good market to study the needs of backpackers.
Exciting street life in Thailand
The street life in Thailand in tourist areas has a buzz and a fizz. People wandering around. Street food in abundance, small restaurants, bars of every type, sports bars, bars with music, bars with girls, gay bars. Tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis thundering along. Street markets, Thai massage places and shops.
At the end of a day of sightseeing, a tourist does not have to wonder what they should do. If they step out of the hotel into the street, they get engulfed in the vibrant street life. This is something we lack. We are seeing a little of it in Negombo and Hikkaduwa and very little elsewhere.
Is China the best target to get another million tourists?
By studying carefully the Thai branding directed at the Chinese market and understanding the media used to communicate the branding, we too can develop an effective branding strategy and use the same methods of communication.
Whatever Thailand can offer we too can match except for one thing, and that is the vibrant street life. However the good news is that the anecdotal information (no hard stats available) is that the Chinese tourist does not go about wandering in the night, and they stay in the hotel. So our lack of matching street life is not a major negative.