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Thailand Tourism - Trends and Transformations

Travel to Thailand has a long history. Tourism as an industry, however, developed after the Second World War and experienced a massive growth only in the last quarter of the century. Even though some advertisers still seek to lure tourists to the country by presenting it as a recent arrival on the tourist scene, Thailand is by now, even from a global perspective, a mature tourist destination. It is certainly one of the touristically most developed countries in the Third World. As the number of foreign visitors passed the ten million mark, it is an appropriate time to examine the major trends and transformations of Thai tourism, and indicate some of its principal consequences. Although Thai tourism has been studied from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, such a comprehensive examination has not yet been undertaken.
Tourism as secular travel in search of novelty and change, was unknown in pre-modern Thailand. Thais, however, enjoyed travelling, mostly on pilgrimages to Buddhist sanctuaries and shrines. Such trips still remain very popular with the rural folk and the lower urban classes, although they are often combined with other, more mundane, tourist interests. Among the urban middle and upper classes, domestic tourism grew considerably with the recent spread of motorization. The acquisition of second homes in remote rural settings and international travel, are the principal contemporary developments among these classes: in 1993, for example, about one million Thais took trips abroad.
Foreign tourism to Thailand was until the Second World War, and in the immediate postwar years, of modest proportions: in the 1930s, only about five cruise ships a year, carrying around 500 passengers, called upon Bangkok port. Tourism began to develop as an industry only in the late 1950s, during the dictatorship of Marshall Sarit (1957-63), within the framework of his general policy of development. Sarit initiated the creation of a physical infrastructure for tourism, established the Tourist Organization of Thailand (TOT, later Tourism Authority of Thailand, TAT), and encouraged foreign investment in the tourism sector. The most important boost for tourism, however, came later, during the Vietnam War, when Thailand became one of the principal destinations for R & R (Rest and Recreation) visits of American GIs. These visits were significant not only in terms of the increase in numbers of foreign visitors, but also as a principal factor of change of the touristic image of Thailand, and of the kinds of tourists which began to be attracted to the country from the mid-1960s onward.
In the past, the image of Thailand in the eyes of Western visitors was that of an exotic, enchanted kingdom in the Orient. The arrival of American servicemen on R & R visits, compounded by the stationing of about 40,000 US military personnel in bases in Thailand, shifted the emphasis in the tourist sector from sightseeing of cultural attractions, reflecting the earlier image, to more mundane pursuits, primarily sex and recreational activities. The GI period added a new dimension to Thai tourism: tourist-oriented prostitution. During that period, Thailand acquired the still fairly widespread dual image of "Temples and Brothels", an image expressing the two contrasting basic themes, which made travel to Thailand so attractive in the post-Vietnam War period: the exotic and the erotic. While there surely exists some affinity between these themes, for example, the alluring exoticism of Thai women, they represent structural opposites, the face and the obverse of Thailand's touristic attractiveness. They are also concrete reflections of the pervasive dualism of Thai society, in which Buddhist abnegation and mundane enjoyment (sanuk) coexist as opposite, but mutually complementing cultural poles.
The duality of face and obverse, "front and back", also found expression in the manner in which tourism to Thailand has been promoted: the official promotion by the TAT and by most of the reputable travel companies emphasized the "exotic": the cultural sites and natural sights and amenities the country has to offer. This emphasis is most concisely expressed in the slogan "Thailand, the Most Exotic Country in Asia", heading some tourist brochures published by TAT, and in the name of a TAT newssheet, "Exotic Thailand". Exoticism is rendered visually in the illustrations adorning promotional publications, which tend to show temples, classical dancers or hill tribe people on their covers.
In contrast, the theme of the "erotic" was formerly at most only discreetly hinted at in the official publications. It disappeared almost completely from official promotional material and advertisements in recent years. However, Thailand has over the years acquired a widespread reputation as a place where varied and inexpensive sexual pleasures await the male visitor; and Bangkok has been dubbed the "Brothel of Asia". This image has spread through populat publications, newspaper stories, and especially by way of mouth between veteran and prospective visitors. Small travel companies in Europe and Japan, specializing in sex tours, openly promoted this image. Such promotion, however, has been attenuated in recent years, owing to public criticism and the threat of AIDS.
The availability of sexual services to tourists was never officially acknowledged (prostitution was outlawed in 1960) but neither have the authorities undertaken decisive steps to suppress them. Rather, the authorities strove to improve the touristic image of the country without attempting to suppress tourist-oriented prostitution.
The themes of exoticism and eroticism, through contrasting ones, are also mutually complementary; their combination appears to enhance the attractiveness of Thailand for some tourists: exoticism without eroticism, but also eroticism without exoticism, would have reduced Thailand's uniqueness as a destination.
While the GI period is mainly remembered for the expansion and transformation of the Thai sex industry, and, hence, as largely responsible for the widespread dual touristic image of Thailand, it also had some other, less controversial, and hence also less publicized consequences for Thai tourism. Principal among these is the virtual foundation of foreign vacationing tourism in Thailand. Before the GI period, Thailand had only one high-class seaside resort, Hua Hin, established by royalty and serving almost exclusively the Thai elite, and a popular weekend excursion resort, Bang Saen, serving primarily the inhabitants of Bangkok.
The GIs discovered the small fishing village of Pattaya in the Gulf of Siam in 1959. It soon became a popular playground of American soldiers on R & R visits, and developed eventually into the principal seaside resort of Southeast Asia.
Pattaya's phenomenal and rapid success, followed by no less rapid environmental degradation and social problems, served as an impetus for the development of new vacationing sites along the country's beaches and the emergence of Thailand as a major vacationing destination.
Following the GI period, tourism to Thailand grew rapidly and continuously. Its success led to a change in the sources and nature of the initiative for its development. In the past it was mainly developed from above: during the last years of the absolute monarchy, before the 1932 constitutional revolution, by royalty. After the Second World War, from the 1950s onward, by the government. However, as the industry took off, it became increasingly developed from below, by private enterprise, whether individual or corporate, with the government and its agencies, primarily TAT and BoI (Board of Investment), encouraging, supporting, and to some extent regulating the direction of its development. The authorities also initiated international tourism promotion campaigns, especially the highly successful "Visit Thailand Year" in 1987. While the primary effort of the government authorities was to increase the flow of foreign tourists and to enhance the level of tourist services, they also sought to amplify the diversity of attractions and amenities Thailand had to offer, and thus to ameliorate its dual touristic image. However, many of the new touristic destinations and attractions during the twenty-five years following the GI period developed spontaneously, sometimes even in contravention to the official tourism policy. Indeed, the articles collected in this volume illustrate mainly such spontaneous, unsupported touristc developments.

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