Thailand tourism is thriving post-COVID thanks to AI, ‘White Lotus,’ and more

It’s hard to resist Thailand’s pristine beaches, ancient temples, and lively nightlife. Over the past two decades, those features have lured tourists back to the country after a devastating tsunami, bouts of deadly air pollution, violent street protests, and even military coups temporarily turned them away. But history has not repeated itself after the pandemic. During COVID, the country that draws as much as 20% of its GDP from tourism shut its borders to virtually all visitors for more than a year. It reopened cautiously starting in July 2021. But tourists still have not returned in full force. By the end of 2023, arrivals tallied 28 million, roughly 30% below the pre-pandemic record of 39.8 million. 

“There are three reasons for the slow recovery,” says Bill Barnett, founder and managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a Phuket-based hospitality consultancy: “China, China, and China.” The country was the largest source of tourists for Thailand in 2019, sending 11 million. But just 3.5 million Chinese visited in 2023, mostly because of China’s gloomy economy. Other factors turned off tourists generally, too: flight shortages, higher prices, worsening pollution, and bad publicity related to scams and crimes. 

Still, tourism analysts say, lower arrivals haven’t spelled disaster for the industry. Rather, they argue, COVID and its aftermath have forced the sector to innovate and foster greater efficiencies, introduce new technologies, diversify revenue streams, and launch smarter marketing campaigns. As a result, tourism-related businesses are doing better than ever. Larger hotels, for instance, are reporting higher profitability despite lower occupancy. “COVID accelerated changes that were going to happen anyway,” Barnett says. “This is a maturation of the hotel market.” 

Bill Heinecke is founder and chairman of Minor International, a Thailand-based conglomerate that owns or manages 536 hotels, plus restaurants and retail shops, in 63 countries. It’s No. 85 on the inaugural Fortune Southeast Asia 500 list this year. Heinecke says Minor lost $1 billion worldwide during COVID. “At one point we had over 500 hotels closed. We were slow to meet payrolls and pay rents, in some cases. We were watching our pennies,” Heinecke says.

The first quarter of 2024, however, was one of Minor’s best in Thailand. “We’re already looking at huge numbers,” he says. Minor hotels have touted their wellness offerings, such as spas, and their restaurants and bars. They’ve offered deals to entice locals to visit for a meal and pitched Thailand’s cuisine to overseas tourists who have indicated food is a priority. 

Occupancy remains marginally lower than before COVID, but Minor’s revenue per room soared 26% year over year in the first quarter owing in part to higher rates. Last year its revenue grew 22%, and profits swelled 27%. Likewise, Thailand’s Central Plaza Hotel (No. 388 on the SEA 500), which owns Centara Hotels & Resorts, reported revenue and profit increases of 24% and 215% respectively last year. Higher prices haven’t rankled guests still desperate to travel post-COVID, Barnett says. 

What’s more, targeted marketing is persuading tourists to spend on experiences beyond flights and accommodations. The Tourism Authority of Thailand and tour operators now advertise adventure tourism, ecotourism, spiritual tourism, and LGBTQ+ tourism to meet prospective visitors’ niche interests. The government even offers a three-month visa for those studying Muay Thai, the country’s indigenous fighting style.

Thailand is also pitching itself as a picturesque production set, planting its scenery in front of millions of eyeballs. Netflix’s Mother of the Bride was filmed at two Minor resorts, and a third resort in Chiang Mai will feature in season 3 of HBO’s White Lotus

“COVID accelerated changes that were going to happen anyway. This is a maturation of the hotel market.”

Bill Barnett, founder and managing director, C9 Hotelworks

Hotels have also cut costs by choosing not to restore positions slashed during COVID. They’ve automated repetitive tasks like check-ins. Chatbots can answer many guest inquiries, and existing staff have learned to multitask. A front-desk attendant can mix a drink in a pinch, says Saharat “Sears” Jivavisitnont, executive director of Jee Teng Hospitality Group, which owns the 600-room Four Points by Sheraton in Phuket.

The post-COVID recovery, however, has not been equal. Paul Pruangkarn, chief of staff at the Pacific Asia Travel Association, warns that small and medium-size tour operators “don’t have the resources” to invest in new tech or to attract talent amid a labor shortage. He says those are two areas where the government could help by funding worker training programs or offering low-interest loans to smaller players.

“We definitely need more skilled labor,” Jivavisitnont says. “The demands and expectations of customers coming to Thailand are rising,” he says. Today’s guests want amenities like seamless connectivity and Internet of Things–enabled room features. Some hotels are using big data and AI to personalize experiences based on a customer’s past preferences.

Thailand’s government has already intervened to prop up its almighty tourism industry in recent years. In July 2021 it launched the region’s first “travel sandbox” on Phuket, allowing vaccinated and tested tourists to visit the island. Since fully reopening, the government has waived visa fees for tourists from China, India, and dozens of other countries, and eased requirements for others. The government has also ramped up its financial support for Thai Airways, No. 81 on the Fortune SEA 500. The 48% state-owned carrier has returned to profitability and will soon exit a court-ordered restructuring. Longer term, Thai authorities are planning to double the capacity of Bangkok’s two international airports to a combined 200 million passengers by 2030, build new airports in Phuket and Chiang Mai, and open more provincial airports to international arrivals. 

Analysts expect Thailand’s 2024 visitor numbers to finally surpass those of 2019, but industry leaders are preparing for the next possible disruption. “These are unpredictable times,” Heinecke says. “The lesson is to be prepared. Be flexible, be adaptable, and above all keep a strong balance sheet.” 

This article appears in the June/July 2024 Asia issue of Fortune with the headline, “Thailand reclaims its tourism mojo.”

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