Last week, Bangkok became the number one destination city for international visitors in 2013, surpassing London by a small margin, according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index. Meanwhile, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) announced that Bangkok ranked 13th among the top 25 Travelers’ Choice World Destinations in 2013 and number one in Asia by TripAdvisor, while Thailand’s northern getaway of choice, Chiang Mai, ranked 24th in the world and 6th in Asia.
In a media briefing, Juthaporn Rerngronasa, TAT’s Deputy Governor for International Marketing, said that China’s total of 1.53 million visitor arrivals to Thailand was the first time that any country had crossed the one million mark in a four-month period.
Juthaporn added that the growth in Chinese tourist numbers coincided with the Lunar New Year in China in February which brought many Chinese to Thailand during the holidays.
But what is perhaps a more interesting trend to note is the significant role played by the Chinese movie Lost in Thailand, which has been credited with precipitating a massive influx of visitors from the mainland.
The film, a zany Sino-spin on The Hangover Part II (more on this later), follows the misadventures of three Chinese businessmen who take a trip to the Land of Smiles to seal a business deal. The film became China’s highest ever grossing domestic film, raking in more than 1.26 billion ($202 million) in box office receipts – even topping Titanic’s $200 million.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Thailand’s net travel revenue doubled from where it stood five years ago to reach 9 percent of the nation’s GDP last month with the bulk of the surge in visitors attributable to Chinese tourists. For those who may doubt the role played by Lost in Thailand, it’s worth noting that there was a 93 percent year-on-year rise in visitors from the PRC from January to April, coinciding neatly with the movie popularity.
“The movie is helping boost sentiment and is increasing people’s desire to visit,” Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, told Bloomberg, which estimated that Thailand could see a rise in total overseas arrivals of 10 percent in 2013 from the film alone.
Besides the thrill of visiting Bangkok, another factor behind the city’s surge in popularity may be Chinese travelers’ quest to stock up on luxury brands. Kasean Wattanachaopisut of the Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association told TR Weekly that many of the tourists are luxury brand shoppers who come for the duty-free shops and stores on the Ratchaprasong intersection, home to Thailand’s largest cluster of luxury department stores.
Thailand’s diversity is probably the reason it is so popular among tourists. Yet local Thais and foreigners alike might have a reason to be cynical of the recent glowing reports on Bangkok. After all, despite having some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, temples, and delicious foods, Thailand has a dark side.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bright tone of Lost in Thailand, Hollywood’s take on Thailand can be seen in The Hangover Part II, many tourists come to Thailand for the infamous massage parlors and, to put it bluntly, sex, which is depicted in the racy antics of The Hangover Part II, which features extensive scenes in some of the City of Angels’ seedier haunts.
The film’s scenes of sleazy strip clubs, barroom brawls and drug-dealing gangsters (and a pet monkey who does its bidding) caused a furor among Western viewers on Twitter when it hit cinemas.
"Hangover 2 was hilarious. Note to self: never go to Bangkok…" tweeted @KassidyCook1.
@TayWhosthatLS concurred: “Staying away from Bangkok Thailand Lol for many reasons thanks Hangover 2".
Yet, even this sleazier take on Bangkok life still managed to boost Thailand’s profile among Western visitors as well. The Bangkok Hangover 2 Tour has even been launched, which allows Western visitors to trace the Wolfpack’s misguided steps through Thailand’s capital city.
On balance, Phoowadon Duangmee, a travel editor for The Nation, reckons that the main reason tourists love Thailand comes down to its beaches and affordability.
“Tourists don't really save up their money to get up to no good in Bangkok. That stuff just happens because it’s accessible,” he told The Diplomat. “For the value of the money, no matter how much you have, you are able to come to Thailand and go home with wonderful stories of the trip.”