By Kalinga Seneviratne
BANGKOK (IDN) – Thailand has long been a magnet for male travellers from the West, but now the kingdom’s tourism authorities are recognizing the power of woman travellers especially from Asia – among others from India, China and Japan.
“Sun is rising in the East (for Thailand),” says Srisuda Wanapinyosak, Deputy Governor for International Marketing (Asia and South Pacific) at Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). “Asian economies are good and people travel. This is a good opportunity for Thailand,” she tells IDN.
With European economies in the doldrums, Thailand has lost much of its former tourist market, but Asians have compensated for the decline, says Srisuda. There were nearly 8.8 million visitors from China in 2016 and 1.2 million from India visiting Thailand. The gender ratio was almost equal.
Thailand welcomed a record 32.6 million tourists in 2016 generating THB 1.64 trillion (46.8 billion dollars), a 13 percent increase in revenue.
“Europeans used to come once a year and have a long vacation (while) Asians come on shorter trips but more often,” says Srisuda, adding that there has been a big increase in women travellers coming to Thailand from Asia.
“Women are big spenders when they travel,” she argues. “Spas, beauty products, markets and beaches are the main attractions for Asian women.”
For long, Thailand’s beaches and islands have been an attraction for Western tourists, especially women and families, and Asian women are well known to avoid the sun in order not to get tanned. But “they love to be in a good outfit (swimsuit) and lie in a shady place doing nothing or reading,” says Srisuda.
With Asia’s middle class rising rapidly, and along with it women’s economic empowerment, a recent report by Amadeus Asia Pacific argues that the women’s travel market is a huge growing one for the travel industry, but the male-dominated industry has not yet understood the psyche of the women traveller in Asia. “Younger women are increasingly confident in travelling on their own or in small groups,” the report points out.
“In 2011 there were approximately 4.5 million business trips by women in the 7 countries (in Asia) we have studied (and) by 2030 this will have increased by 400 percent,” the report estimates, pointing out that today women account for close to 50 percent of all graduates across the region.
Thai tourism consultant Pattama Vilaileot says that there are many specific tourism products that are now being developed for this growing women tourist market. “The spa industry has developed special products for women such as facial massage, and for office syndrome such as neck massage. Growth of pedicure and manicure services in the Thai massage industry is driven by women’s demand. Hotels offer special services in women’s beauty products (and) even yoga and special organic menus,” she told IDN.
Economic empowerment of women has been a prerequisite for development in both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. The increasing clout of women travellers in the travel sector in Asia is indicative of the fact that with growing education and employment opportunities for women across Asia, at least middle class women are being empowered.
Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanayrangkul argues that tourism and sports could help to empower women across Asia and she sees a silver lining for Thailand in this. “In general, female travellers spend over 15 percent more than males do. If we can secure more female tourists it would help drive [our] entire tourism,” she said in a recent media interview.
Currently, 30 percent of Japanese travellers to Thailand and close to 50 percent of Chinese travellers are women, with Indian women visiting Thailand increasing in numbers as well. How could the tourist industry cater to this growing market?
Gassanee Thaisonthi, a Thai writer and a globetrotter who has recently published a book on her travels in Cuba, says that scenery and culture are important for her. “Women enjoy a cultural experience,” she told IDN. “When I went to Bagan (in Myanmar) I liked the markets near the temples and it’s like you go back in time (and) in northern Thailand I like to experience the way people live with elephants and culture around beautiful temples.”
Naa Taengpasulert, a Thai teledrama writer and traveller in her late 40s, agrees. “I prefer cold places with natural sceneries such as beautiful mountains in China,” she tells IDN. “Also I enjoy local markets because I can see different lifestyles of local people. I can find original local products that are hard to get in supermarkets.”
Ling Zhou, a 48-year old Chinese doctor and traveller also likes good scenery, fresh air and comfortable weather when she travels. “Most Chinese solo-women travellers like to go to a country with which China has good relations (and) Thailand’s food and beaches are very attractive to me,” she said in an email interview.
Thai television executive Yupaporn Saengtong, who is also in her late 40s loves the outdoors and adventure travel “to go from one village to another to experience the uniqueness of culture and tradition”. She says, while women like scenery, spas and shopping, men may prefer drinking and nights out more than women. “I have concerns about my safety more than men travellers do,” she added.
A survey done by Trip Advisor in 2016 on Asian women travellers found that female travellers feel travel has had a positive impact on their lives, with 68 percent saying their travels have helped them learn about the world and 33 percent adding that travel has changed the way they think and the way they live their lives.
Filipino travel blogger Prime Sarmiento, co-founder of Gypsygals travel blog for women, argues that the travel industry needs to change the way it advertises in Asia. “They should reach out to more travel, career and fashion bloggers and invite them for familiarising tours,” she agues. “Women are most likely to trust what the (women) bloggers recommend over ads posted in traditional media outlets. Travel and hospitality industries need to be more active in social media, as women – more than men – are in there.”
She also thinks that high-end hotels may have to change their focus away from gyms and health (massage) centres to facial and manicure services, and offer alternative health services such as Ayurvedaand traditional Chinese medicine therapies.
As for Thailand’s image as a “sex capital” for male tourists, most of the women travellers who talked to IDN feel it would change over time as the female tourist market expands.
“It’s undeniable that sex is one reason for men’s choice to visit Thailand, I just hope that they can see the beauty of something else too,” says Yupaporn. “Image-wise it (women tourism) may put Thailand in a better position in the long run,” argues Pattama.
“When we promote women to travel to Thailand, the main objective is not to change the image of the country. We just want to invite women to come and enjoy the lady products of our country,” says Srisuda. “We don’t set as objective of this campaign as changing the image. But, when we promote women to come to Thailand this type of (sex) image could gradually dilute.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 April 2017]