The history of tourism in Thailand is a fascinating story about culture, technology and money. Exactly how did a poor country within a few decades go from a seldom visited backwater to one of the most visited countries in the world? Read on….
A Prelude: Maya Bay, Phi Phi Island
As I began my search through vintage photos, old airline schedules, and dusty old travel guides of Thailand in preparing this post, news came that the Thai government as of June 1st was temporarily shutting down Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Island. (The shutdown will now go on indefinitely.)
Maya Bay is the slice of paradise depicted in the 1980 movie Blue Lagoon starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins.
Why? WAY too many tourists. The environmental degradation caused by mass tourism was killing the bay and its coral reefs. There had been rumors of a shut down of Ko Phi Phi for years and finally it happened. Thank God.
I was happy at the shutdown. Officials weren’t just going to do nothing as one of Thailand’s most precious gems-Ko Phi Phi-was trampled beyond repair in the name of mass tourism dollars.
But more cynically, the temporary shutdown is to preserve Maya Bay as a continuing revenue source for future tourist dollars.
This post will take you back to a time when Thailand was in its infancy of tourism. When the beaches of Phuket were truly deserted; The floating markets of Bangkok authentic; Before the sluttery of Pattaya; and a trip to upcountry Siam an adventure of a lifetime.
So hop into my Siamese time machine. We don’t have to travel back very far-not even a lifetime. And you might just better understand how you can still find “Old Siam” even in the era of mass tourism.
Thai Tourism: Facts First
In 2016, Thailand’s tourist revenue was a staggering $2.53 trillion baht ($78 Billion (US) which accounted for roughly 18% of Thai Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most countries with a developed tourist industry average 9% of GDP from tourism.
In 2016, 32.5 million tourists visited The Kingdom. Compare that to 1967 when there were 336,000 tourists; or 1960 when there was just over 80,000.
In the 1950’s, between five and ten thousand tourists arrived (No records were kept back then). And prior to World War II, tourists numbered so few that annual stats could have been kept by chits at the Port of Bangkok.
Bangkok alone drew 21 million tourists in 2016-the most visited city in the world that year.
Last year, the top two most frequently photographed locations on Instagram were Suvarnabumi International Airport (Bangkok) and the Siam Paragon Shopping Mall in Bangkok. That pretty much says it all.
So what caused this massive explosion in tourism? The reasons are many:
- The Thai government realized in the 1920’s that their country could make a lot of money through tourism and they planned accordingly.
- The country and culture are perfect for tourism-beaches, exotic locales, food, etc.
- A skyrocketing Thai GDP that allowed the development of the needed infrastructure for mass tourism.
- Thailand is cheap for Western wallets.
- The Viet Nam War which brought hundreds of thousands of G.I.s and other foreigners to The Kingdom.
- James Bond’s The Man With A Golden Gun in 1974; Brooke Shields’s Blue Lagoon in 1980; The recent Chinese smash hit movie Lost in Thailand; and of course the classic Bridge Over The River Kwai (1957); Miss Universe 1965-Apasra Hongsakula; The yearly Thai floats in the Pasadena Rose Parade; The 1960 world tour of the beautiful Queen Sirikit and dashing King Bhumipol Adulyadej; The world’s love affair with Thai food….
You could go on and on and on.
But, without long distance air travel, Thailand could never have become the tourism godzilla that it is today.
The Real Start of Thai Tourism: June 17, 1947
On June 17th, 1947 Pan Am Airlines began Flight #1. A DC-4 took off from San Francisco Municipal Airport and flew east to Honolulu-Hong Kong-BANGKOK-Delhi-Beruit-Istanbul-Frankfurt-London-New York.
Pan Am was the first airline to offer worldwide “clipper” service, named after the speedy clipper sailing ships of the turn of the century.
A ticket wasn’t cheap. The full around-the-world fare was $2300 (US) for a single seat; a couple could fly for $4,000 (US). In today’s dollars that would be the equivalent of $22,000 and $38,000 respectively.
Pan Am also began Flight #2 which originated in New York and ended up in San Francisco going in the opposite direction. Pan Am allowed you to get off at any stop and stay as long as you wanted-you just had to complete your journey within six months.
There were other airlines that were flying into Bangkok around this time, but nothing beat the ease and elegance of Pan Am clippers. And no other airline had the advertising budget to market these far away, exotic destinations, especially Siam.
KLM (Dutch National Carrier) was flying Amsterdam to Bangkok and on to Jakarta in 1945. BOAC, a precursor to British Airways, had service from London to Sydney with a stop in Bangkok in 1946. And believe it or not, one of Thailand’s first airlines-Pacific Overseas Airline of Siam-had a very short lived service from Bangkok to Los Angeles.
But it was Pan Am’s world clipper service which caught the imagination of the world. Beginning in 1947, if you had the cash, Pan Am had the flight. Bangkok was now a legitimate travel choice for a tourist.
Tourism Before 1947
A steady trickle of Westerners had been travelling to Siam (Thailand was called Siam until 1932.) since the 1850’s. President Ulysees Grant came in 1877. Joseph Conrad, the famous British author, stayed in Bangkok in 1888. Sommersat Maughnam in 1923. Thailand had no shortage of celebrities visit their far-off Kingdom prior to World War II.
There was a hodge podge of travelers to The Kingdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were more adventurers than tourists. They all would have journeyed one to three months by ship to get here.
There was very little tourist infrastructure in Bangkok prior to World War II; Very few hotels or restaurants catered to Westerners. The world-wide depression of the 1930’s also retarded any tourism development that the government was trying to initiate.
The population of Bangkok at the turn of the century was about 400,000. There were very few roads. Travelling anywhere beyond the capitol was all but impossible unless you wore a pith helmet and commanded an expedition.
Almost all travel was done via water-canals through Bangkok (“The Venice of the East”), rivers and oceans. It wasn’t until 1920 that Bangkok was linked with Chiang Mai by rail.
But as mentioned before, the seeds of modern Thai tourism began in the 1920’s. In 1924, The State Railway of Thailand started the Tourism of Thailand (T.O.T.) bureau. This bureau was ahead of its time and clearly saw The Kingdom’s tourism potential. What little there was of tourism, they promoted.
Tourism After 1947
With convenient air travel came tourist infrastructure: hotels, restaurants, roads, upcountry airports, transportation services, etc.
Thailand’s expanding tourist infrastructure was a direct result of its expanding economy. If you lay a graph of Thai GDP over one of Thai tourism for the years 1947-1979, you’ll see an unmistakable correlation. The reason is simple: You can’t built infrastructure without money; and a country doesn’t have money unless it has a strong, growing economy.
In rapid development, Western quality hotels began to appear in Bangkok. The Oriental was no longer the only game in town.
In the 1950’s you could stay at tourist quality hostelries such as The Princess, The Erawan, The Royal, The Atlanta (still open today), The Trocadero, and later in the decade The Siam Intercontinental. Night clubs sprouted up-The Silver Palms in 1948; The Oriental’s Bamboo Bar in 1946; Bangkok’s Copa Cabana in 1957 and many others.
You could also travel outside of Bangkok. Pattaya now had tourist amenities and a decent road linked it to Bangkok. There was air service via Thai Airways to other parts of The Kingdom. You could travel to Ayutthaya without a pith helmet.
The 1950’s saw an estimated 10,000 tourists a year coming to Bangkok. And they were spending money, enough to make building hotels, opening restaurants, improving airports and roads a profitable endeavor.
Modern Thai tourism had taken root during the fifties and was off and running.
The 1960’s: The Jet Age Cometh
In 1960, 80,000 foreign tourist came to Thailand.
At the beginning of this decade, a fundamental technology change took place-jet aircraft-and Thailand was fully prepared to make the most of it. Airline tickets became cheaper and flight times shorter. Pan Am’s chunky propeller stratocruisers were retired for sleek, modern jets.
Getting to the far-off Kingdom got a lot easier on a jet.
But there was another crucial factor for Thai tourism that was happening. European, American, Australian economies were creating huge middle classes with enough disposible income and vacation time to afford a trip to a foreign destination. Again, Thailand stood ready to strike this jackpot of new tourist dollars.
Maybe the biggest cultural icon to come into existence in The Sixties was the tuk tuk. Samlors, a bicycled-styled rikshaw, had been banned from major Bangkok streets in the late 50’s. The samlors were clogging Bangkok’s growing traffic. In 1960 the first tuk tuks began to appear on Bangkok streets. A Thai cultural icon was born.
Thai Airways International
In the late 1940’s, Thailand had two airlines: Pacific Overseas Airline of Siam (POAS) and The Siamese Airways Co.
These two airlines competed with each other and therefore were not economically feasible. The Thai government took ownership of the two and made a single airline called Thai Airways Company (TAC) in 1951. But wait! This is not yet the airline we know today as THAI Airways International.
In 1960, the Thai goverment made a deal with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to start a joint airline called Thai Airways International. The Thai government owned 70% of this new airline and SAS owned 30%. This is essentially the THAI Airways we know today.
The joint venture was simple. SAS had all the operational, managerial, marketing and training skills needed to run a first class international airline successfully. Thailand didn’t. Thai officials knew this and so made another crucial and successful decision about the development of tourism.
The first revenue flight for the new Thai Airways was May 1st, 1960. By 1977, Thai airline officials had sufficient skills to operate the airline alone and so bought out SAS’s interest.
THAI Airways International became a key branding method for Thai tourism. Board a THAI flight anywhere in the world and you’re immediately greeted with a wai and a stewardess dressed in traditional Thai fashion. You’ve arrived in Thailand before you’ve even taken off.
The Viet Nam War
After World War II, Thailand became a strong ally of the United States and supported the Viet Nam war effort of the U.S. This had a profound and unseen effect on Thai tourism.
By the mid-60’s, approximately 40,000 U.S. troops were assigned to bases in Thailand. More importantly, the five-day R & R (rest and relaxation) given to U.S. soldiers fighting in Viet Nam was often conveniently spent in Thailand.
Hundreds of thousands of young G.I.s were coming to Thailand to get relief from the bloody fighting of Viet Nam. And blow off steam they did as only young men can.
They returned to the U.S. with tales of beautiful beaches, great food and nightlife from an exotic country that had given them a few days of comfort from war. Unfortunately, they also helped plant the seed of debauchery and the bar girl scene that would grow to a contagion in The Ninties and beyond.
Pattaya: A Casualty of Thai Tourism
Pattaya in the 1950’s was an almost completely undeveloped fishing village with a perfectly shaped crescent beach.
This isolated fishing village would become one of the first casualties of Thai tourism for two simples reasons: First, it was very close to Bangkok, only 150 kilometers south. Second, there was a decent road between Bangkok and Pattaya making it easy pickin’s.
Today Thai officials readily admit that mistakes were made with the development of Pattaya and they would do things differently if they only could. The current government has vowed to reign in the sex industry of Pattaya; but color me ever so cynical.
Onward & Upward: The Tourism Office of Thailand
The 60’s was a time of branding Thailand around the world. The old state railway bureau of Tourism of Thailand (T.O.T) was put under the office of the prime minister and its name changed to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (T.A.T.). It was given a healthy budget.
The T.A.T was and is the main branding machine of Thai tourism. They brought you the branding concept of the “Thai smile” with phenomenal results. Say what you want about the T.A.T. and mass tourism, but these people are very sophisticated marketers.
They opened an office in New York in 1965. They arrange for a Thailand float in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade. The World Expo in Montreal and the World’s Fair of New York (1964) featured a Thai pavilion. Miss Universe 1965 was Thai. The T.A.T. promoted Thai cuisine around the world as brand marketing.
The T.A.T had a winner and they ran with it. If Thai tourism were a craps game, these guys were rollin’ 7s. Thailand’s runaway tourism today is directly related to the marketing work of the T.A.T.
The Sixties began with about 80,000 tourist a year visiting Thailand. By decade’s end tourism had grown to almost a million annually. A 10-fold increase. Thai GDP increased from $2.7 Billion (US) to $7.1 Billion (US) over the same period.
Thai tourism was outpacing GDP growth and becoming more and more important to the Thai economy.
1970-1979: Solid Gold
Thai toursim in 1970 would stand at slightly under a million visitors and by 1982 climb to just over 2 million. The steep percentage climb of tourism in the 60’s was slowing, but in actual tourists and tourist dollars it rose during the 70’s.
The next explosive expansion of tourism would take place again starting in 1987 when Thailand changed its visa requirements and began issuing 30-day tourist visas on arrival. Tourists then would explode to 3.5 million annually and reach 10 million by the millenium’s end.
The 70’s is important to Thai tourism history. It was a decade of more infrastructure and further branding. More hotels were built; airports improved; interior transportation developed; and of course more and more Thai restaurants sprouted up all over the world as the The Kingdom’s leading brand ambassador.
The 70’s are maybe the best of the “Golden Age” of Thai Tourism. The beaches of Phuket remained deserted; Ko Phi Phi and Maya Bay undeveloped. The klongs (canals) of Bangkok were still picturesque and you could visit the National Palace without being trampled. While the sex industry had taken root, it wasn’t a dominating, obnoxious factor that it is today. Few visitors yet ventured out to the ruins of Phanon Rung, Phi Mai, Sukothai or even Ayuttaya. Chiang Mai was quaint.
A Thai vacation in the 70’s really was as carefree or adventurous as you wanted.
So why did the Golden Age end in 1979 A random year or a seismic event? In 1979, THAI Airways acquired its first fleet of 747 jumbo jets. The age of mass tourism had arrived.
A Personal Reflection
I first came to Thailand well after the “Golden Age of Tourism” had ended. And yes, I arrived on a 747 jumbo jet at Don Mueang International.
I did stay a couple times at the old Siam Intercontinental before it was torn down to make way for the Siam Paragon shopping complex. I would wander around it’s 40+ acre landscaped grounds that were smack in the middle of Bangkok. No one told me, but I knew the hotel was part of old Bangkok and its days numbered.
I’ve also stayed at the old Railway Hotel in Hua Hin (today it’s known as the Centara Grand Beach Resort) built in the 1920’s and drank Bombay gin in its original Elephant Bar. Ambiance and good gin is everything.
I wrote this post from my wife’s family house out in the countryside of Lamphun Province. I only see tourists when I venture into Chiang Mai to buy wine.
My wife tells me stories of when she was a child growing up here in the 60’s. The road to Lamphun was unpaved and at most 3-5 vehicles might pass by in a day. A big enough event that would send her and her sisters scurrying out to the main road for a glimpse of just who had driven by.
Today the main road to Lamphun City is so busy that if you’re not careful before crossing you’ll get run over.
My wife also tells me the story of the family vacation to Pattaya in the mid-sixties. Her mom and dad packed everyone into the family truck (they were considered well-off by Thai standards) and drove from Lamphun to Pattaya. They ate seafood and slept on the beach. Just a few other Thai families there doing the same thing. The farang tourists hadn’t arrived yet.
I do know this for a fact. Thailand’s mass tourism is overwhelmingly self-restricted. Bangkok, the beach cities and Chiang Mai soak up almost all the tourists. There may be over 30 million tourists a year, but I rarely see any in Lamphun Province. Rarely in Lampang either. On my fabric safaris to Esaan I hardly see any.
Tourism is governed by the herd mentality. Thank god! So don’t let the staggering tourism stats scare you away from a visit to The Kingdom. There’s plenty of Old Siam to find if you care to look.