Thailand hoping to attract wealthier travellers

Tourists pose for a "selfie" photograph at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok, Thailand, Jun 28, 2014.
Tourists pose for a "selfie" photograph at the Chatuchak market in Bangkok, Thailand, Jun 28, 2014.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BANGKOK (AFP) - It may have made its name as the ultimate backpacker destination but Thailand hopes to attract a more well-heeled kind of traveller in the future, its tourism minister said Friday (Dec 25), as the kingdom announced record arrivals for 2015.

The vital tourism industry remains one of the few economic brightspots following a year in which the junta-led government has struggled to kickstart the kingdom's stumbling economy.

By the end of the year Thailand will have received more than 29.6 million foreign visitors, Minister for Tourism and Sports Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul told reporters.

"Our goal is to focus on quality and how to make tourists stay longer and spend more money," Kobkarn said, adding officials would target women, luxury holiday makers and sports tourism.

This year's tourist arrivals are a significant jump from the 24.8 million who visited in 2014 - when the country was wracked by months of debilitating street protests and a military coup - and 26.5 million in 2013.

"Revenue from the tourism industry accounted for 14.5 percent of our GDP," Kobkarn said.

After years of largely impressive economic expansion during the 1990s and 2000s, Thailand's growth has significantly slowed, leading some to dub it the sick man of Southeast Asia.

Thailand's planning agency expects this year's growth to be between 2.7 and 3.2 per cent, an improvement on last year's negligible expansion but still one of the poorest performing economies in Southeast Asia.

Some independent economists have suggested growth could be as low as 2.5 per cent.

Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in May 2014, ousting a democratically elected government that he accused of being corrupt and running costly populist policies.

But his vow to kickstart growth has largely fallen flat.

The country's key agricultural sectors - including rice and rubber - have struggled with falling global prices, curbing the amount of crops produced and taking money out of Thais' pockets.

The country also remains one of Southeast Asia's most indebted economies, denting consumer confidence.

In a recent note to clients Capital Economics said Thailand's tourism industry had weathered a deadly bomb attack in Bangkok in August that appeared to target ethnic Chinese tourists.

"In 2015 we estimate that tourism will contribute 2 percentage points to GDP growth. Without this boost, the economy would hardly have expanded at all," Asia economist Krystal Tan wrote.

However Tan warned that there was "almost no chance" of 2016 matching this year's figures, citing capacity constraints - particularly at Thailand's already hard-pressed airports.

Tourism minister Kobkarn said she hoped Thailand could attract 32 million visitors in 2016.