In 2019 there were almost 40 million visitors to Thailand. This figure had been forecast to balloon to a staggering 79 million by 2030. Continued growth in tourist numbers seems to have become an obsession. But with tourism infrastructure straining to keep up and the push for continual development placing an increasing burden on the natural environment there have been growing questions as to how sustainable this policy is. COVID-19 has allowed some breathing space. With total international tourist numbers in 2021 expected to fall dramatically some are seeing the chance to alter direction and achieve a more sustainable tourism sector. One which meets the economic goals of employment and income generation but which also mitigates some of the more harmful aspects of mass tourism. The island of Koh Samui has been a fledging model of how this new direction could work.
From its early tourism days Samui has been seen as a high end tourism market. Many policies were applied to try to direct development in that direction. Though not completely successful these policies and regulations have seen a decline in backpacker numbers. The mass package tour market – especially, pre-COVID, the rapidly growing Chinese package tour market – was largely constrained by air access to the island.
Recent and coming major hotel developments have almost exclusively been at the mid-high to high end market. New hotels under development, including the Hyatt Regency Koh Samui, U Hotel, SO Sofitel Samui and SO Sofitel Beach House Samui, join the existing Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, W Retreat Koh Samui, Sheraton Samui, Vanna Belle a Luxury Collection Resort, Intercontinental Samui, Conrad, Banyan Tree hotels. As well as Cape Fahn, Anantara Hotels and SALA Samui Choeng Mon and Sala Samui Chaweng there is also the newly redeveloped hotel Meliá Koh Samui and the Centara Grand which is currently undergoing major reconstruction.
Following a similar trend recently completed and off the plan residential developments on Koh Samui are overwhelmingly at the luxury end of the property market. There are relatively few cheaper housing projects and currently none of condominium complexes.
Samui is well placed to appeal to this kind of market with visitors wanting to minimise unnecessary travel, to stay put longer in one location, and in hotels and villas that provide greater space per guest and a higher level of customer service. Of course, there will be businesses which will find this change difficult. Some may be able to adapt to the new market realities but many will not survive. Many smaller and lower end hotels had been struggling for some time and these market shifts.
With a high end tourist said to be worth 4 to 5 times that of budget package customer even a drastic fall off in overall numbers may not effect the total income generated by the sector. But is this truly possible? Can enough high end visitors be attracted to make this approach work? Thailand will face stiff international and regional competition for this market and it will also have to increase industry standards across the board. Customers who pay more also expect more - so significant investment will be needed to upgrade travel infrastructure and services such as roads and airports as well as the training of multi skilled and multi-lingual tourism staff. With more investment and better focussed management of the island, Samui could well be a model of the new tourism world order.
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