The Tourism Authority of Thailand or TAT celebrated 60 years of operation. It is difficult for us now to imagine that in those days the Kingdom was far from the modern country. The popular resorts were hamlets without electricity. There were no shopping centers and luxury hotels. And Bangkok itself was a town with dusty streets and rice fields on the site of modern skyscrapers.
Early period of tourism
Foreigners have always been present in Thailand in one way or another since ancient times. Their interest was in trade. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bangkok became the first tourist destination in Siam. In the 1920s, a week-long sightseeing tour of the capital and surrounding areas was developed, with recommendations for temples, palaces, a floating market, and the ruins of Ayutthaya. In 1927, the Thai Railway Company published the first guide book. In 1950, even a department of tourism was created under the government, which 10 years later became an independent department, known to us as TAT.
Downtown Bangkok Mahachai Road at the beginning of the 20th century
In June 1947, the American airline Pan Am launches the first flight around the world from San Francisco. Passengers flew with stops through different countries, including Thailand. Such transatlantic flights were available only to the wealthy public. The airline advertises these flights in a Thailand by Clipper campaign featuring Thai dancers, royal barges and monks on posters.
In 1959, only 69 thousand tourists visited Thailand, and in 1970 – already 628 thousand, which attracted more than 2 million baht to the country’s economy. The main tourists were Americans, Japanese, British, Malaysians, Germans and Australians. And only 5% of the visitors were American soldiers from Vietnam.
At the beginning of the journey, the tourism department did not understand how to promote the country, and the income was more of an accidental side effect. Since 1965, Thai branches began to open around the world: New York, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Sydney, Toronto, Paris and London. A massive advertising campaign has begun.
Parallel to the wealthy tourists arriving by plane in Thailand, the first backpackers have arrived since the 1960s. They called themselves overlanders and traveled the land on buses, ferries and hitchhikes. The cost of flying from America to Bangkok could be compared to the budget of an overlander for several months. Read more about the first backpackers and the “banana pancake trail” in this article>>>
America played a big role in the early development of tourism in Thailand during the Vietnam War. The kingdom became pro-American and attractive to investors, and Bangkok became a safe island where conferences and meetings of international organizations could be held. By the mid-1960s, more than 50 consulates and embassies had been opened in the Thai capital. Among investors from 20 countries, Japan, the USA and China were in the lead.
Port on the Chao Phraya River in 1960
In the early 60s, the kingdom received funding to develop infrastructure for the recreation and entertainment of American soldiers. Hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, massage parlors began to appear in Bangkok. At that time, a wild life appeared in the Patpong area, which is still alive. One of the seven American air bases was built in the south of Pattaya, which gave impetus to turn from a fishing village into a developed world-class resort. Read more about the development of the resort in this article>>>
The Vietnam War, the growth of tourism and foreign investment have most affected the growth of Bangkok. In the early 1950s, the capital was not even close to the modern city of the 1970s: there were no skyscrapers, the air was filled with dampness from the canals. The city looked like a series of villages built on canals.
Bangkok in the 1950s
Rice fields began to the north of the Victory Monument. Sukhumvit Street was a narrow, dusty street with a few bars. Rama IV Street near Chulalokorn University was an area with wooden huts on stilts over a canal.
If you think Bangkok has terrible traffic right now, let’s take a look at how it used to be. Before tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis appeared in the capital, the cycle rickshaw or “samlo” in Thai was the king of the roads. Wagons with bicycles attached carried passengers over short distances and made their way into the narrowest lanes. With the increase in the number of cars, slow cycle rickshaws began to create traffic jams and emergencies. They were banned in Bangkok in the early 1960s, although they remained in some other provinces.
Metropolitan traffic in 1950
In a few years, the city has grown, the tallest building in Thailand was built – a 22-story skyscraper. The canals, which previously served as the main transport routes, were filled in and turned into six-lane roads.
Bangkok in 1970: view from the Golden Mountain
In 1980, the number of foreign tourists increased to 1.8 million and profits exceeded 17.7 million baht. Then the government came to grips with the development of this direction. The “Visit Thailand” advertising campaign and large-scale celebrations were planned: the 200th anniversary of Bangkok in 1982 and the 60th anniversary of King Rama IX.
Tourism in Thailand in the 1990s
During the decade of the 1980s, foreign tourism increased dramatically. In 1990, the number of tourists was 5.2 million and Thailand earned over 110 million baht.
Bangkok railway station in 1988
The first problems appeared. The construction of hotels and the development of Pattaya has led to sea pollution, the disappearance of coral reefs near the island of Lan. The villagers abandoned barter and began to use money. Despite the efforts of the government and advertising campaigns, Thailand has earned the stigma of the country of sex tourism, attracting a large percentage of single men. But the kingdom was in no hurry to wash off such a reputation.
Nightlife and entertainment have become very important for foreign tourists. Prostitution in Thailand was and remains illegal. Long before the US military, sex tourism was developed in Thailand for the locals. There have always been Chinese-style teahouses, massage parlors, and even bodels. Phuket Town even has a “green light street,” Soi Rommani, where tin mine workers used to hang out.
Food vendors near Hua Lamphong Railway Station
Sex tourism in Thailand has always been a complex structure. The people involved in the industry not only sold themselves, but performed other roles: tour guide, translator, maid. The traditional model of behavior of Thai women is expressed in subordination and service to a man, which attracts tourists from countries where equality has already won. Such tourists return to Thailand year after year, start long-term relationships and even move to start a family.
The government looks at the issue of sex tourism from an economic point of view and prefers to turn a blind eye, promoting other profitable aspects of Thailand. Loud statements that the country is getting on the rails of family vacations do not affect Patpong, Soi Nana, Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, Walking Street in Pattaya and Bangla Road in Phuket.
By the end of the 20th century, tourism in Thailand took on a modern shape. There is an emphasis on cultural heritage, gastronomic delights, beach holidays and shopping. There is a growing interest in alternative tourism, including medical examinations, golf and eco-tourism.
From the very beginning, TAT has been working not only with the international tourist market, but also pays a lot of attention to local tourism. Since 1960, Osotho magazine has been published, telling in Thai about the most interesting places in the Kingdom. Notes and articles appear in the capital’s newspapers. Residents of the multi-million dollar Bangkok are offered organized trips to Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui. Adventures in ethnic villages that appeared in the 70s, trekking in the mountains, acquaintance with nationalities are becoming more and more popular.
If foreign tourists prefer a beach holiday on the coast, then local Thais are eager to discover their country with its features and see the village lifestyle. Agencies organize tours to floating markets, overnight stays in farmers’ houses, trekking, and river rafting. The center and north of Thailand with their small towns begin to develop their infrastructure and community tourism year after year.
For example, the town of Pai, located halfway from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, is suitable. In the early 1990s, almost none of the Thais knew about him. At first, a restaurant for travelers was opened there, where they began to offer accommodation for the night. Tourists were organized excursions to the villages of mountain peoples and showed natural attractions.
Bridge in Pai before tourism
By the end of the 1990s, Pai had gained a reputation as a romantic town where you can unhurriedly relax. After 10 years, more and more sights appear in the vicinity, as I call them, sucked from the finger. Beautiful views, rice fields, Instagram cafes, cute places, funny souvenirs – this is what Thais love very much. And after the Thai film “Pai in Love” with Ananda Everingham, thousands of tourists rushed to the mountain village.
Due to the development of local tourism, new interesting places are opening up for foreigners. Let’s take floating markets around Bangkok as an example. Many tourists call them “non-tourist” in contrast to the market in Pattaya. But it’s not. Since the 60s, all floating markets in the vicinity of Bangkok have been developed as part of community tourism. First, agencies bring Thais there, and then organize tours for foreigners. Initially, the markets worked on certain days of the lunar calendar. With the arrival of tourists, the schedule becomes daily. Shops are rebuilt, houses for overnight stay appear, the variety of goods and souvenirs increases.
Wat Sai Floating Market in 1960 was the most modern
Tourism in Thailand has come a very long way from a little-known country to a favorite holiday destination for tourists from different countries. The annual awards of the resorts are proof of this. Bangkok has been ranked #1 on Mastercard’s ‘World’s Most Visited Cities’ list for 4 consecutive years. Thai resorts win awards from readers of TripAdvisor, Smart Travel Asia, Conde Nast Traveler. Songkran or Thai New Year in 2021 is one of the top three festivals in Asia. Massaman curry has been the leader of the 50 dishes of the world from CNN Travel for several years now. There are more and more reasons to come to Thailand.