Kristian Rouz — One of Asia's most popular tourist destinations, Thailand, is posting an ever-increasing influx of visitors for the past year, and authorities are expecting more to come in 2019. The kingdom's growing hospitality sector is driven by low prices, loose regulations, cultural appeal, as well as a mix of tropical beaches and rowdy urban nightlife.
The Thai government said the number of foreign tourists in the country is expected to hit a new record of 41.1 mln people this year, surpassing last year's record of 38.3 mln. The projected 8 percent rise is expected despite the political and economic woes in the country, as great value, Thai vacations appear to overshadow all the possible risks.
Thailand's Ministry of Tourism said that this year's number of foreign visitors would amount to 60 percent of the country's population, and would be greater than the entire population of Canada. A significant share of foreign tourists come to Thailand from China, as this past December alone Thailand welcomed 838,634 visitors from that country — a 2.8 percent annual increase.
"The 41 million is a projection from the current trend", Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said. "If we actually really reach that level, I'll have a headache".
The minister's remarks point to the rising challenges facing Thai authorities. Despite growing tourism revenues, most of Thailand's tourism infrastructure remains underdeveloped, while the security challenges posed by the immense turnover of visitors are another major concern.
Over the past few years, Thailand has been badly shaken by a massive corruption scandal revolving around former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of the Shinawatra family — a one-time powerful political dynasty in the country.
Allegations of corruption emerged after Yingluck's controversial agricultural policy, which provided subsidies to the nation's struggling farmers to offset a global plunge in rice prices in the mid-2010s.
The Shinawatra tensions, which also produced massive street rallies and turmoil at the highest levels of governance in Bangkok, also exposed the fragility of the Thai economy, which remains heavily-reliant on agricultural exports, with the majority of the country's population remaining subsistence farmers.
In this light, the ongoing influx of tourists is clogging Thailand's few international airports, while roads, hotels, electricity grid and utility infrastructure are under pressure as well.
Additionally, some point out that Thailand could be facing more political and economic turmoil as early as this year.
An upcoming general election — slated for 2019 after roughly four years of military government — could spark street protests, violent clashes, and destruction of property should something go wrong. Tackling instability costs money, and the Thai government appears to be struggling to keep its budget spending in check.
Meanwhile, tourism revenues account for 12 percent of Thailand's GDP. The government has yet to release data on the costs of necessary upgrades to tourism infrastructure, as these appear to be hard to quantify.
However, officials acknowledge that tourism is posing an ever-increasing problem. Some allege infrastructure development could be one of the main priorities of Thailand's democratically-elected government after this year's election.