Last updated: 12:00 PM ET, Thu October 29 2015

Despite All Its Problems, Thailand Set to Break Tourism Records in 2015

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | October 29, 2015

Despite All Its Problems, Thailand Set to Break Tourism Records in 2015

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Thailand has experienced more than its fair share of political upheaval in recent years. Actually, coup plots, both successful and unsuccessful, are nothing new in this Southeast Asian nation. Since the early 1900s, a decade has rarely gone by without at least one episode of political unrest.

When you start counting the number of coups, more than 20 since the start of the 20th century, it seems surprising that Thailand has any tourism industry whatsoever. Despite its turbulent past (and present), the so-called Land of Smiles has been a dominant player in the region's travel game for as long as most people can remember.

Tourists can always go about their business

The Thai military has been running the country since a 2014 coup removed the latest elected government from power. Even when soldiers were in the streets to restore order following demonstrations, tourists were able to go about their business. For the most part, tourists have always gone about their business.

Over the years, there have been a few incidents of people getting too close to the action. More recently, travelers have been stranded when airports closed due to protests; but the flow of visitors resumed remarkably quickly after the runways reopened. Even when they turned violent, the protests and coups never directly involved tourists. Visitors were never targets.

For coup-time travelers, the atmosphere usually seemed as welcoming as ever. When Bangkok's streets were blocked by yellow or red-shirted protesters, people either headed to the beaches or to the mountains. Speaking of beaches, Thailand's seaside destinations were among the first to rebuild following the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Are tourists becoming targets?

The feeling was different after this year's August bombing in Bangkok. This particular incident was deemed a terrorist attack. It was not carried out by the allies of any of Thailand's political parties, but by outsiders who directly targeted the Erawan Shrine in the heart of the city because it was major tourist attraction.

In the aftermath of the explosions, the general consensus was that Thailand didn't have a handle on its security situation and that terror groups were aiming for tourist attractions because they were soft targets and would disrupt the country's most economically important industry.

Did the bombings hurt Thailand’s tourism scene?

Thailand's tourism industry was not crippled by the attacks. In fact, officials are now forecasting that the country will see a record number of visitors when 2015 arrivals data is tallied at the end of the year. Overall, more than 30 million tourists will have had their passports stamped by Thai immigration officials before Jan. 1, 2016. That is an almost astonishing increase of 22 percent from 2014, and it is a higher total than Thailand's optimistic 2015 goal of 28.8 million.

So what happened?

Chinese tourists were the main reason for the increase. More than eight million will have come to the Kingdom during 2015. Tour operators say that Thailand's diversity of attractions and friendly image are what keep its industry humming no matter what. People can choose to visit mountains, beaches, big cities or quaint towns with floating markets. They can shop in malls or high-end boutiques or find bargains in huge open-air markets. They can spend as little or as much as they want.

Thailand is not slowing down, but its neighbors are becoming more attractive to tourists. Once destinations reserved for backpackers and adventure-seekers, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Myanmar are developing the same infrastructure, diversity and user-friendliness that Thailand is known for. As these places move into mainstream destinations, Thailand-bound travelers will find themselves with new viable alternatives should unrest return to the Land of Smiles.

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