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Tue 22 May 2007 05:47 PM

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Capital gains: Thai style

Bangkok has proven an Asian favourite with the region's travellers and its Tourism Authority is keen to ensure things stay that way.

Beach resorts and wellness retreats like Chang Mai might be en vogue for Thailand-bound leisure travellers, but the country's bustling capital remains a number one destination for family holidays, shopaholics and medical tourists.

Most visitors spend at least a few days in Bangkok at the beginning or end of their trip, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is eager to promote new activities to keep people in the city that little bit longer.

Capacity has to increase from this part of the world to satisfy the demand.

TAT recorded 13.82 million visitor arrivals in Thailand in 2006, up more than 20% on 2005 figures thanks to the global publicity generated by the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's ascension to the throne, and the recovery from the 2005 tsunami, according to TAT Governor Phornsiri Manoharn.

"This was supported by many other contributing factors, such as the start of new low-cost flights by airlines like Jetstar Asia from Australia to Phuket; new Thai Airways International flights to Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad, and new charter flights from Korea and Europe," she explains.

Now visitor levels are back to normal, 2007 is preparing for growth rates to settle to around 7% per annum, taking the expected visitor count for 2007 to just under 15 million.

According to TAT figures for the January to September 2006 period, the Middle East was one of the biggest growth markets for Thailand, with arrivals from the region up 36.25% for the period; a total of 301,710 visitors.

Saudi Arabia witnessed a massive 90.98% increase in visitors during this period, while the UAE showed a 40.51% increase.

Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways all upped the number of flights heading into Thailand in 2006, and all three reported high load factors, but since supply is not scheduled to increase dramatically in 2007, TAT's Middle East representative, Shaikh Rahmatullah, says growth from the region is likely to be limited to around 20% this year.

"Capacity has to increase from this part of the world to satisfy the demand," he explains.

Sticking around

The majority of visitors that come to Bangkok only stay for a few days en route to places like Chang Mai, Phuket or Pattaya, with the notable exception of medical tourists and shopaholics who remain in the city to make the most of its rich pickings.

Bangkok is renowned for its medical facilities and has quickly become a favourite among Middle Easterners seeking a wide range of treatments. One hospital in particular has won the loyalty of Arabic medical travellers; the Bumrungrad Hospital (or International Hospital), which has its own dedicated Arabic wing with Arabic-speaking staff.

"Medical treatment would cost one-third or one-half what they would pay in Europe or America and it is of a world class standard," Rahmatullah explains.

"Many hospitals have special attractions for Arab tourists; some have Arabic translators, helping patients communicate with the doctor, and two of the hospitals [including Bumrungrad] have special counters provided by immigration authorities for visa extension, in case they need to extend their time in Thailand."

Other facilities include Arabic food, newspapers and TV channels, and culturally sensitive practices such as ensuring that only female doctors treat female patients.

Around 62% of all visitors to Thailand are repeat visitors, many of whom might have seen the destination on a brief medical or shopping trip and decided to return two or three more times for a longer trip, Rahmatullah adds.

"The senior member of the family might need some medical treatment, but the junior members would accompany them to Bangkok for a holiday, creating a new mixture of medical tourism and leisure break," he explains.

Nearby, hotels like the five-star Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, part of Sheraton's Luxury Collection, provide a perfect base for families who want to visit their relative in hospital and spend their free time hunting for bargains.

"There are two or three hospitals that are popular with the Arab market in Bangkok, but [Bumrungrad] is the most popular; it's like a five-star hotel with privates suite with their own pools," explains Christopher Chang, sales and marketing director of Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit.

"They stay there while they are having treatments (while their families stay with us) and then come back here afterwards to enjoy the service and to heal."

According to Chang, around 6% of guests at the 420-room property came from the Middle East in 2006, but he expects that to rise to eight or 10% by the end of 2007.

"We have large corner rooms for families where we can put in triple beds - and we have a twin bed room, which is connected to a suite, and that is also very popular with families," Chang explains.

"Guests usually come to Bangkok and do their shopping or receive medical treatments and then head home, but if they do Phuket for one week or 10 days then they stop by on the way home for shopping for two nights."

The hotel has direct access to Asoke Skytrain station via a new sky bridge connecting the station with the hotel lobby, giving guests quick and easy access to the shopping centres that run the length of the line.

Shop ‘til you drop

Bangkok is a dream come true for shopaholics, who tend to either save their shopping for the end of their trip or leave it under lock and key with their Bangkok hotel when they go on to explore the country, if Bangkok is part of a wider Thailand itinerary.

Favourite haunts include the colourful Suan Lum Night Bazaar; the 35-acre Chatuchak weekend market, which receives more than 200,000 visitors every day; and the floating market, where visitors are paddled up to the water-facing shop fronts to haggle with shopkeepers over handicrafts and typical tourist knick-knacks.


While the product offering varies slightly from one to the next, most of the city's markets tend to offer everything from locally made handicrafts to bedding, antiques and live animals.

For a more modern and upscale offering, visitors should explore the recently opened shopping mega-complex, Siam Paragon.

A destination with no attractions for children means that an Arab family would think twice about going.

As well as being one of Asia's best collections of luxury brands housed under one roof, the mall has a floor dedicated to F&B outlets; a Gourmet Market where shoppers can buy fresh produce from around the world; a 21-screen cinema; a six-star fitness centre, and the marine life centre, Ocean World, which has regular shows including shark diving and seal feeding.

The Thai government is trying to broaden the scope for tourists in Bangkok, adding attractions to the mix that will keep families there for longer and widen the city's appeal.

"We are focusing on what an Arabic family can do in Bangkok other than shopping," Rahmatullah explains.

"Bangkok is famous for its shopping malls - it has everything from luxury brand names to the [fake] stuff that is available on the streets, but we want to provide more."

While he acknowledges the importance of shopping for adult visitors, Rahmatullah says that since most Arabic families travel in large family groups, other areas of interest need to be promoted.

"You may have good shopping, but a destination with no attractions for children means that an Arab family would think twice about going. If children don't get their good food then they will not be interested in shopping either," he says.

Accordingly, TAT is promoting more cultural and kids activities during 2007, including the daily dance and musical extravaganza, Siam Niramit.

"It's like an Andrew Lloyd Webber performance; a huge colourful performance depicting the history of Thailand with real elephants and people strung up from the ceiling and such," explains Sheraton's Chung.

The nightly show starts at 8pm and lasts around an hour-and-a-half, and guests can opt to go for a pre- or post-show meal, all of which can be arranged through the concierge at most city hotels.

Other popular attractions for families include Safari World; a drive-through zoo with more than 10,000 different animals from 1000 different species. Seven different themed shows, including a Jungle Cruise, Western Cowboy Stunt Show, and Orang-utan Boxing run throughout the day.

"I'm sure an Arab family would be delighted to visit this place - or an ex-pat family. It is on the outskirts of Bangkok, but most concierges have a city tour that will take you there," Rahmatullah says.

City escape

Thailand is soon approaching its green season, which tends to run from June to September; the peak selling months for the Middle East market.

A brief daily downpour is a key draw card for Arabs; the lush greenery of the surrounding forests finds its way into the courtyards and gardens of the city's finest hotels, which themselves can be a major attraction for some visitors.

The 130-year-old Oriental Bangkok has become something of a tourist attraction itself; it's must-stay for celebrities passing through the city and luxury tourists eager to stay in the most expensive hotel in town.

The hotel's general manager of 40 years, Kurt Wachtveitl, a local and international celebrity in his own right, maintains that the hotel's location on the banks of the Chao Praya River is one of its key draw cards.

"It is like a mini resort in the city, right in the centre and close to where the shopping and tourist attractions are," he explains.

"At the same time you have gardens and swimming pools and you have terraces where there is always a nice breeze blowing, which is very important in Bangkok. People always talk about pollution and so on but we don't have this problem by the river."

Thanks to its riverside location, guests can also take boats trips out to visit attractions such as Bangkok's ancient temples and the floating markets from their doorstep.

Wachtveitl highlights the improving infrastructure in the city, which used to pose a major problem for getting around, as the number of inhabitants and visitors grew.

"The traffic is not as bad as it used to be," he says.

"There is now a sky train, an underground and a lot of expressways. From the new airport to the hotel is 30 minutes on the expressway."

The hotel has a range of activities to keep guests busy without having to set foot outside of the grounds, including Thai cooking lessons, where guests can learn how to prepare fish, meats and soup in the Thai fashion, free group yoga sessions, and a four storey Thai spa.

The property offers the usual services for Arabic visitors, such as interconnecting rooms, Halal food and Arabic speaking staff, and there is a mosque 50 metres away from the hotel entrance.


Wachtveitl also highlights the changing trends of holidaymakers coming to Bangkok.

"A couple of years ago people would go to two or three countries in one trip, but we are seeing more people coming only to Thailand and visiting the different parts," he explains.

We are focusing on what an Arabic family can do other than shopping.

"They spend days on the beach in Pattaya or Phuket and then on to Chang Mai. I think families with children want to do one culture at a time.

"Bangkok is a great stopover for people who want to go to Australia or New Zealand; China or Indochina; or to Burma or Vietnam; the Himalayas; or even to catch the Orient Express from Bangkok to Singapore - the possibilities are endless," he concludes.

The sales pitch

Getting there:

Emirates:

from Dubai, 26 weekly.

Etihad:

from Abu Dhabi, double daily.

Gulf Air:

from Bahrain, daily; from Muscat, two weekly.

Kuwait

Airways:

from Kuwait, six flights weekly.

Mahan Air:

from Tehran, daily.

Qatar

Airways:

from Doha, double daily flights.

Royal Jordanian:

from Amman, five flights weekly.

Singapore

Airlines:

from Dubai (via Singapore), 10 weekly.

Thai Airways:

from Bahrain, daily; from Cairo, four weekly; from Dubai, 13 weekly; from Kuwait, (via Dubai) three weekly; from Muscat, two flights weekly.

Visas:

All GCC nationals receive tourist visas upon arrival; Omani and Saudi Arabian nationals receive a 15-day visa, while visitors from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and UAE receive a 30-day visa. Most European and Australasian visitors also receive 30-day tourist visa upon arrival.

Currency:

100 Thai Baht (THB) = US $3.1

What's new:

Siam Paragon:

Southeast Asia's biggest shopping complex with F&B outlets, Gourmet Market, 21-screen cinema, six-star fitness centre and a marine life centre; Siam Ocean World.

Siam

Niramit:

a nightly performance full of fantasy and special effects depicting the history of Thailand in the newly opened 2000-seat Siam Niramit Ratchada Theatre. More than 150 choreographed performers and 500 different costumes take to the stage every night from 8pm to 9.30pm. Guests can enjoy a pre- or post-show meal.

Packages:

Emirates Holidays:

a River Kwai tour, including one night's accommodation at the River Kwai Village Hotel, breakfast, two lunches, one dinner, tour by air-conditioned coach, an English-speaking tour guide, ride on the Death Railway Train and a boat tour to Kaeng Lawa Cave, is priced from AED 444 ($121) per person, based on two people sharing. Excludes flights.

Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit:

prices for an ‘Amazing Thailand' package, including buffet breakfast, set dinner at Basil, a 55-minute spa treatment at The Grande Spa and late check out at 4pm start from THB 8100 (US $249) per room per night, based on a minimum of two nights. Prices exclude 7% VAT and 10% service charge.

Prices for an ‘Executive Advantage' package, including buffet breakfast, in-room high-speed internet, round trip airport transfers and three pieces of laundry per person per day starts from THB 8700 ($267) per room per night based on a minimum of two nights.

A ‘Family Getaway' package, including 50% discount for an adjoining or connecting room for the family, 20% discount for BBQ buffet at The Sala and late check-out at 4pm, is priced from THB 7000 ($216) per room per night. The offer is valid until May 15.

Etihad Holidays:

a three night package at the three-star Zenith Hotel on B&B basis, including return Coral Zone flights and return seat-in-coach transfers starts from AED 1760 ($479) per person based on two people sharing during May.

The Bangkok and Beach package, including three nights at the four-star Landmark Bangkok, and five nights at the four-star plus Central Samui in Koh Samui on B&B basis, return Coral Zone flights and domestic flights BKK-HKT-BKK, and seat-in-coach transfers in both destinations starts from AED 7300 ($1988) per person based on two people sharing.

If clients book and pay for their holiday 30 days or more prior to departure save AED 200 ($54) per adult and AED 100 ($27) per child.

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