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Be my guest: How Phuket’s tourist demographics are changing

March 1, 2012

According to Immigration figures, from 2010 to 2011 the number of Chinese tourists arriving in Phuket almost doubled, from 182,543 to 343,125. Over the same period, the number of Russian arrivals went from 148,722 to 276,084. The two nationalities are first and second for airport arrivals.

Bangonrat Shinaprayoon, the director of Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Phuket Office said up until a few years ago, Western Europeans were still the island’s main tourist market, but in recent years they have been usurped by tourists from China, Russia and South Korea.

Two years ago, Europeans made up approximately 40 per cent of all tourists to Phuket, but over the last 12 months that figure has dropped to 30 per cent, the same percentage as Asian arrivals.

Mrs Bangonrat cited the economic downturn in Europe as a possible reason for the drop in numbers. Another factor might be the addition of more direct flights from Phuket to cities across Asia.

As the number of Western Europeans has dropped, Russian arrivals have gone in the other direction. Indeed, 2011 saw 80 per cent year-on-year growth over the year before, due to Russia’s booming, oil and gas-led economy, as well as the increased convenience of direct flights and charter flights.

However, the Chinese have outstripped all other arrival numbers. More than five cities in China have regular direct flights to Phuket.

Wesley Hayden, general manager of B-Lay Tong Phuket Resort in Patong, said since 2005, Thailand has increasingly attracted the “international class”. Prior to this, most visitors to the Kingdom had been Europeans, who flew long distances to visit famous ‘brand-name’ places.

The international class, meanwhile, are expatriates already working in Asia, who don’t have the time or inclination to take long trips. For them, Phuket is perfect for a weekend break.

At the 123-room B-Lay Tong, they place a special emphasis on internet bookings, with many of their customers hailing from Phuket’s third largest market, Australia.

According to figures supplied by the hotel, there are an incredible 30 to 40 million expatriates working across Asia, an ever-growing middle class who have disposable income to spend, and access to some of the world’s best destinations.

Says Mr Hayden, “Part of the strategy for any hotel is to make sure you don’t have a dominance of any one nationality, which can leave you exposed.”

At B-Lay Tong, they average 12 per cent Australians, 10 per cent Russians, and around 30 per cent Europeans, with the rest mixed.

Mr Hayden admitted that sometimes there can be clashes between cultures. For instance, while Western Europeans often prefer a quiet atmosphere, and are content to sit around the pool, other nationalities – such as the Chinese and Russians – are more likely to make a lot of noise, preferring to party.

His hotel handles all problems case by case, and does not separate different nationalities. Interestingly, while Russian and Middle Eastern guests change bad behaviour once it’s pointed to them, Mainland Chinese frequently don’t understand why noise is a problem, and refuse to keep quiet.

Out of all guests, Russians are the biggest spenders, largesse that includes eating and drinking in-house, as well as tips for staff. European guests often dine outside the resort, while Chinese guests are the stingiest, making the most of all complimentary inclusive items, including buffet and activities.

Theera Kanjana was until recently cluster general manager of Courtyard by Marriott, overseeing the island’s three Courtyard by Marriott Phuket properties, at Patong Beach, Kamala Beach and Surin Beach.

He said that at Surin and Kamala, most guests were European, though in high season last year Russian guests were the majority. Meanwhile, the Patong Beach hotel attracted mostly Koreans, closely followed by Chinese.Mr Theera says that Asian tourists are probably the most active, joining sightseeing tours, watching entertainment shows, and shopping; while Russian tourists like to drink and party. However Scandinavian guests love peace and quiet, stay for the longest time, and are usually in families.

Out of all groups, Chinese guests rise the earliest, getting up for breakfast before going on an island tour – all this while Russian and European guests are still sleeping. Because the Chinese also usually return after dinner out, the different schedules mean there is less opportunity for clashes of cultures.

As at B-Lay Tong, Mr Theera says he also had no policy of separating groups. Russian tourists were Marriott’s number one spenders, including in food and beverage outlets. Chinese, however, preferred to spend money on gifts and souvenirs, as most of them are on pre-paid package tours, the price of which already includes accommodation and food.

Just as the 2011 Immigration figures confirmed, Mr Theera said he had seen a rapid increase in the number of Chinese tourists to Phuket. When he compared the situation to 10 years ago, it was remarkable how many more Russian and Chinese tourists you could see walking around.

However, Mr Theera acknowledges that Phuket already has many hotels that do focus on particular nationalities, in particular Russians, Chinese and Korean tourists. Often, the hotel is owned by a tour company, which uses it to house package tour guests. These three- to four-star hotels are seen as long-term investment by the tour companies, and presumably enable them to make a larger profit.

Somboon Jirayus, President of the Tourism Business Association, confirms that some standalone hotels in Phuket already support solely Russian tourists, with tour agencies booking up all of their rooms.

Mr Hayden of B-Lay Tong believes that building a hotel to cater to just one nationality is a mistake. He cites the example of local hotels building pool villas to cater purely for the Korean honeymoon market, which became a major problem when many of them chose to go to Bali instead.

It appears his is the common view on the island, with Methee Tanmanatragul, an adviser to the Southern Chapter of the Thai Hotels Association, confirming Phuket has no new hotels being built purely to cater for one nationality.

While the clash of culture that can happen when guests from different countries stay in the same place is still an issue, he believes Phuket’s hoteliers are more than capable of handling such difficulties.

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