Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

27 Feb, 2024

Tourism tops agenda of Thai Prime Minister’s Feb 27-29 visit to South Thailand

Bangkok — Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has embarked on a three-day visit to the three Muslim-majority provinces of South Thailand, specifically to promote tourism. The trip will include a range of social, cultural and economic activities designed to highlight the growth potential of Narathiwat and Yala, which share a direct land border with Malaysia, and Pattani, a little further to the North on the Gulf of Thailand.

That strategic part of the world has taken on new importance as part of the Thai government’s policy to strengthen intra-regional ASEAN connectivity and boost relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The region has been hit by conflicts with a separatist movement over several decades but the approach now is to to bring peace via the same methods used to end a communist insurgency in Northeast Thailand in the 1980s, a combination of economic development and hearts-and-minds communications.

Map of Southern Thailand showing the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani in the extreme south

All forms of overland trade, transportation and tourism between the Northern and & Southern parts of ASEAN have to pass through South Thailand, putting Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani at the geographical crossroads of the entire region. Using tourism as a development tool fits in with the Prime Minister’s IGNITE Thailand Vision project unveiled last week.

The Prime Minister will be accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Anutin Charnvirakul, Minister of Transport Suriya Jungrungreangkit, Minister of Tourism and Sports Sudawan Wangsupakitkosol, Minister of Justice Pol.Col. Tawee Sodsong, Minister of Culture Sermsak Pongpanich and Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Mrs Thapanee Kiatphaibool.

Thailand is also planning to attract significant interest by Saudi investors to that region following the diplomatic patch up with the Gulf Kingdom in January 2022. Moreover, since taking office in August 2023, the Thai Prime Minister has already met twice with his Malaysian counterpart Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, with border facilitation issues high on the agenda.

According to an official Thai government announcement, the Thai Prime Minister’s schedule to South Thailand will cover the following:

February 27, 2024: In Pattani, the Prime Minister will travel to local community market, and meet with community leaders and people before visiting the province’s tourist attractions, i.e., Baan Khun Phithak Raya house, Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao Shrine, and Kue Da Chino cultural market. He will also attend Pattani ASEAN Tourism Festival Lim Ko Niao Goddess Celebration 2024, and meet with members of Islamic Council of Pattani and Mosque administrative committee before visiting Pattani Central Mosque.

February 28, 2024: In Yala, the Prime Minister will visit Yala’s TK (Thailand Knowledge) Park in Muang district, observe the Department of Intellectual Property’s GI registration process of pink mahseer carp fish from Halabala upstreame forest and Betong Nile tilapia Sai Nam Lai and meet with fish farmers in Betong district. He will also observe the operation of Betong customs checkpoint, and visit Betong Winter Flowers Garden, Betong Mongkhonrit Tunnel (the first mountain tunnel in Thailand), and Skywalk AyerRweng.

February 29, 2024: In Narathiwat, the Prime Minister will visit Museum of Islamic Cultural Heritage and Al-Quran Learning Center, located in Yi Ngo district, and meet with members of Islamic Council of Narathiwat, before chairing the meeting on tourism development of the three Southern border provinces at the Museum’s meeting room.

Narathiwat airport. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

One of many beautiful beaches in Southern Thailand. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

One of many beautiful beaches in Southern Thailand. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

Tourism to the three provinces is already surging in the post-Covid era. Due to their direct border link with Malaysia, Narathiwat and Yala are getting the bulk of the benefit.

According to Ministry of Tourism and Sports, foreign visitors to Narathiwat hit 406,853 in 2023, up 398% over 81,670 visitors in post-Covid 2022. Arrivals to Yala hit 631,191 in 2023, up 299% over 157,809 in 2022. Although Pattani trailed significantly behind, with foreign visitors of 100,492 in 2023, that was up a whopping 632% over 13,728 in 2022.

Local Thai visitor arrivals grew by much lower levels: Narathiwat (385,146 visitors in 2023, up 30% over 2022), Yala (1,026,501 visitors in 2023, up 14.5% over 2022) and Pattani (385,146 visitors in 2023, up 44.6% over 2022).

In total, Malaysia is the second largest of source of visitor arrivals to Thailand, after China. In 2023, visitors from Malaysia totalled 4.6 million, up 137% over 2022. This continued in January 2024, when visitor arrivals from Malaysia hit 321,704, up 11.4% over January 2023.

After the formation of the Thai government in Sept 2023, the first meeting between the Malaysian and Thai Prime Ministers took place in October 2023, with tourism and trade topping the agenda.

According to a Thai government statement, the Thai Prime Minister wanted to see transformation of Thailand’s Southern border provinces and the North of Malaysia as the new area of growth for mutual benefit. He said Thailand would also like to turn conflict areas into trading areas by expediting key infrastructure connectivity projects to better facilitate transport and logistics, and border crossings.

Security checkpoints can still be seen on the roads in South Thailand but far less than a few years ago. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

The Prime Minister also underscored the Thailand – Malaysia strategic partnership. He said Thailand stands ready to work closely together with Malaysia in reinforcing ASEAN and promoting regional peace and prosperity.

That meeting was followed up with another bilateral meeting in November 2023 which took place at the new Sadao Border Checkpoint in Songkhla province, also in South Thailand bordering Malaysia.

Sungai Kolok border checkpoint with Malaysia in Narathiwat. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

The Thai Government has temporarily exempted the filling of TM.6 form at Sadao Immigration Checkpoint from November 1, 2023 to April 31, 2024 in a bid to facilitate entry by Malaysian tourists. The Prime Minister hoped that the Malaysian counterpart would reciprocate for Thai tourists travelling to Malaysia, and that the MOU on Cross Border Transport of Passengers be finalized soon. The Malaysian Prime Minister affirmed his country’s commitment to consider implementing measures to facilitate entry by Thai tourists.

The two Prime Ministers also discussed construction projects to enhance border connectivity, especially 1) a road connecting the new Sadao checkpoint with Malaysia’s Bukit Kayu Hitam checkpoint, which Malaysia committed to expedite road construction on its side; and 2) Sungai Kolok Bridge, Narathiwat Province, connecting the 2nd Rantau Panjang, Kelantan State, Malaysia, which has been agreed upon in principle. Government agencies on both sides will be assigned to expedite its construction.

One of many elegant in South Thailand. Pix: Imtiaz Muqbil

The Southern Thai Art and Culture Museum in the Prince of Songkha University, Pattani campus

Both Thailand and Malaysia see these growing contacts as opportunities to attract investment from the Gulf countries.

In his speech at the ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council Riyadh Summit on 20 October 2023, the Thai Prime Minister said he would like to see the annual figure of 300,000 GCC tourists to Thailand doubled in the next two years.

He said, “We will continue to enhance our hospitality services, including health and wellness tourism. Many Thai Muslims can speak Arabic, which will be useful in providing healthcare services for GCC nationals. Thailand also stands ready to share our expertise in medical and wellness tourism and tourism management. We can work towards a visa free scheme as well as Open Sky connectivity between our two regions.”