Thailand’s Troubled Deep South Looks to Draw Tourists

Rapee Mama
150918-TH-hornbill-1000 The Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province is home to at least seven species hornbill.
Tourism Authority of Thailand

An insurgency has gripped Thailand’s Deep South for more than a decade but, despite all that, officials are trying to package its beaches, wildlife preserves and cultural riches as a magnet for tourists, whose presence would boost jobs in the impoverished region.

In fact, tourists are already coming to Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces, and southern districts that make up the predominantly Muslim Deep South, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Last year, 1.3 million tourists – both foreign and domestic – visited the region and spent more than 5 billion baht (U.S. $140.3 million) during their stays, according to TAT figures.

“By the end of this year, we expect to see a 10 percent increase in tourist arrival figures compared with 2014,” Aman Madadam, the director of TAT’s regional office, in Narathiwat town, told BenarNews.

“The only major obstacle to tourism development in the region is the unrest, which has eroded confidence among many potential tourists considering visits to Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.”

The tourism industry is one of the most important sectors of Thailand’s economy. In 2014, as many as 24.77 million foreign visitors visited the country, pouring 987 billion baht (U.S. $27.7 billion) into the national economy, according to the TAT.

Tourism in the Deep South represents a small slice of that pie, but Madadam pointed to an encouraging new trend: the number of foreign tourists visiting the region now outnumbers Thai tourists coming from other parts of the country to vacation there, he said.

The trend is spearheaded by Malaysian tourists crossing into southern Thailand at border checkpoints in Sungai Kolok district, Narathiwat, and Betong district, Yala.

Deep South ‘has it all’

Many tourists come for important religious or cultural events, because the region has deep historical ties with the ethnic Chinese and Muslim communities in Malaysia.

Among the events attracting tourists are the annual Lim Ko Niew Goddess Shrine Fair in Pattani Town, which takes place 15 days after the traditional Chinese New Year; the New Year’s celebration at the Toh Moh Goddess Shrine in Sungai Kolok; and the annual Ko Leh Boat Races on the Bang Nara River in Narathiwat.

Muslim tourists come to enjoy Hari Rayor activities that mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, as well as Islamic religious ceremonies at the 390-year-old al-Hussein Mosque in Narathiwat’s Bajoh district.

The government is now spending 200 million baht (U.S. $5.6 million) to renovate the structure, the oldest wooden mosque in Thailand. Officials are hoping to finish the project – part of a regional tourism development plan – by year’s end.

In addition, the region boasts natural touristic draws. Popular beaches include the strand at Bu Dee Beach in Pattani and Narathat Beach in Narathiwat. The region’s many national parks and other protected reserves include the Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in Waeng district, Narathiwat. A birdwatcher’s paradise, it is home to no fewer than seven of the 13 known species of hornbills.

“I am still really impressed when I travel here, and, the next time, I plan to take my family along with me as well,” Somporn Phumdokmai, a tourist who lives in Bangkok, told BenarNews.

Before the unrest flared up in 2004, he had vacationed in Narathiwat and Yala many times before. When violence broke out, he thought twice about returning to the region out of concern for his safety.

But after coming back the first time, he said he realized that he was relatively safe because the unrest was confined to certain areas.

“Many touristic attractions in Narathiwat are really beautiful and interesting. Narathiwat has it all – the sea, hills, jungles and waterfalls. Much the same can be said about Yala and Pattani,” he said.  

“The region also has an interesting history, which gives the people here their unique identity. With so much virgin forest and the cultures of Chinese, Malays and Thai Buddhists, there is really so much to see and experience.”

Conflict remains a hurdle

To meet its goal of boosting regional tourism by 10 percent this year, the regional TAT office is working with tour operators and other private-sector companies to promote special packages to Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

Local businessmen are hoping that more tourists will come, but they recognize that the local tourism industry can only take off if and when the separatist conflict – which has killed more than 6,000 people since 2004 – finally is settled.

The Thai government is now negotiating with various Deep South rebels groups in an effort to resume stalled official peace talks.

"Despite violence, there are some tourists from Malaysia and Singapore,” Naseh Amandee, owner of Naseh Seafoods in Narathiwat, told BenarNews.

“But if the government is able to solve problems, the industry could grow easily. We operators of restaurants, hotels, taxi and so on would all benefit from such an achievement," he added.


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