For the tourist – and for agents - Thailand is a veritable land of plenty. More than a million UK nationals visited in 2016 and despite some recent challenges the destination remains the leading light for Asia-specialist tour operators.

Top Tip...

“We are seeing a trend where even those clients who want a beach-centric holiday do not want to stay in just one resort for two weeks. The smaller islands, which are less crowded and very authentic, combine very well with the larger islands.”

CHRIS LEE, HEAD OF MARKETING, TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND

State of play

Thailand can also point to a repeat visitor rate of around 65% from the UK – and it is not hard to understand why the numbers of returning visitors are so high. The diversity of destinations and experiences on offer means you can be soaking up the sensory overload of sounds, fragrances and sights in Bangkok one day, be trekking among dense foliage in the north of the country the next and be lying on the most idyllic of deserted beaches a few days later.

David Kevan of Chic Locations enthused: “Thailand is a great destination for repeat visitors and, for us, the easiest destination to build multi-centre, tailormade itineraries. We customise everything and even for clients who have been here five or six times it is very easy to come up with another new Thailand itinerary for them.”

In northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, the host of this year’s Thailand Travel Mart, offers a wealth of experiences inside its historic walls: you can browse touristy night markets, stroll among more local food stalls – sensitive Brits might want to turn a blind eye to bags of live frogs, or, as we did, buy the whole ‘army’ and set them free in the nearby Ping River - explore gold-covered temples with names such as ‘The Temple with Important Buddha’ and ‘The Huge Stupa,’ watch saffron-robed monks collecting alms from passers-by and even fix any broken teeth in one of the many excellent but bargain dentists that seem to found in almost every ‘soi’ (road).

Along with Chiang Rai, the town is the starting point for activities such as visits to hill tribe villages, jungle trekking, elephant interaction experiences and rafting (on bamboo craft).

Island life lure

But it is the string of southern islands, and their greater accessibility after an influx of new airlift into Phuket, that attracted the attention of a group UK tour operators who zipped around several islands on TAT’s post-TTM fam, billed ‘Island Hopping by Design’, last month.

These islands – perhaps still best known for the Leonardo Di Caprio movie The Beach and James Bond’s The Man With The Golden Gun, which were filmed around Phang Nga Bay – are easily accessible from ever-popular Phuket and are a current focus for Premier Holidays, which has added several (islands) to its 2018 programme, which was released in July.

Says the operator’s Head of Faraway Product, David Carlaw: “We have introduced a spread of island-hopping tours for the first time. These feature Islands such as Koh Racha, Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai. We have also added boutique properties like Cape Kudu on Koh Yao Noi and Santhiya on Koh Yao Yai. Also new are combinations of Phuket, Phi Phi and Koh Yao Yai and Koh Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Koh Tao.

According to Gavin Dixon of Freedom Destinations the smaller southern islands are helping to keep Thailand’s product “fresh and moving forward’. “Phuket has become really busy and Samui is over-commercialised now…the time is right to consider some of these lesser-known islands. For example, I really liked Paradise Resort on Ko Yao Noi, and we already feature it.”

These islands can easily be incorporated into one multi-centre trip, says Chic Locations’ Kevan. “We do a lot of business that takes in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and then down to Phuket for a couple of nights. Our clients are looking for something that gives them an authentic feel. They want to be adventurous during the day but come back to a room that has the look and feel of the destination rather than just anywhere in the world – and Thailand’s off-the-usual-track islands fit this bill.” .

Along with promoting its lesser-known islands, and beaches such as Kha Nom, Ranong and Chumphon, other ‘niche segments’ being pushed by TAT include Muay Thai (boxing), spa and wellness, community-based tourism, luxury, gastronomy and animal welfare experiences.

What the experts say

“This was the second year TAT ran an Island Hopping by Design itinerary. It is one way we can show the incredible diversity that we have got. Obviously, Phuket and Koh Samui will continue to dominate in terms of the numbers they attract, but I believe the smaller islands hold one of the keys to keeping things new and exciting.

“We are seeing a trend where even those clients who want a beach-centric holiday do not want to stay in just one resort for two weeks.

“The smaller islands, which are less crowded and very authentic, combine very well with the larger islands. Also, the hotels we looked at this week (on the fam) are very different from each other. There was a time when I had a concern that each new hotel that opened was not really distinguishing itself from the others; they were all beautiful Thai-style hotels. But that is changing – from the barefoot luxury of Zeavola on Phi Phi Island to the stunningly chic The Racha on Ko Racha Yai; from the ultimate in Thai traditional wood-dominated suites at Santhiya, on Koh Yao Yai to the New England seaside village-style décor of Cape Kudu on Koh Yao Noi, we really have got such a range now – that is great for us and great for the product managers too.”


CHRIS LEE, HEAD OF MARKETING, TOURISM AUTHORITY OF THAILAND

What’s new

Airlines: Middle East carriers Etihad, Emirates and Qatar now all fly to Phuket, which has opened up more options for travellers to Southern Thailand. Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) also started a four-times-weekly direct flight (from Istanbul) to Phuket on July 17.

Accommodation: Tongsai Bay  is celebrating its 30th anniversary with the Tongsai Bay Celebratory Package, a four-day, three-night deal priced from THB 38,000 (£865, including 7% VAT & 10% service charge). For two people sharing, it includes three nights in a Seafront Cottage, a bottle of Iron Balls Gin, the 1 Year One: ‘A Taste of Yesteryear’ dinner for two, a complimentary cocktail per person per stay, daily breakfast and round-trip airport transfers.

Layana Resort Koh Lanta in Krabi province is an adults-only resort that is undergoing some refurbishment work until September. Three Ocean Deluxe Villas are being converted into two-storey Jacuzzi villas, with 100 sqm living space on two levels and featuring newly built en-suite bathrooms. Also planned is a new modern lounge area.

Paradise Koh Yao on Koh Yao Noi is building a sister property. Located on the same stretch of beach but high in the rainforest, Treehouse Villas will consist of 25 units, each with their own infinity plunge pools and accessed via their own private suspension bridge. Due to open later in the year they will offer uninterrupted views of Phang Nga Bay. Both properties are reached via a 55-minute speedboat ride from Phuket.

New on Khao Lak, less than an hour north of Phuket’s airport, is the new five-star La Vela. Open since early July, the resort is ultra-sleek and full of glass and modernistic angles. It has an enormous swimming pool with swim-up areas almost up to the doors of the poolside villas. It’s beach-facing bar and restaurant might just offer the best seafood barbecue in Thailand.

Operators: Gold Medal/Travel 2 is planning a Megafam in November across the two brands, with 36 agents split into four groups visiting Phuket/Kao Lak, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Krabi respectively. The emphasis of the fam will be to show the agents the proximity of several islands to Phuket and how easy it is to put together a twin centre, says Rebecca Turner, Senior Product Manager for both brands.

Travel 2 had added Cape Kudu, on Koh Yao Noi, to its programme. Travel agents can offer customers free room upgrades to a pool villa for stays until October 31 2017.

Where to book it

Premier Holidays has a new island-hopping package priced from £1,495pp for 13 nights, including four nights in Phuket (Centara Villas), five nights in Phi Phi (Holiday Inn Resort) and four nights in Koh Yao Yai (Koh Yao Yai Village), with the option to extend with a stay in Bangkok. The deal includes four-star accommodation with breakfast, transfers and return flights. The deal is valid for travel in October 2017.