Hua Hin, located some 200 kilometres from central Bangkok, has been a weekend getaway for city dwellers for over a century. When the 14-room Railway Hotel (today's sprawling Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin) opened in 1923, followed by the construction of King Rama VII's Klai Kang Won Palace, Hua Hin found a permanent place on the tourist map.
“What we're trying to do is make Hua Hin a weekday destination as well,” says Soraya Homchuen, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office for the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan where the beachside town is located. But the efforts that predate the Covid-related travel restrictions on international travel have only met with moderate success, even with the state-sponsored Rao Thiew Duaygan (We Travel Together) subsidies that can cover up to 40% of the cost of accommodations and additional credits for food and services designed to boost domestic travel.
While the perception is that Hua Hin, Pattaya and Khao Yai, which lie within driving distance of Bangkok, have been spared the hardships of other Thai destinations that were more reliant on overseas tourists, that assumption is not necessarily substantiated by statistics.
“We cannot say it is a good situation but at least [some businesses] can make some money on the weekends,” Homchuen notes. She estimates that 20-30% of Hua Hin hotels have not yet reopened and points to massage parlours and beer bars as other categories that are struggling without international visitors.
To drum up business, TAT is going after educational and incentive groups. Among the perks, a group of at least 30 people that visits multiple sites around the province and stays for at least one night gets a free hosted meal. TAT is also looking beyond Bangkok, by far the destination's biggest source market. Homchuen points to a recent event organised by the Korat Chamber of Commerce as an example of working with groups from other regions in the country.
Community-based tourism is an add-on to meetings and incentives that TAT is actively promoting. Homchuen points to Kuiburi Baan Ruam Thai, a cultural centre in Kuiburi National Park where guests can see wild elephants, make tea from mulberry leaves, craft handmade paper from pineapple fronds and practice woodworking among a long list of activities. TAT promotes this lesser known aspect of local tourism through social media both domestically and via TAT offices abroad.
When travel resumes, Homchuen hopes that Thailand's strict safety and hygiene protocols and continued low number of cases will be a selling point. “I would like Hua Hin to be seen as a safe haven,” she says.
Local businesses have come together with tourism stakeholders to promote the destination under the banner “We Love Hua Hin”.
The seaside town is popular with wedding parties from India, for example, a market that until last year had shown steady growth, developed in part through TAT annual fam trips for wedding planners that couldn't be held this year. Another group TAT is actively courting is digital nomads, “people who can work from anywhere” says Homchien, who will be drawn to Hua Hin by its many charms.
In the destination, Holiday Inn Vana Nava Hua Hin is among properties which are faring well in troubled times. Said the hotel's general manager, Dylan Paul Counsel, “We're really fortunate at Holiday Inn with 90-100 % occupancy on the weekends. During the week we tend to have a lot of groups booking with us, so our midweek occupancy is still quite healthy.”
Counsel is upbeat about 2021. “We think it will be a domestic focused market until the middle of the year, but hopefully after that we'll see some international travel come back.”
Other properties, however, are still trying to find ways to tap into the domestic market. Pre-Covid, the customer base of exclusive wellness retreat Chiva-Som Hua Hin was 98% foreign, with many repeat visitors who would book 10 to 14 night stays twice a year. With that base unable to travel, “It's a good time for Chiva Som to introduce our product to the Thai market, “ says Vaipanya Kongkwanyuen, the property's general manager.
He admits that in the past, the steady stream of foreign guests meant that they didn't have to adapt their offer to local tastes. Now new products include one-day and half-day wellness experiences, opening their beachfront restaurant to the public and home delivery of seven-day wellness cuisine packages.
Graeme Stewart Ure, general manager of Anantara Hua Hin Resort, estimates that typically the town was already 70% driven by Thai nationals before the lockdown. He lists some things to be conscious of when catering to Thai guests: adjusting menus, room amenities or spa programmes geared to the Thai market with particular attention paid to social media. But that doesn't always extend to cut-rate promotions. “Price adjustments? Not necessarily,” he says. “There is still a large demand versus supply.”
Outside of hotels, local businesses committed to promoting the destination have also joined together to offer benefits and discounts under the banner “We Love Hua Hin”.
An initiative by Banyan Thailand, a developer of long-stay residential villas, the company is examining how the programme that includes dining, a gym, tennis courts and other services and attractions could be expanded to include short-term tourists. The Banyan Privilege Club currently is reserved for Banyan tenants and owners and members of its Banyan Golf Club.