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Sukhothai stakes claim for share of tourism pie

Sukhothai is well known among Thais as a province rich in historical sites, underscoring its importance for cultural tourism. The 775-year-old city, however, has never reaped maximum benefits because tourists, especially locals, choose to make only a short visit there and go somewhere else for their overnight stay.

This is an issue that has worried the local community for a long times. They believe their province is second to none in Thailand as a tourist site, offering unique travel from holidaying amid natural beauty to gaining knowledge of our civilisation from the historical ruins going back to the golden days of the Sukhothai Kingdom, especially the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great.

Things are starting to change, though.

Led by Sukhothai Governor Sumitra Srisombut, the local community and business sector are making joint efforts to more aggressively promote Sukhothai Tourism Year 2012-2013, with a marketing budget of at least Bt10 million. They made a strong commitment on Thursday evening last week. Her mission is to lure tourists to stay here at least two nights.

"Sukhothai is a diamond for tourism in Thailand, but it is hidden in the mud. It's time to let it shine by publicising it. In tourism development, however, the city must be kept unique and traditional for cultural orientation,'' she said.

Sumitra was appointed as the province head in November last year. She has started to promote tourism to boost the grassroots as a way to lift the living standards.

Today, the province, with a population of 615,000, mainly earns its income from agricultural output, resulting in being exposed to the risk of price fluctuations annually. Income per head per year is about Bt60,000, putting the province at more than 50th in the country's rank in term of income earning.

The province has enormous potential for tourism, thanks to two World Heritage Sites - Sukhothai Historical Park and Si Satchanalai Historical Park. The two sites were registered with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Social and Cultural Organisation in 1991 and have gained worldwide popularity.

Sumitra plans to cash in on this advantage by promoting Sukhothai as a World Heritage travel hub in the region. Foreign tourists will start their trip here before going on to other regional heritage sites.

Last year, 800,000 tourists visited Sukhothai. Of the total, 70 per cent were Thais and the rest foreigners. Total tourism revenue totalled Bt1.5 billion.

She expected the tourist numbers to increase to 1 million by the end of this year. In 2014, the number will climb to 2 million, with estimated total tourism revenue of Bt2 billion. Income per head in Sukhothai is expected to increase at least 10 per cent by the end of this year. Tourism will create new jobs, not only boosting hotel occupancy rate, but also restaurants, souvenirs, and transport.

Saratwadee Asasupakit, director of the Sukhothai office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said this is the first time the province is defining its clear direction on tourism.

Saratwadee said current facilities in the province may not be enough to serve the growing number of tourists. Currently, there are 2,000 rooms in total, including guesthouses. Big hotels have a maximum of 80 rooms. Increasing room supply will help secure its tourism in long term.

Today, the province is looking for ways to achieve its mission. It is trying to become more colourful, with illumination. Light and sound shows will be organised regularly to welcome tourists.

Major events will be held every month throughout the year. Coffee corners with Wi-Fi service will be added in big numbers, while hotel operators will have to do business more strategically by offering promotions to boost occupancy rate for the whole year. At present, occupancy averages 70-80 per cent.

Abroad, Sumitra will use her connections to approach ambassadors to put Sukhothai on the tourism map in their countries, as well as promote it in Nara, Japan, and Xi'an, China through cooperation between the two cities. Both have World Heritage sites.

Sumitra has taken on a huge challenge in the last phase of her term as governor before she turns 60 next year.


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