Thailand is already seeing signs of a White Lotus travel bump; country gears for tourists to arrive | Travel

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Now that the fictional guests of Season 3 of The White Lotus have officially checked out of their sumptuous Thai resort, the country is gearing up for the real tourists to arrive. (Also Read | Discover Ramakunda: Hidden gem of Jammu and Kashmir to explore on your next trip)

People relax on the Lamai beach on Koh Samui island in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani. (AFP)

The series recently wrapped filming at several resorts and locations in Thailand, and although the show likely won’t air until next year, hotels and tour operators are readying for their own White Lotus bump.

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The first two seasons of the show, a satirical look at the privileged lives of its wealthy guests and the employees of the eponymous luxury hotel, were filmed at Four Seasons properties in Maui, Hawaii and the Sicilian town of Taormina. Fans then turned those real-life resorts and cities into bucket-list destinations, spurring an avalanche of visitors.

Some tourists are getting in before the next season’s airing.“You still can’t get into the Four Seasons in Taormina—it’s completely chock a block,” says Misty Belles, spokeswoman for Virtuoso, a consortia for some 20,000 luxury advisers. “We’re waiting for Thailand to go crazy because everyone knows as soon as White Lotus comes out, you won’t be able to get in. We’re starting to see people wanting to go there before.” Virtuoso’s bookings to Thailand this year have increased by 38% from 2023, and the majority of that growth is coming from US travellers.

For Black Tomato, a luxury travel agency that specializes in “set-jetting” vacations designed around popular movies, that phenomenon has already arrived: It reported a 44% spike in sales to Thailand in the first four months of this year from the same period last year. Prices have also started to creep up about 15% from last year, it said.

Guests are specifically requesting to book at the properties that Bloomberg first reported were being featured in Season Three: Four Seasons Koh Samui, where an ocean-view villa can cost about $1,700 a night, and the Anantara Mai Khao, where pool villas will set you back about $400. Availability at both properties has started to tighten, says Black Tomato co-founder Tom Marchant, noting that his clients tend to book a year or more ahead. Four Seasons Koh Samui has seen a 39% increase in bookings from Virtuoso clients.

Leading Hotels of the World, a collection of independent, high-end hotels, has also been tracking a spike in interest. The brand says it saw customer searches for its six properties in Thailand jump 25% the month after it was confirmed that the show was being shot in Thailand—though none of those hotels were connected to the production.

Chompu Marusachot, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s New York office, says consumer interest has picked up particularly in and around Koh Samui, Phuket and Bangkok, based on feedback from partner hotels and the sheer increased media coverage. “Appearing in The White Lotus Season 3 allows us to reach a truly global audience,” she says.

The White Lotus Locales

All this portends a good year ahead for Thailand, which thus far in 2024 has seen foreign visitors jump about 37%, to 15.5 million arrivals. Not all of that is attributable to The White Lotus effect.

Asia, generally, has experienced a slow post-pandemic recovery—but appetite for Thailand and its similarly tourism-dependent neighbours has started to accelerate this year as travellers shift their focus beyond Europe. Thailand expects to more than double its total foreign arrivals, to nearly 36 million, this calendar year from 2023, but that rebound will still fall short of 2019’s tally of nearly 40 million tourists.

Although HBO, the network behind The White Lotus, has kept details of the exact Thailand locales under wraps, the Tourism Authority of Thailand announced that the shoots featured Bangkok, Phuket and the island of Samui. Four Seasons and Anantara hotels have both declined to comment on their involvement.

According to sources on Samui with knowledge of the production, scenes on the island were also shot at the remote Taling Ngam Beach—its white sands sit on the edge of a tropical jungle bordered by palm trees, purportedly offering the best sunset views on the island. Scenes were also shot at Fisherman’s Village, a favorite tourist spot known for its lively night market, where walkways are lined with wooden shophouses and rustic buildings.

A slow drip of social media posts featuring the show’s actors have offered some hints about filming locations in Bangkok and Phuket. Sam Nivola’s Instagram shows fellow castmates Patrick Schwarzenegger and Iris Apatow on a yacht, as well as posing on a beach with iconic karst cliffs. Google’s reverse image search identifies it as Maya Bay on Phi Phi island.

Likewise, a recent post by Schwarzenegger’s fiancée, Abby Champion, shows the couple posing on what appears to be Banana Beach in Phuket; it already serves as the kind of soft marketing that Thailand’s tourism board will benefit from.

‘Set-Jetting’ Gains Momentum

Black Tomato’s Marchant says that after The White Lotus Season 2 aired, its sales to Sicily tripled in 2023. The company offers 10-day tours of Sicily that start at $10,000 per person. Demand for visits to Taormina, Noto and Palermo have increased since the cities were featured in the show, he says. The company is waiting for details of Season 3 and its memorable moments to hit the screens to consider a Thailand itinerary.

Marchant says The White Lotus’ influence has an intangible aspect as well. “We see film and TV having more of a subliminal influence on destinations, where you may not even be aware you’re being influenced and drawn in,” he explains.

Thailand’s tourism ministry understood that power when it announced last year that it would increase a cash rebate for foreign film productions to 20% from the start of 2024. That incentive helped draw HBO’s production crew, which could save up to $4.1 million—the maximum rebate amount—as a result of the policy.

Getting Thailand Ready for Visitors

With a four-year drop in tourism, Thailand and Koh Samui in particular have some work to do before welcoming the Jennifer Coolidge wannabes.

The island has 150,000 tons of waste that’s been piling up because its incinerator isn’t working properly, and it faces a water shortage, forcing some hotels to buy water from private companies while residents go without.

On an April visit, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin pledged to help Koh Samui cope with at least some of those issues as it braced for a surge in tourism, says Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, president of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui.

Ratchaporn says the tourism industry is beyond excited that the island’s attractions will hit screens in millions of homes. He’s urging leaders to get Koh Samui ready for the surge.

“We have to expand roads, improve our waterworks and deal with waste,” Ratchaporn explains. “We want to give the guests a good experience of Thailand. We have to get ready for them to come.”

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