Will tourism come back one day to Thailand’s deep South?

Leaving the airport, the billboard immediately catches the attention of the travelers: “Welcome to Narathiwat,” it says in English. Few people really pay a look to it as cars engage into the highway to the town. Just a few hundred meters away, a first checkpoint kept by the military reminds that this part of Thailand is not like the others. Narathiwat is one of the three provinces in the deep South with the majority of the population being Muslim Malay. Since 2003, the province with its two other neighbors of Pattani and Yala, have been caught up into a cycle of violence with terrorist attacks and bombs explosions. Over the last five years, violence claimed over 3,000 lives in the region.

In such a tough environment, how can Southern Thailand still try to be attractive to tourists? “Violence exists, we can’t deny it. However, it has never targeted any tourists coming to the area. Most cities are safe to walk in during the day. To be a victim of a bomb is really unfortunate bad luck!” explained Anusart Suwanmongkol, senator for Pattani and also owner of the only four-star hotel in the Deep South.

There is little to be done indeed to draw travelers and the Tourism Authority of Thailand has put in place minimal marketing activities to drag tourists to the region. “We mostly rely on visitors who have been before the area and know very well the three provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. It means domestic visitors as well as travelers from neighboring Malaysia. They are generally aware that the situation is better than mostly described in newspapers. And lots of them know well the region as they have relatives living here,” said Ahman Mad-Adam, director for TAT office in Narathiwat, which covers the three provinces.

Not surprisingly then, tourist arrivals grew again in 2008 after years of decline. Yala saw 314,000 tourists last year, up by 34.8 percent, Narathiwat 297,000 (+20.6 percent) and Pattani 114,500 (+32.8 percent).

Walking around the three provinces and spend two or three days there was not so risky in contrary to popular believe. Narathiwat has the atmosphere of an old Malay quaint town with its old mosque, wooden houses and its market where Thai and Malay culinary specialties can be found. Along the river, a large park welcomes young couples or fishers and a few kilometers away, fishers in village have along Ao Manao beach set up batik workshops or manufacture miniature korlae, a traditional boat painted in vivid colors and still used by local fishers.

Pattani has even a lively nightlife, thanks to the presence of the Prince of Songkhla University. Students -like anywhere in the world- gather in coffee shops in the evening in the city centre where festivals are regularly organized. Singing doves’ contests are one of the favorite activities in the region. It is such a serious business in Southern Thailand that selections of the best birds are organized all the year around before to send them to an ASEAN contest, which takes place every year in Yala City Park.

However, to make tourists aware of the attraction of the deep South will request some investments for tourism. Like a good hotel product with investors looking to upgrade some of the existing properties and beef up security. “There is no money for investments for the time being as potential investors are afraid to come here. Nothing has changed over the years,” complained Kannika Dumrongwong, from the Thanong Hotel in Narathiwat and also president of the Tourist Association in Narathiwat. “A good product is able to attract customers despite the current situation. Our hotel, the CS Pattani, is doing relatively well because of strict safety measures and a good quality of service which help us to attract NGOs as well as many seminars,” said the soft-spoken Pattani senator.

M. Suwanmongkol said he hopes a lot about a bridge project in Tak Bai, which would allow people from Malaysia to go to Narathiwat and its airport in less than an hour. “The project is approved in principle. And it would be a big economic boost for the region as it is also linked to the extension of the runway at Narathiwat Airport. Then, we could have long haul charter flights directly out of the Province, especially during the Hadj pilgrimage in Mecca,” added Suwanmongkol.

TAT said it is organizing regularly festivals in the region and promotes every year the three Malay-speaking provinces in neighboring State of Kelantan in Malaysia. “ We went for the first time also in Dubai this year to promote religious tourism with the visit of our historical mosques and Muslim historical sites,” added Ahman Mad-Adam.

A brochure was distributed at the Arabic Travel Mart. More actions are done also to attract Muslim communities from the rest of Thailand.

Thailand’s deep South has indeed more to offer. It has some of the oldest mosques of the Malay world, especially with the Kru Se Mosque in Pattani and the Telor Manok mosque both built some 400 years ago. Near the village of Tak Bai, the historical Wat Chothara Singhe saw the signature of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty, which fixed borders between Malaya and Siam. The treaty celebrates its 100 year anniversary this year. Beside historical sites, visitors could discover and learn about batik manufacturing or visit craftsmen carving intricate bird cages. They could also enjoy a visit to many national park, mangrove reserve, wildlife sanctuaries or waterfalls.

A major problem is now communication. So far, violent acts have mostly killed any attempt to show another picture of the Deep South and with newspapers portraying only the Southern violence; the region has now gained a very bad reputation.

“We rarely see anything positive about what is happening here,” complained Mad-Adam. “And maybe we should think to create a new source of information with the use of Internet.”

Both local authorities and the private sector agree that more communication could help to generate at least more awareness for the South. Creating a website showing what the three provinces can offer, looking for synergies with Kelantan or Terengganu in Malaysia -which share so much common history and culture- will need willingness rather than big financial resources. Just the willingness.