SONGKHLA CITY, Thailand (eTN) – Could it not be a perfect destination for tourists looking at culture and heritage? Just imagine an old city with its streets lined up with hundred-year-old shophouses; a beautifully restored mansion hosting a very comprehensive traditional art collection; clean beaches along parks in a city center; a myriad of old-world-style shops selling cakes, snacks, or antiques; and historical temples decorated with exquisite murals.
Less than an hour away from Hat Yai and just 35 km away from Thailand is the largest and sleaziest city in the deep south of Thailand – Songkhla City, appearing like a little jewel for history lovers.
The old port has been a busy trading place for Southern Thailand for 300 years. At the end of the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya (end of the 18th century), Chinese traders settled, bringing prosperity to the city. Chinese traders’ lively heritage is still to be seen everywhere in Songhkla City today, while its old town can be considered as the best preserved Chinese enclave in Thailand.
Is this an ideal holiday retreat for travelers then? Definitely yes, except that very little has been done so far to welcome tourists. In a way, this helped to preserve the authentic character of Songkhla City, but on the other hand, it turned out to be a very difficult destination to discover for foreign visitors curious to venture around its narrow streets. Very few people speaks even basic English, including in hotels, while maps or guided tours are hard to find.
Songkhla City could be the ideal place to put in practice environment-friendly or sustainable tourism policies. But it is impossible to find a place to rent a bike to stroll around the old town or even to cross into the neighboring island of Ko Yo. Surrounded by Thailand’s largest fresh water lake, Ko Yo Island has unique wooden houses showing a distinctive architecture. But travelers will desperately look for signs in English pointing out the island’s main attractions.
Why Thailand has not been keen to put efforts into enticing more travelers to discover Songkhla remains something of a mystery. Especially in a country where heavy promotion and consequent budgets – in the range of US$ 50 million just for marketing purposes at the Tourism Authority of Thailand – have helped build up the reputation of many Thai destinations. This is where a two-speed tourism is effectively taking place. Although efficient messages sell all the time to foreign audiences the attractions of Phuket, Pattaya, Samui, or Chiang Mai, entire areas in the kingdom receive little attention.
Looking at data provided on the website of Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism about Songkhla, the only information there was about total arrivals in Hat Yai, the main gateway to the province. According to those statistics, the city received 1.39 million visitors last year, of which 0.79 million were domestic travelers. There is not a single bit of information about total arrivals to the province or to Songkhla City, as if the place did not exist or does not generate enough feedback to care about. Asked why Hat Yai did not turn into the third provincial hub of Thai AirAsia, after Chiang Mai and Phuket, TAA CEO Tassapon Bijleveld has a spontaneous answer, “Not enough promotion to attract international visitors – beside Malaysians coming by bus!”