ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii is hoping to replicate some of Thailand's success in turning its cultural festivals into visitor draws. Above, Thai families celebrated a spiritual holiday in Hua Hin late last year. CLICK FOR LARGE
Thai festivals set example for isles
Tourism officials hope to mirror Thailand's success in promoting festivals and events
It's a small world after all -- especially for tourism officials.
Visitor industry officials in Hawaii and Thailand are bridging the distance between their two global destinations this week by sharing the best practices that have put them on the map.
In Thailand, festivals and other cultural events have insulated the market from vulnerabilities to events like the 2004 tsunami. In Hawaii, officials have used global branding to differentiate their market from other ocean-oriented destinations.
"What comes to mind in Thailand when you talk about Hawaii is the Aloha shirt and the lei," said Thailand's Deputy Gov. Suraphon Svetasreni, who spoke with the Star-Bulletin between meetings with Hawaii tourism officials at the Hawaii Convention Center yesterday.
Svetasreni lent his expertise to Hawaii officials during a series of statewide seminars designed to assist Hawaii groups in planning festivals and events and building partnerships and alliances.
"The competition in the tourism marketing is very strong now -- you can't market only static attractions and beaches. You need something more," Svetasreni said.
In Thailand, tourism officials have used festivals and events to provide a cultural draw since the 1960s, but Svetasreni said tourism officials have ramped up efforts in the last five or so years.
About 13 million visitors journey to Thailand each year, with as many as 1 to 2.5 million coming to the country's two largest festivals: the Thai New Year and the Festival of Lights, he said.
"We use (festivals and events) as a strategy to promote tour-ism to the country, extend the visitor stay and make Thailand a year-long destination," Svetasreni said, adding that some events and festivals have been created to put heads on beds during the off season.
In addition to traditional Thai cultural festivals, the country has developed global events around music, dance and art, he said. Hawaii, too, could parlay its global strength as a hula and surfing brand as well as its fame as a golf destination and a center for traditional Hawaiian arts and culture into festivals and events that boost visitor arrivals and revenues, Svetasreni said.
The benefit of Thailand's festival and events market, which gets as much as a third of the country's tourism budget, goes beyond hospitality and good feeling, Svetasreni said.
When the massive 2004 tsunami hit the coast and Phuket's visitor arrivals dropped by 80 percent, Thailand used festivals and events to get the word out to visitors that the nation was still open for travel.
"We started with all of the work of refurbishing the country and making sure that sanitation was put into place and than we started up with a lot of festival and activities in Phuket," he said.
The country brought in celebrities, held high-profile fundraisers and organized sporting events to drum up publicity. Two years later, Thailand had recovered, he said.
As part of a campaign to improve visitor and resident satisfaction scores and to boost tourism, the Hawaii Tourism Authority wants to strengthen its own festivals and events market, said Rex Johnson, HTA president and chief executive officer.
HTA already supports more than 60 festivals a year throughout the state by providing more than $2 million in funding to organizers, he said.
"We want to be able to assist these organizations on how to successfully seek sponsors, build brand identity and effectively market their events," Johnson said.
Muriel A. Anderson, director of tourism programs for the HTA, said tourism trends are shifting toward defining destinations by their historical and cultural aspects.
"We know from our research that visitors enjoy getting to know cultural aspects of Hawaii beyond the sun, sand and surf," Anderson said. "But they don't necessarily come to Hawaii to attend festivals and events. We want to follow the example set by Thailand and turn this market into a draw for the visitor industry."