Violence in some parts of Thailand's southern provinces may have disrupted many businesses, but Hat Yai, the biggest city in the region, has escaped relatively unscathed.
Two visitors walk past the Hat Yai International Convention Center (ICC Hat Yai), where the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand held the first Southern Book Fair.
Indeed, there is even an attempt to turn the city in Songkhla province into a meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (Mice) destination in order to raise tourism-related revenue.
The city now has proper facilities to support the growth of the Mice sector, especially the 400-million-baht Hat Yai International Convention Center (ICC Hat Yai), say local experts.
"Hat Yai last year welcomed more than 2 million tourists including Mice visitors. They generated some 25 billion baht in tourism income," said Panu Woramit, director of the Songkhla office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Most visitors are from nearby Malaysia, while many others are from Singapore and China.
Mr Panu said the number of foreign visitors should increase as more charter flights to the city are launched. On Aug 31, a thrice-weekly charter flight between Hat Yai and South Korea came into service.
- Thinking coal: Power plant for Malaysia
The TAT is ready to join partners to promote Hat Yai as a Mice destination, but Mr Panu believes the government should also improve tourist sites.
Songkhla is next to the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which have suffered continuous violence from insurgents in some parts since January 2004, creating a dormant economy.
The Board of Investment (BoI) in Songkhla reports average economic growth in the three provinces from 2004-09 was only 1.4%, far lower than the 6% of 2003.
Since 2010, annual economic growth has expanded to about 2% after some new investment. Of 11 BoI-approved projects in the three provinces with a combined investment of 1.38 billion baht, nine are in Yala and two in Pattani.
Narathiwat has had no fresh investment in recent years.
But the South's business sector is still moving, driven by rubber, fisheries, trade and tourism.
Benefiting from a lengthy beautiful coastline along the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, the region in 2011 received 27 million Thai and foreign tourists, earning 307 billion baht or one-third of Thailand's tourism revenue.
This year, the expansion of tourism in the South remains strong, with 28% year-on-year growth in the first half.
Assoc Prof Chusak Limsakul, the president of Prince of Songkla University, said the establishment of ICC Hat Yai in 2008 was aimed at improving the economy and disbursing revenue to southern provinces.
The centre features 15,000 square metres of space and can accommodate up to 4,000 participants at one event.
"To support the Mice business means helping to generate revenue from related industries such as hotels, transport, shopping and food services," said Assoc Prof Chusak.
The university last year launched courses to teach tourism management students about the Mice industry.
It has contracted N.C.C. Management & Development Co to operate the centre until 2017.
ICC Hat Yai reached the break-even point after only three years, much faster than the 10 years Assoc Prof Chusak had projected.
N.C.C. president Sakchai Pattarapreechakul said the centre's success comes down to good facilities and marketing strategies that heavily emphasise business-to-business trade fairs rather than catering to consumers.
Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau figures show the average spending of a Mice visitor is 16,084 baht per trip compared with 4,900 baht for general travellers.
"Promoting ICC Hat Yai as a Mice destination is an effective way of boosting the region's economy," Mr Sakchai said.
N.C.C. has organised several popular events for ICC Hat Yai including a halal food exhibition, Money Expo and Southern Book Fair.
Despite the slowdown in Thailand's economy, the centre's bookings are now as high as 70-75% of capacity compared with less than 30% in the early years.
About the author
- Writer: Walailak Keeratipipatpong