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Thais cast a wide net for diverse tourists

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BANGKOK » Tolerance, the Thais have learned, is good for business.

In recent advertising and marketing campaigns, the government here in "the land of smiles" has actively gone after categories of tourists that for reasons of political sensitivity or outright discrimination are shunned in some neighboring countries.

It is the only Asian country, travel industry analysts say, that has a government-sponsored campaign – "Go Thai. Be Free." – aimed at gay and lesbian travelers.

Thailand, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist, is also marketing itself to Muslims as a place where food prepared according to Islamic precepts is readily available and where "halal spas" offer separate facilities for women and men. All the leading shopping malls and the beach resort city of Pattaya have Muslim prayer rooms – a far cry from the widespread anti-Muslim feelings in neighboring Myanmar.

The country’s efforts to welcome a broad array of travelers dovetail with longstanding laissez-faire attitudes and traditions of hospitality. But inclusiveness also pays: Tourist arrivals have surged in recent years, notably from many predominantly Muslim countries, and the 22 million visitors last year were double the level of a decade ago. Tourism earned the country more than $31 billion last year, according to government statistics.

"We live in a country that is open and pretty liberal – I can’t think of a market that we wouldn’t welcome," said Wisoot Buachoom, the director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s office in the northern city of Chiang Mai, which has seen a rise in Muslim travelers in recent years.

Thailand’s campaigns might not raise eyebrows in the West. But among its immediate neighbors, laws against homosexuality and religious or ethnic hostilities keep some tourists away.

Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority countries, bar Israelis from visiting for political reasons. Thailand, by contrast, has long been one of the most popular destinations for Israeli travelers, with 120,000 Israelis visiting Thailand in 2012.

Among Thailand’s Southeast Asian neighbors – Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore – some or all forms of sexual contact between men are illegal, although the laws are loosely or selectively enforced. In Malaysia, the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, has been put on trial twice for sodomy – and twice acquitted.

In response to questions sent by email, Malaysia’s tourism authority said it welcomed tourists "without any hesitation, regardless their sexuality." But in the same email, the tourism official, who gave her name only as Nadia, said, "Malaysia, as an Islamic country, is against the homosexuality."

Thailand’s gay and lesbian campaign, which began two years ago from the Thai tourism promotion office in New York, features a website that offers advice to gay travelers, links to a gay travel blog and a promotional video that features gay couples traveling around Thailand and intones, "Go for the freedom."

"Thailand welcomes the gay community," says a message displayed at the end of the video.

"We go after the affluent gay traveler," said Steve Johnson, a marketing manager who oversees the Thai government’s gay and lesbian campaign from its New York tourism office. Gay men and lesbians often have high levels of disposable income, he said.

There are no statistics on the number of gay travelers in Thailand, but a survey carried out by Boutique, a London-based agency specializing in gay marketing, rated Thailand as the "hottest destination" for 2013, ahead of the United States and Argentina, which were ranked second and third.

Uwern Jong, managing director of Boutique, said a conservative estimate for the value of gay tourism in Thailand last year was $1.6 billion. He pointed out that in February, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the immigration authorities established a faster lane for couples at Bangkok’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi. The policy specifically included same-sex couples, he said.

At a bar on a small side street in Silom, a district of Bangkok that is popular with gay men, Alex Cross, an Australian gay traveler who came to Thailand with his partner, said he enjoyed visiting Thailand because "I feel there is no judgment here."

"We’ve been to countries where it’s illegal to be gay," Cross said. But in Thailand it is common to see gay couples, local and foreign, holding hands in shopping malls and other public places. "Here we can express ourselves," he said.

A short drive away, at a mosque near the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Huzam Kalam, a Muslim flight attendant from Sri Lanka who was on his third visit to Bangkok, expressed a similar sentiment. "I don’t feel like I’m out of place here," Kalam said.

As part of the rituals of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he was ending his daytime fast at Haroon Mosque, which at 115 years old is one of the oldest in Bangkok. The mosque is nestled between a Christian high school and a Buddhist temple.

A video, "Muslim Friendly Thailand," posted on Facebook by the Thai tourism authority’s Dubai office, which was set up in 2007, shows Muslim families touring the country, shopping, visiting amusement parks and enjoying Middle Eastern-style food.

Thailand’s efforts to lure Muslim travelers stand in contrast with anti-Muslim sentiments in Myanmar, which after years of military rule is trying to revive its tourism industry. Rampaging Buddhist mobs in Myanmar have killed scores of Muslims in a number of towns and villages over the past year, and immigration officials at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, are "monitoring" visitors from Muslim countries, according to a report in the Myanmar news media in mid-July.

Like Myanmar, Thailand has struggled with violence between Muslims and Buddhists. A Muslim insurgency in its far-south provinces has left 5,000 people dead over the past decade.

But Fazal Bahardeen, chief executive of Crescentrating, a company based in Singapore that rates destinations on convenience and friendliness to Muslims, says Thailand has been successful in convincing the outside world that the insurgency is being carried out by a small and relatively isolated group.

The company ranks Thailand as the third-best "halal-friendly holiday destination" of countries outside the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The survey is based on the availability of halal food, prayer facilities and other manifestations of sensitivity to Muslim needs. (Singapore, which has a sizable Muslim minority, was the top-rated destination, followed by Bosnia.)

Thais are "inherently hospitable people," Bahardeen said.

"I keep telling tourist organizations: It’s Marketing 101," he said. "You’re spending your own money," he said of foreign travelers. "Why would you want to go to a place that doesn’t welcome you?"

Maor Engel, an Israeli graphic designer with the Bangkok Tourist Center, where about 90 percent of clients are Israeli, said: "In other countries, they will ask you where are you from and why are you here or your sexual orientation. Here they don’t care. They just don’t care.

"You just come here with money, that’s it," he said. "That’s what they care about."

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