New year revellery returns to Thai streets as tourism rebounds

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A boy and a tourist play with water as they celebrate during the Songkran holiday in Bangkok on Thursday. Reuters

Tens of thousands of revellers, including hordes of foreign tourists sporting floral shirts and plastic water guns, descended on the streets of Bangkok on Thursday for the biggest traditional new year gathering since the pandemic.

Festivities for Songkran, a much-loved Thai festival sometimes described as the world’s largest water fight, had been muted or barred for the past few years due mainly to COVID-19 restrictions.

Revellers — many of them soaked to the skin — walked through a half-kilometre long stretch in Bangkok’s tourist hub of Khaosan Road, indiscriminately firing water guns and dancing to music blaring from kerbside establishments.

“It’s a multiple-day, city-wide water fight,” said Jared Baumeister, a lawyer from New York, who flew into Bangkok this week to join the festivities. “I don’t know where else in the world you’d get this,” he said while holding a multi-coloured water gun and sipping a beer.

Thailand-waterfight A Chinese tourist plays with water as she celebrates during the Songkran holiday in Bangkok. Reuters

In Bangkok alone, there are 40 designated spots this year for public water splashing, including the touristy Khao San Road where vendors hawked food, clothes and water-fighting gear in the scorching heat.

Businesses expect tourist numbers to rise as summer approaches.

“Income is skyrocketing,” said Khanti Wichan, manager of ReRe Restaurant, who has worked on Khaosan Road for almost a decade.

A strong recovery in the tourism sector will a key driver for Thailand’s economy – which has bounced back slower from the pandemic than other Southeast Asian nations – to grow by as much as 4% this year, the fastest rate in five years.

The festival, which is also celebrated in neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, falls at the hottest time of the year when temperatures can creep above 40˚C.

Thailand-waterfun-tourists Locals and tourists play with water as they celebrate during the Songkran holiday in Bangkok. Reuters

While many tourists and locals congregate in the capital, millions of workers head home to rural provinces to see family and celebrate by cleansing images of the Buddha for luck, throwing water on each other, and washing the hands and feet of elders to pay respect and ask for a blessing.

Police geared up for the “Seven Dangerous Days” — taking into account the travel days on either end of Songkran – during which traffic-related casualties spike in a country where road traffic death rates ranked No. 9 worldwide in the WHO’s 2018 road safety report. Many accidents involve drunk driving, and motorcyclists account for a large number of the deaths.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand projects this year’s Songkran festival will help generate more than 18 billion baht ($530 million) in revenue and bring in more than 300,000 international travelers for the holiday week – a 525% increase over the same period in 2022, but just 58% of 2019’s number from before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Although the country gradually eased up travel restrictions before fully reopening in October, local entrepreneurs remain concerned about the pace of recovery.

Thailand received about 40 million international visitors in 2019. That number decreased sharply to 6.7 million in 2020 and fewer than 500,000 in 2021, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Agence France-Presse/ Reuters

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