The History of Pattaya Beach Tourism
by Leonard H. Le Blanc III
Pattaya Beach has seen explosive growth in tourism and development over the past 50 years. Originally a sleepy, out-of-the-way fishing village, it has expanded exponentially to a bustling, world-class, famous beach resort that show few signs of slowing. Now Pattaya Beach stands as the premier international beach resort, a strong rival to Tahiti, the French Riviera and Acapulco.
Pattaya’s development as a resort Mecca actually started back in 1948 when Mr Parinya Chawalitthamrong saw the potential of the area, with its beautiful beaches and close proximity to Bangkok. He purchased large plots of land around Pattaya with the intention of developing it into a tourist hub. He also started the infrastructure that is the foundation of today’s city.
By 1955, regular bus tour groups of 40-50 people from Bangkok at a time were arriving. Back then, Pattaya was no more than a pristine beach with a lush backdrop of jungle and few scattered buildings. Bangkok’s elite and other influential Thais also increasingly used their weekend breaks and holidays for a visit. The few houses and bungalows were rented out to visitors. Fishermen could be seen hauling in their nets out in the bay.
Old-timer expats can still remember back when simple, rustic bungalows could be rented for only 120 baht/month. South Pattaya Beach Road was nothing more than a single-lane dirt/sand track that cut through sparsely-inhabited jungle. The only solid structures on the road were the wat and school at the corners of South Pattaya Road and Pattaya Second Road. Pattaya Beach Road was also an unpaved, unlighted sand strip. An old tamarind tree, with its trunk wrapped with silk, gauze and other votive offerings, was at the centre of the intersection of what is now the start of Walking Street and South Pattaya Road. Since the tree was unlighted, there were more than a few unfortunate vehicle collisions at night. Finally the tree was cut down as a safety measure.
Pattaya’s expat tourism actually first got started in June 1959, when a few truckloads of American soldiers stopped there by accident from some reports, after travelling down from the U.S. military base supporting SEATO outside Khorat. That same year, Thailand greeted 44,000 visitors. The next group of G.I. visitors wasn’t until 29th April 1961 when another group came down from the same base. Slowly, the word spread that Pattaya was the place to visit for R&R. The first major hotel to open was the Nipa Lodge in 1965. Early restaurants started in the 1960s, included the Charlie’s Hideaway, The Nipa Hut, The Coral Reef, The Outrigger, Suzanne’s and the Seagull.
With the start of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in 1965, this spurred Pattaya’s tourism industry into high gear. The beginning of U.S. Air Force flight operations over Vietnam from the nearby Thai Navy Air Base at U-Tapao in 1967 found small groups of American servicemen and civilians travelling to Pattaya Beach for relaxation and fun. They found it to be a convenient, secluded getaway for enjoyment. Soon, the U.S. military established a Rest & Rehabilitation (R&R) Reception Center at Pattaya for American servicemen flying in directly from Saigon to Bangkok. Flush with ready cash, more than a few took the opportunity to visit Pattaya. By December 1967, 6,000 American GIs were spending five days each month in Thailand. The next year saw 335,000 tourists come to Thailand, up 10 per cent from 1967.
What was to eventually become, arguably, one of the region’s most famous restaurant, Dolf Riks, opened the grill to customers in August 1969. By 1970, small Chinese-run places started quickly springing up to cater to the low-budget crowd. With free-spending Americans in Pattaya, girls, Sikh tailors, jewellery and souvenir shops, hotel builders and managers soon arrived.
Although Pattaya was overwhelmingly filled with Americans, Europeans started coming to Pattaya in small numbers as the word slowly spread internationally about the resort’s amenities and beauty. However, Pattaya was not the apparent paradise it seemed at face value. Since the village rapidly expanded, there was no central plan to handle the growth. There were fresh water shortages, a lack of reliable garbage collection, the traffic system was chaotic, a lack of sewage treatment plants meant the effluent was pumped directly into the bay, the electricity went off several hours each day and building construction standards were haphazard. These problems would persist for decades.
In the 1970s, other large hotels began to appear, starting with the Pattaya Palace, Orchid Lodge (today the Amari), Tropicana, Merlin (today the Hard Rock), Siam Bayshore, Asia, and the Royal Cliff. Well-healed Thai investors saw the possibilities of developing Pattaya into something more than a GI R&R area.
By May 1975, there were eight major hotels in operation and two under construction. There would be 2,600 hotel rooms by the end of that year. However, with the impending withdrawal of all U.S. military force in June 1976, tourism in Pattaya badly slumped by 50 per cent. Calls by tour and hotel operators recommended to the government that U-Tapao Air Base be converted into a commercial airport for chartered flights. By March 1976, the Thai government announced the base would be converted once all the U.S. forces were withdrawn, but no timetable was set. Other ideas floated to attract tourists were a casino, establishing a rail connection between Bangkok and Pattaya, closing down Pattaya Beach Road to make it into a promenade, having the government provide electricity instead of a private firm and cleaning up eyesores along the beach. Things did not start to get better until a Pattaya municipality was established two years later.
However, some observers stated that Pattaya’s hotel industry had reached a saturation point by then. On 2 October 1977, a different sort of “tourist” arrived for a visit. Coming in by trawler, 27 Vietnamese refugees – 11 men, 13 women and 3 children – landed at Pattaya. By 1978, Pattaya could boast at least 3,150 hotel rooms of all types and 250,000 tourists. Thailand welcomed 1.5 million visitors in 1979.
The year 1980 saw 7,000 hotel rooms available. Due to a flat global economy in 1983, tourists visiting Thailand numbered 2.2 million. Hotel rooms available also grew to 11,000 by 1984. In 2005, more than 35,000 hotel rooms were available in Pattaya. A large increase in family tourism began, thanks to efforts to present a more wholesome image of the resort.
Pattaya saw periodic dips and stalls in tourist arrivals through the years, often caused by national political turmoil and the world’s finances. The collapse of the Thai economy in 1997 saw the baht also plunge to record lows. This action greatly spurred tourism. As Pattaya Beach’s reputation for relaxing in an unspoiled getaway gained traction, this attracted more Europeans and other Asians.
As Pattaya’s renown grew more, Asians, Europeans and other nationalities arrived. After the break-up of the USSR in 1991, affluent Russians found Pattaya to be a virtual paradise and chartered flights came in directly from Moscow.
Pattaya’s growth has been remarkable over the past half century. It has become a magnet for all manner of international travellers, with a wide array of activities and pleasures. There are few signs Pattaya will be tamed anytime soon.