Why Bangkok is the world’s number one tourist destination

Ornate barges pass Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Ornate barges pass Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
Image: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Bangkok has beaten London to the number one spot as 2013’s most popular tourist destination, and it’s not just because of Thailand’s reputation for spicy food and Buddhist temples: It’s the shopping.

Thailand’s capital is expected to receive 15.98 million tourists in 2013, compared to London’s 15.96 million and Paris’s 13.92 million, according to MasterCard’s latest Global Destination Cities Index. The city’s luxury malls are legion; Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall is the world’s second-most photographed location on Instagram, trailing only Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.

The most interesting trend in the MasterCard data is the surge of Chinese tourists, now the world’s most numerous at 83 million per year and increasingly from smaller cities as well as large ones. They spend an awful lot of money abroad—$102 billion in 2012—and a decent chunk of it goes to retailers in Bangkok. The average Chinese visitor spends $167 per day in Thailand, according to the Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance, and most stay one week, coughing up a total of $1,000 to $1,300 each.

“Most of them are avid shoppers, snatching up brand name products at duty-free shops and stores around Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong Intersection [home of Siam Paragon and several other big malls],” TCTA president Kasean Wattanachaopisut told TTR Weekly. While Chinese tourists are no doubt popular with luxury retailers, their reputations have suffered recently, most notably when a Chinese teenager wrote his name on a 3,500 year old Egyptian artifact, prompting Beijing to react with a list of rules to help tourists avoid upsetting the locals.

Bangkok’s popularity as a tourist destination looks unlikely to wane any time soon, thanks in part to a hit Chinese film called Lost in Thailand, which drew thousands of Chinese tourists. But Thailand’s capital also remains relatively cheap compared to other regional destinations like Singapore, and a hub for everything from pirated DVDs to luxury handbags. The weather can be steamy and the traffic is murder, but inside the shopping malls, it’s an air-conditioned paradise for vacationers whose favorite activity is to give their credit cards a workout.