THAILAND – Tourists come to Thailand for its cuisine before they embark on shopping, as the hospitality and street food culture contribute significantly to the income of the local population and the country’s economy.
A 2023 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, highlights that culinary tourism has become a global tourism trend in the 21st century. Street food, as defined by the NCBI, includes food services, dining in public places, such as market stalls and street vendors in local markets, sidewalks, and festivals. Food carts are often used to prepare and sell freshly made dishes.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported 1.46 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019, generating $1.481 trillion in food revenue. Dining expenses accounted for over 30% of total travel expenditures.
In Thailand, international tourists spent approximately $8.8 billion on food out of the total pre-pandemic tourism revenue of over $71 billion. This demonstrates the significant role of culinary tourism in Thailand’s overall economic revenue.
Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, an official from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, noted that tourists primarily visit Thailand for its cuisine, followed by shopping and the warmth of the local people.
Many tourist destinations now promote street food as a tourism marketing strategy. Approximately 20% of the budget of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is allocated to promoting culinary tourism. There are over 150,000 food service providers operating in Thailand with a market capitalization of nearly 1 billion baht (approximately $27 million). About 103,000 street food businesses make up nearly 70% of the total food service establishments. Tourists visiting Thailand allocate around 20% of their travel budgets to food and beverages.
“The coexistence of street food and the travel experience is an attractive feature that connects tourists to the local population,” the NCBI report stated.
NCBI also conducted a survey where international tourists rated Thailand’s street food system. Most tourists highly praised the pleasant atmosphere provided by street food areas, affordable prices, delicious food, friendly staff, and enticing aromas.
The power of street food in Thailand is not just about quick eating but also a way of life. From the bustling night markets in Bangkok to the small villages in rural areas, street food brings people together as they gather to savor meals.
Moreover, street vendors provide many Thai people with the means to support their families, and in some cases, even have savings.
“Street food has a significant impact on the Thai economy. It creates jobs, brings foreign currency, and enriches a vibrant culinary culture,” a leading Thai tourism website commented.
With the growth of street food, Thailand’s tourism industry has also introduced a popular attraction: street food tours. These tours offer a unique and exciting way for tourists to explore Thailand.
“Street food vendors are the economic lifeline of Thailand. Living in Thailand, you cannot overlook the indispensable role of street food for both locals and tourists,” according to ChiangMaiCityLife, a top travel website in Chiang Mai.
The owner of a small fried chicken and sticky rice stall in Chiang Mai revealed that each meal costs 50 baht. Before the pandemic, they made 8,000 baht per day. After deducting expenses, their daily profit was 2,500 baht. They operated six days a week, earning 65,000 baht per month (nearly $1,800). This income allowed them to support their family, buy a car, and pay for their children’s education. The stall’s income was double the average monthly income of a Thai person, according to data from SCMP. After the pandemic, the stall owner made less, around 39,000 baht per month. However, this amount still helped sustain their family.
“Regardless of what dish you choose, it will always be the most delicious and affordable option during your trip,” shared Elliot Rhodes, an Australian, expressing his love for Thai street food.