In a vestige of the Vietnam War, nearly two-thirds of the people who visit Thailand today are men, many of them coming for the kind of red-light-district R & R that attracted soldiers on leave from the battlefields.
Thailand is working hard to change that image, and its efforts are most visible here 80 miles southeast of Bangkok at the beach resort of Pattaya, which was first popularized by American G.I.'s in the early 1960s.
"Historically, Pattaya has had a little bit of a difficult reputation," said David Holden, director of sales for the 988-room Royal Cliff Beach Resort that overlooks the city from a high bluff. "We have always had the sort of night life that you would expect troops coming from a war would be looking for."
The red-light district, with its nightclubs, discos and female boxing shows, is still Pattaya's defining landmark. It is as if the AIDS epidemic were not sweeping through Thailand, as it is elsewhere in Asia.
"But inexorably," Holden said, "we are developing Pattaya as a family resort city, as a resort fit for all."
Along its beachfront, Pattaya now offers scuba diving, para-sailing and jet skis. There are bowling alleys, tennis courts and eight nearby golf courses. The city is crowded with fine restaurants, fast-food outlets, duty-free stores, cinemas, shopping malls, a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum and a new disco that can hold 6,000 people.
"We want Pattaya and the eastern seaboard to become a major center of the Thai economy, both as a center of tourism and business," said Seree Wangpaichitr, who heads the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
In its brochures, the resort now promotes itself as a destination for families and business conferences, hardly mentioning its famous night life.
But the development has brought other problems, including air and water pollution. In response, the government has begun a $145 million program of new roads and transportation, land reclamation, beautification and water and sewage treatment.
"Obviously, it is hard to sell a beach destination where it is unwise to swim in the sea," Holden said. Most swimming here is done in hotel pools.
The development of Pattaya is part of a sophisticated repackaging of Thailand as an all-purpose tourist destination. Package tours are proliferating, offering trips to beaches, hill tribes and historical sites.
As one indication of success, Seree said, the percentage of visitors to Thailand who are women has risen recently from 28 percent to 38 percent. Bangkok's own red-light district, Patpong Road, has recently added a night market, where families can be seen shopping for souvenirs in front of the flashing neon signs of go-go bars.
But most tourists quickly pass through Bangkok, where the historic canals have mostly been paved over and traffic gridlock has set in, making travel there -- for business or pleasure -- a chore.
Seree said that while the average stay in Thailand is about seven days, the average stay in Bangkok is just a day or two.
Meanwhile, he said, visits to Pattaya are increasing at a rate of more than 4 percent a year, with the average stay for foreign tourists rising to more than four days. Tourism revenue in Pattaya last year totaled nearly $1 billion, with most of that coming from European and other foreign visitors.
Development has brought traffic jams to Pattaya, too, making it one of the few beach resorts in the world where traffic officers wear air masks.
Pub Date: 12/08/96