How Thailand lured the White Lotus producers away from Japan and plans to cash in on the show’s popularity with tourists

How Thailand lured the White Lotus producers away from Japan and plans to cash in on the show’s popularity with tourists
  • PublishedApril 28, 2024

As fans eagerly wait for a new lot of guests to check into the White Lotus, a behind-the-scenes drama has been unfolding to secure the filming location of the Emmy-award winning show.

The series has been so incredibly lucrative for the first two destinations it featured that some have dubbed it “The White Lotus effect”.

A show ostensibly about tourists has in turn been a boon for tourism in Hawaii, where online interest in the Four Seasons Maui jumped by 425 per cent after the first season aired.

And in Sicily, where Jennifer Coolidge was famously stalked by murderous gays in season two, the production is estimated to have resulted in over 32 million euros ($52.8 million) worth of spending and a 300 per cent jump in online searches, according to travel site Expedia.

So when rumours surfaced of a “high profile” showrunner  — believed to be White Lotus creator Mike White — scouting locations in Japan, Thai authorities swept in to try to woo the team to South East Asia instead.

How Thailand lured The White Lotus away from Japan

Tourism Authority of Thailand Executive Siripakorn Cheawsamoot said they were proactive in their attempts to lure the popular show to the kingdom.

“We approached the White Lotus production team and then we talked with them about trying to bring their budget costs down with potential partners,” he told the ABC.

“There are two kinds of incentives. Firstly, cash incentives with rebates and then in-kind incentives as well.”

A close up of a man dressed in a dark suit standing in a library surrounded by books.
Siripakorn Cheawsamoot said Thailand’s authorities were proactive in luring the popular show to the kingdom.(ABC News: Lauren Day)

In-kind incentives are non-cash incentives, and can include things like offering services for free.

“A lot of partners in the private sector offered their services, sometimes complimentary, some on an agreement,” Mr Cheawsamoot said.

He explained that hotels were provided to the actors and film crew to stay in. Transport and airfares were some of the other perks.

But the real clincher was the Thai government’s recently beefed-up film incentive program, which offers a cash rebate of up to 20 per cent for foreign film productions.

In an effort to attract more film and TV productions, the government decided in 2022 to waive the personal income tax for foreign talent for five years, meaning the stars of season three — which include Parker Posey, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Aimee Lou Wood — won’t pay Thai tax while working on location.

Thailand’s gain was Japan’s loss and at last year’s Toyko Film Festival, local producer Georgina Pope lamented the lost opportunity.

She pointed to the Thai government’s generous film incentive system, which she claimed added up to $US4.4 million ($6.6 million) in savings for the White Lotus project.

An island of green trees surrounded by an ocean of water.
Some locals are worried about the possible impact of more people arriving on Koh Samui.(ABC News: Lauren Day)

The financial details have not been disclosed and the Tourism Authority of Thailand did not confirm that number but Mr Cheawsamoot agreed the sweeteners offered to the White Lotus team would have amounted to millions.

Tourism authorities and local businesses say it is worth the money that was spent.

They expect to see many times that figure in return in the form of visitor numbers and increased spending.

“In terms of economic returns, we’ve got high hopes,” Mr Cheawsamoot said.

Seeing big stars at your local restaurant

While many guests on Koh Samui have no idea what’s going on beyond the sign of the Four Seasons hotel, the crew have been spotted around the island.

Already, searches on Expedia for Thailand have jumped by 50 per cent since the announcement that filming would take place in Koh Samui, Phuket and Bangkok.

Local restaurant owners Olive Lamlert and Patrick Moukarzel have had several visits from White Lotus cast and crew.

A woman wearing a striped top and a man wearing a white shirt stand at a counter with cocktail.
Olive Lamlert and Patrick Moukarzel own a restaurant in Koh Samui that has been visited by cast members of the White Lotus.(ABC News: Lauren Day)

“It’s very cool and very surprising. And the nice thing is that they came back because they like it. So that means a lot,” Patrick said.

The couple say some stars of the show have also popped by.

“I was excited because it was Aimee [Lou Wood] who plays the role of Amy in Sex Education and she’s super famous. I’m a big fan!” said Olive.

“And then it was Walton Goggins who is in a lot of HBO series and [2015 superhero film] Ant-Man.”

Olive and Patrick are also big fans of the White Lotus series itself.

As former hotel workers, they said they could relate to the battles depicted within the series, which features a dysfunctional hotel chain and the challenges of dealing with inhospitable guests.

“It reflects what we used to do and what we had to deal with the guests,” Olive laughed.

“The headache ones, the difficult ones, the nice ones, the drama … although maybe not as much drama as in the show.”

Patrick said everyone on the island was excited about the potential economic impact of the series.

“It will be very very good, not only for Samui,” he said.

“When you come to Thailand, you come to Samui, you go to Bangkok, you will visit another city or small island. So the whole country will benefit.”

The downsides of a big show coming to town

While it’s hoped the show will bring in more tourism dollars, some locals are worried about the possible impact of more people arriving on Koh Samui.

Parts of the island have been gripped by a water shortage crisis, which has been blamed on drought conditions and a surge of tourist arrivals post-pandemic.

There’s also been an ongoing issue with waste disposal on the island as it struggles to keep up with the 200 tonnes of trash produced per day.

Late last year, Koh Samui had reportedly accumulated about 200,000 tonnes at its main landfill site and authorities were left with no option but to export the problem to the mainland.

Local environmentalist Anon Vatayanon said the Thai government needed to have a plan in place to manage the impacts of tourism on the environment.

A close up of a smiling man wearing a striped shirt.
Anon Vatayanon says if there isn’t proper management of Samui’s natural resources, they will be ruined. (ABC News: Lauren Day)

“Samui became popular because of its nature — the sea, sand and sun,” he said.

“The most important thing is that we protect our main selling points … how we manage wastewater, the quality of the water, the environmental impact from road use and air pollution.

“The movie industry wouldn’t be filming here if the environment wasn’t nice. If we lose it nobody will come here.”

Siripakorn Cheawsamoot from the Tourism Authority of Thailand said any boost in tourism would be managed sustainably.

“Sustainable tourism is our key focus for this coming year,” he said.

“That’s been the key focus for the Department of Tourism to control and communicate with the filming crew.”

‘Set-jetting’ shaping travel itineraries around the world

Thailand is no stranger to big film and TV productions and the big waves of tourism that often follow.

People still flock to James Bond Island where The Man With The Golden Gun was filmed in the 1970s and Maya Bay is still recovering from the impacts of 2000 adventure drama The Beach.

A close up of a floating rock near an island covered in trees.
Tourists flocked to see James Bond Island in Thailand after The Man With The Golden Gun was filmed there.(ABC News: Lucia Stein)

The Leonardo DiCaprio film sparked controversy due to the impact of the shoot and the influx of tourism on the once pristine sands of the bay at Koh Phi Phi Leh.

The area was eventually closed to visitors in 2018 to allow it to recover from the damage caused by millions of tourists.

But authorities say much has changed in the 24 years since the cult movie was released and many lessons were learnt.

They’re now hoping to cash in on a trend known as ‘set-jetting’ where tourists choose locations based on films and TV shows.

The phenomenon has been attributed to a US$200 million dollar boost to Croatia’s economy thanks to Game of Thrones and a 50 per cent increase in inbound tourism to New Zealand following the release of The Lord of the Rings.

According to analysis by travel website Expedia, 44 per cent of travellers last year drew inspiration from movies and TV shows, far outpacing the influence of social media at just 15 per cent.

Last month, a post on the White Lotus official Instagram page promised “unforgettable experiences are in the making at #TheWhiteLotus.”

“We are eager to welcome new guests to our resort in Thailand.”

Thailand is eager to welcome them too.

A shot of still ocean water and a white sandy beach lined with palm trees.
Tourism Authority of Thailand has revealed how they lured the White Lotus producers to film in Thailand. (ABC News: Lauren Day)


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