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Thailand's big fat wedding business
One Indian dad spent half a million dollars on his daughter's Phuket wedding. The tourism authority hopes more will follow
If you are a wealthy resident of India, madly in love and planning your big fat wedding -- or being glumly pressured into an ostentatious arranged marriage -- Thailand wants you to exchange vows in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Krabi or elsewhere in this "wedding paradise."
Feel free to invite hundreds of your friends and relatives.
"We have incentives," says Tourism Authority of Thailand's Deputy Governor for the Asia and South Pacific Market, Sansern Ngaorungsi, describing glitzy, tempting lures to convince rich, heart-throbbing Indians to travel here for the occasion.
"We start from overseas with the Indians. They discuss with us when they want to have their wedding in Thailand. We talk with our embassy and consulate in India to give facility services for the visas.
"Not only the couples, there are also the parties' members who they want to bring in. If some big family wants to bring their own chef to come here, we provide them some facilities."
So why would Indians want to splurge on lavish weddings in Thailand?
"We have similarities in religion, because Thailand is Buddhist. When Indian weddings want to have some religious prayer for the couples, we can do that."
Thailand does have religious officials able to perform Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, animist and other rites. But the more obvious appeal for Indians are Thailand's posh hotels, tropical islands, opulent culture and delicious Indian and Thai cuisine, allowing newlyweds to include a honeymoon in Thailand after they say "I do" while their guests also celebrate on a holiday here.
For Thailand, all those Indian rupees can be pocketed as much-needed baht.
Love does have a price: Half a million dollars
Kasu Rajagopal Reddy arranged for his daughter to have a double wedding and reception in Phuket on February 10, with entertainment starting three days before the ceremony.
The Hindu bride, Kasu Dhruthi Reddy, and her Christian groom, John Abraham, scheduled their wedding according to Hindu traditions, followed by a wedding in the Catholic church on the same day.
They selected the Angsana Laguna Phuket for most of the celebratory events.
"Thailand was chosen as a venue for the wedding as we felt that it is 'a kingdom of dreams'," says Kasu.
"The approximate costs are around half a million [U.S.] dollars. This figure includes the airfares, hotel accommodation, food, transportation, the yachts on hire and the actual wedding ceremony expenses," for 225 to 250 guests from India and elsewhere, he says.
They arranged entertainment to begin three days before the wedding, because guests' arrival times varied. Yachts were chartered to take guests to snorkel and enjoy lunch on a small island, while a disc jockey, flown in from Bangalore, India, was booked to help them boogie in the evening.
The Hindu wedding included a "decorated boat" to carry the bride to meet "a baby Thai elephant" -- which could lead her to the stage -- flanked by a "drum procession with Thai music and girls dancing," Kasu says.
The Catholic wedding at Phuket's Assumption Church was timed for the afternoon so it could be followed by an evening beach party with a British magician, dancing and other entertainment.
Kasu says he also arranged "priests for the Hindu wedding, and cooks to prepare Indian cuisine" to be flown in from India.
Next in Thailand's sights: China
Thailand's tourism industry is of course keen to capitalize on its sudden popularity as a destination for big Indian weddings.
Last year, the TAT organized a seminar in Bangkok titled, "Love & Money: The Most Powerful Forces in Bridal Marketing" which scrutinized eager brides' spending habits and preferences, plus how to reach clients through online social networks and bridal shows.
"In recent years, this segment is going quite fast," says Sansern, and it benefits restaurants, transport services, resorts and others in the tourism industry -- plus places where rich visiting Indians might shop.
"Coming to Thailand is prestigious for the couple's family who want to have a wedding overseas. The expenses are very reasonable compared to a wedding in their own country," he says.
"Not just Indian weddings, but other countries as well. China is moving towards Thailand, and also as a destination for the honeymoon."
Thailand began promoting these dazzling weddings several years ago, and the response has steadily increased.
More than 8,000 people came from India last year to attend about 40 weddings, averaging 200 guests per wedding, Sansern says.
Half the ceremonies were performed in Bangkok, a third in Phuket, and the remainder at other destinations.
TAT hopes China will also fill a big market share. But Chinese romantics are different from Indians.
"Indians want to invite their family to come, and their friends to come. But for China, they want to come and marry on their own. The Chinese want to come here to get married, and take the photos, and go back and celebrate in China."
In response, Thailand packages brides and grooms from China in groups.
"When we attract them, we attract them to come in a big number, in a group, 100 couples at a time, so it would be around 200 people who would come" from China simultaneously.
"But we also want to convince them, 'When you come here, please invite your relatives to come'."
The difference may be that many Chinese feel obliged to pay the travel expenses of all their relatives and guests, "whereby Indians, some of the families pay for [their own] accommodation and food, in Thailand," he says.
"Last year, we had around 500 to 600 couples from China. But we will get the numbers slowly coming up."
Mass weddings and starry skies
When 100 Chinese couples simultaneously wed last year near Bangkok, the tourism authority hosted the ceremony and included a grooms' procession of elephants carrying gifts to the brides' families, plus Thai drummers, performers, traditional dancers and Buddhist monks -- culminating with an evening release of floating, flaming paper lanterns into the starry sky.
Westerners also arrive to get married, but in much smaller numbers.
"Most of the American and other Western couples have a 'couples wedding' at the beach, in the American or Western style, sometimes just among close friends, and sometimes close relatives. Not big families like Asian people do," Sansern says.
"We want to make Thailand as a wedding paradise for all couples, not just from India, but from all over the world."
For more information about arranging that special contract, visit Tourismthailand.org.