Thailand’s snail-oil salesmen cash in on Chinese tourism boom
Investors happy to pay premium for companies making mollusc-infused products and niche food offerings
The label on the pink and white box of face cream sold in a Bangkok hypermarket proudly declares that it is based on a "snail secretion filtrate moisture system".
The Snail White branding - plus some positive internet reviews - is enough to have Chinese tourists recently lining up to buy the slime-infused product.
Alice Chen, 21, a Chinese college student, says she saw the face cream reviewed online and wanted to try it out because she couldn’t get it back home. And a 22-year-old Chinese tourist also at the Big C Ratchadamri store, who only gave her name as Yvonne, said she bought some - it retails at about $40 a box - because "a blogger said it was good and inexpensive".
Meanwhile, at a dessert cafe just up the road in Bangkok's upscale Siam Paragon shopping centre, another group of Chinese tourists take pictures on their phones of whimsical treats made from durian - the yellow fruit known for its sulphury smell that is mainly grown in South East Asia.
About 11 million Chinese tourists are expected to come to Thailand this year, up from just over 1 million in 2010, making China by far the biggest source of tourism here. And they are spending more per head than previously, according to Thai government figures.
And it isn't only the hotels, tour operators and airlines that are benefiting. A big slice of this spending is with retailers, restaurants, and food and cosmetics makers that target the Chinese audience.
Investors have taken note, driving up the share prices of many of the companies concerned to high price-to-earnings ratios. So far, in some cases, that securities analysts say they are wary of valuations, especially as tourists' tastes can change rapidly.
Do Day Dream, the company behind the skin-whitening Snail White cream, is one.
Boxes of the firm's signature cream, which the firm says it makes from snail slime extracted using a process done in South Korea, are stacked high at Thailand's airports and malls as it has become a must-buy item for many Chinese visitors who covet paler skin.
Sales of the Snail White products have been skyrocketing since 2014 as beauty bloggers in Hong Kong and Singapore gave them rave reviews, according to Do Day Dream chief financial officer Piyawat Ratchapolsitte.
In 2017, the company's revenue ballooned 35 per cent to 1.7 billion baht (Dh190.09 million) as the company also built a strong Thai domestic market and grew online sales direct to Chinese consumers. It also sells other snail secretion-based products, including shower gel and lotions.
The sales to visitors are at risk, he said, if for any reason there is a sudden drop off in Chinese tourists. That happened briefly in 2015 and 2016 when the Thai government made it much more difficult for the tour operators offering really cheap packages to the Chinese - known as "zero-dollar tours".
Exports to China produced 30 per cent of its revenue last year, Mr Piyawat said. That is more than the 10 to 15 per cent that comes from Chinese tourists buying in Thailand.
There is also increasing competition in the niche world of snail slime products. Reuters visited a snail farm in Thailand that provides the secretion to a manufacturer that sells it either in its original form or after turning it into a powder for use in cosmetics around the world.
Another Thai beauty firm that sells colour cosmetics and skincare products, Beauty Community, is also seeing substantial growth.
Chief executive Suwin Kraibhubes said he expects tourists from China and Southeast Asia to account for 15 per cent of revenue, which will help him reach a 20 percent growth target this year.
Mr Suwin, a physician-turned-businessman, and Do Day Dream founder Sarawut Pornpatanaruk both for the first time made this year's Richest 50 Thai's list compiled by Forbes.
Another sweet success story is After You. The popular dessert restaurant has 28 cafes throughout Bangkok, with six in popular tourist destinations such as shopping malls and along the skytrain line.
The cafe, known for long queues and its Shibuya Honey Toast - a block of bread served with ice cream - was initially popular among Singaporean and Malaysian customers.
But in 2016, Chinese tourists began to pour into the cafes, said After You ehief executive Maetup T Suwan.
"Tourists see our long queues, a picture on social media or read a great review and want to try," he said.
After You has capitalised on the flow of Chinese customers to set up "durian rooms" last year offering fresh durian desserts specifically aimed at the fruit's lovers. Durian is often banned in taxis and hotels and airlines around South East Asia because of its pungent smell.
The company plans new branches and durian rooms in top Thai tourist destinations outside of Bangkok and it also plans to start a franchise model in Malaysia next year, said Mr Maetup.
Chinese tourists are also snapping up savory snacks. Taokaenoi's crispy seaweed snack has been a hit for years.
About 20 per cent of Taokaenoi's 2017 domestic sales were to tourists, the company's head of investor relations, Koosoon Rattanaporn, said, while 60 per cent came from exports, nearly half of them to China.
The benefits of Chinese demand and expectations of further supercharged growth are clearly reflected in share prices.
Investors are paying 52 times earnings for the Do Day Dream shares, well above the Thai personal product industry average of 21 times, and After You's shares are trading at 79 times earnings, while Taokaenoi's prices are 43 times earnings.
There is expectation of higher earnings because these companies are in the "growth stage of their business life cycle," said CGS-CIMB Securities Thailand analyst Uraiwan Tantisuwannakul.
Domestic consumption has slowed in recent years so investors are willing to "pay a premium" for firms with plans to diversify to the Chinese market, she said.
Updated: May 27, 2018 03:32 PM