The news that you can finally order a takeaway will be cold comfort to travellers with a taste for adventure.

A container of pad Thai might seem a long way removed from the street food of Bangkok. However, when you inevitably cave to the temptation of a Thai carry-out – you are unwittingly buying into one of the most devious and arguably successful tourism campaigns of recent history.

In the early 2000s the Thai government put its cuisine at the head of mission to win the hearts, minds and stomachs of potential travellers and stand out in a busy Asian holiday market.

The two-decade-long campaign involved not-so haute cuisine and high politics to realise.

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The national Export-Import Bank of Thailand was given instructions to offer loans to Thai nationals looking to open restaurants abroad and grants of up to $5 million were set up for businesses dealing in exporting Thai food internationally.

The country was so desperate to get authentic Thai food in front of Kiwis that in 2004 it negotiated with Wellington to create a dedicated visa for Thai chefs to work in New Zealand.

Thailand has helped launch 3000 restaurants and export chefs and ingredients around the world. Photo / Christian Chen, Unsplash
Thailand has helped launch 3000 restaurants and export chefs and ingredients around the world. Photo / Christian Chen, Unsplash

Setting a goal of opening 3000 restaurants worldwide – the government launched a franchise for restaurants to buy into. With prewritten menus, and off-the-peg interior design choices and business plans to encourage amateur restaurateurs to give it a go.

And it looks as if this invasion of Thai flavours worked.

From 2000 to 2019 Thailand has been the fourth biggest growth destination for New Zealanders, behind Australia, China, and the UK. In two decades there's been an increase of hungry Kiwis flying to Bangkok – from 15,000 to 50,000 a year – well above average trends.

Other countries such as Malaysia, Peru and South Korea have sought to boost the number of restaurants abroad as an exercise in soft power.

In 2009 Korea pledged 50 billion won ($68 million) to boost the world's awareness of its cuisine, with a strategy that included getting traditional Korean dishes taught at France's Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America.

Kimchi was seen as the secret sauce in a campaign to win over world trade and tourism. The now famous pickled cabbage was the focus of a $10m research and design mission at the World Kimchi Institute. Yes, there's a World Kimchi Institute and its work is to promote and make the national dish more palatable for different markets.

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Yes, South Korea has a $10m International Institute for Kimchi. Photo / Unsplash
Yes, South Korea has a $10m International Institute for Kimchi. Photo / Unsplash

Of course food is just one part of Korea's multi-prong approach to cultural investment. As well as hosting major sports events and one of the most generous film subsidy programmes in the world. The investment in culture has been rewarded with a winter Olympic Games and a publicly supported film industry which last year produced Parasite – the first foreign language film to take home the Oscar for best picture.

While the effect of national tourism campaigns on our high streets and the kind of food on offer is hard to prove. The role of investment in cultural awareness and inbound tourism is undeniable.

One thing's for certain – when the planes start up again and global travel resumes – we'll all be hungry for foreign travel and new cuisines.

For now we'll have to make do with takeaway and movies.