“A tanning salon in Thailand? Isn’t that like trying to sell ice to the Eskimos?”
That was the response from a friend when I mentioned I was going to visit a tanning salon in Bangkok that claims to be the first of its kind in the country.
It’s a fair question, and one that CEO Jeff Amato has heard several variations of in the run-up to the opening of his new venture, BKKSUN.
“Of course people have asked me ‘why are you opening in the sunniest place on Earth?’” the American laughed as he sat in his office in the newly opened salon in Sukhumvit, minutes away from Thonglor BTS.
“But we have a lovely high season that lasts just two to three months and the rest of the year it’s too hot and uncomfortable to be outside if you’re in the city,” he added, explaining that ironically it’s during these months that Bangkokians can be deprived of sunshine, and therefore a tan, as they take shelter in air-conditioned offices and malls away from the sweltering humidity of the city.
Hopping in one of the tan booths or sunbeds at BKKSUN for just a few minutes could give them that much-needed hit of Vitamin D to pick up their spirits and release feel-good endorphins, he said.
“You need sunshine in your life,” smiled the Missouri native, who fled the cold winters of the Midwest for the blazing heat of Thailand eleven years ago.
Regardless of whether a tan salon can be a hit in Bangkok, it’s a welcome change from the pervasive skin-whitening craze here, from whitening creams, masks and soaps sold at every pharmacy and beauty counter, to racist adverts, competitions and even school vocab charts, all with the message that dark skin is ugly, while “white is winning”.
Screenshot from Seoul Secret advert for whitening supplements
However there is an emerging trend of more Thai celebs and role models celebrating and promoting darker skin, like Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng, a southern beauty with tan skin who beat out paler-skinned competitors in 2014 to be crowned Miss Thailand World.
Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng, Miss Thailand World 2014
Top actress Janie Tienphosuwan and influential beauty blogger Pearypie naturally have fair skin, but both are known for working on their tans and sending the message to young Thai girls that tan skin can be beautiful too.
And with the recent launch of TAN Magazine which aims to promote healthy, sun-kissed skin, perhaps the tide is turning.
“Tanning is trending,” Amato said. “Thai celebrities have really embraced tanning and I give them a lot of credit for starting this trend.”
“The whole world loves Thai tan skin and I think promoting tanning is a great message for people.”
The salon is in its soft opening phase, having launched around six weeks ago, and already has around 15-20 customers coming through its doors every day for spray tans and tanning booth sessions.
A TAN Magazine cover
Although the majority of their clients are, unsurprisingly, foreigners, Amato and the salon’s director of operations, Amy Oanchali, say around 30 percent are Asian, with Thais making up most of that figure.
“Whitening is not for everyone,” Amato said. “When we did our research we knew there was not just a demand for tanning here, but a pent-up demand.
“Tanning is huge in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, so we saw Bangkok as the last bastion.
“I think it’s cool that we’re the first to bring tanning salons to Thailand.”
A Facebook post by beauty blogger Pearypie explaining how she got her tanned skin
The salon’s minimalist look, overseen by Thai designer Nong, of gleaming white surfaces and tasteful black and white artwork dotting its three floors (a fourth will soon open), and its expensive tanning equipment imported from the States, are obviously geared towards more well-heeled clients, although prices are pretty decent — a stand-alone sunbed or booth session is THB799, and that price drops if you opt for a package. New customers get a promo price of THB299.
The salon recommends new customers complete a short questionnaire which determines their skin type. Staff can then recommend tan session times, so customers can gradually and safely build up an even tan, they say.
However Coconuts is obliged to remind readers of the risks associated with UV radiation and indoor skin tanning, which has been linked to some skin cancers.
Amato and Oanchali are confident that they can grow their customer numbers and are even eyeing a second location in Silom.
But first they want to focus on their flagship store in Thonglor and their customers there.
“We’ve already got some regular customers who are so interesting and nice, we’ve been delighted,” Amato said.
“We just want them have a killer experience.”