Streets are being spruced up, malls constructed and luxury brands courted: the race to be Asia's international shopping paradise is intensifying from Bangkok to Hong Kong, Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.
The region's shopping hubs are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to roll out ambitious plans to makeover their prime retail districts in the hope of luring more high-spending tourists.
Bangkok, with a reputation for cheap silk and brand-name imitations, is trying to reposition itself as an upscale shopping destination -- alongside temples and beaches -- to woo foreign tourists from more established shopping rivals Hong Kong and Singapore.
At the same time, Singapore is on a drive to transform its swanky Orchard Road into what the government envisages as "one of the greatest shopping streets of the world," while Hong Kong's Tourism Board already touts the southern Chinese enclave as "shoppers' paradise."
"The shopping capital of Asia is always a much-contested title. They are fighting for the tourism retail dollars and it's a good fight to watch and the only winners are the tourists," said Christopher Khoo, managing director of tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services in Singapore.
Billed as Southeast Asia's biggest shopping mall, the US$366 million Siam Paragon opened its doors last month in the Thai capital. Covering 500,000m2, it offers everything from Big Mac hamburgers to yachts and high-fashion brands including Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana.
"We want Siam Paragon to be a global tourist destination like Times Square in New York," Kriengsak Tantiphipop, chief marketing officer of Siam Paragon Development Co, said during the opening.
Plenty is at stake for Bangkok and its rivals, as international visitors who traveled to the region spent at least US$125 billion during their stays in 2004, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association based in Bangkok.
The latest figures from credit card giant Visa International say that tourists to the Asia-Pacific region spent about US$5.7 billion on their Visa cards during the third quarter of last year with shopping receipts accounting for the biggest component.
In Thailand, foreign tourists spend nearly 30 percent of their expenses on shopping, amounting to 5,000 baht to 7,000 baht (US$124 to US$174) per person, said Kriengsak of Siam Paragon.
The figure lags far behind the almost US$2,500 in Singapore and US$3,700 in Hong Kong, Kriengsak said.