Chiang Mai is facing an identity crisis. Most people agree that over and unchecked development and the continuous focus on tired old attractions are damaging to our city’s future, but no one seems to be able to agree upon a solution or a direction in which to move forward. Recently I talked to the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Suraphon Svetsreni, who said, “Chiang Mai seems to be losing much of its old Lanna charm. You can’t halt progress of course…but Chiang Mai needs to find a strategy to feature it in a way which attracts repeat visitors…Not everyone wants to visit Doi Suthep more than once. What Chiang Mai needs is variety in its sales strategy, events are also very important. I haven’t lost hope for Chiang Mai at all, but we need to not just question why we are no longer what we were, but what our future holds. Chiang Mai is still charming, so it needs to push its charm, but with new imaging. Forget the girls on bicycles with umbrellas and don’t force what was in the past. Move beyond that. It is no longer the rose of the north, that brand doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t mean that we can’t reinvent an exciting new direction.”
Like a child, Chiang Mai in the past was charming and innocent. It had its flaws, but it was too adorable not to fall in love with. Then, like a new tween, Chiang Mai went through a massive growth spurt. The charm was still there, but there was also a certain awkwardness to it all. There were gangly limbs, unsightly spots and unpleasant whiffs. It wasn’t as attractive as it once was, but it was still loveable. We have now matured into our early adulthood and these are the years when we don’t really know who we are yet. At this age, it’s normal to try to define oneself by trying on different guises, seeing what fits. We are unable to control the growth so we try to live with it, flaws and all, but we are also beginning to realise that it is important to figure out who we want to be when we grow up. It is tempting to look back at that childhood and yearn for the innocence lost, but it is lost and so we must smile fondly at the memory and move forward.
Chiang Mai has been yearning over its past for a while now and we are beginning to realise that the past will remain right where it is, in the past, and we must put an end to the nostalgia and focus on the future.
So, who is Chiang Mai going to grow up to be? According to the mobile cabinet meeting here earlier in the year, we are primed to develop into an international metropolis sitting at the crossroads of the Greater Mekong Sub-region where we will become a destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) and we will invest in infrastructure, growing to become a commercially successful city. Many businesses agree and are investing in vast shopping malls, Hollywood-styled studios and IT parks. Then there is the loud voice of the supporters of the Chiang Mai Creative City who see us as a UNESCO appointed city of creativity famed for its designs, arts, music, and focusing on a more creative economy. While we can all see our environment being eroded, this month’s UNWTO High-Level Regional Conference on Green Tourism is showcasing Chiang Mai as a model for eco and sustainable tourism…hmm. The Tourist Business Association has also received a large government grant this past month to reshape Chiang Mai as part of a larger tourism playground, to include surrounding provinces. Amusingly, Vorapong Muchaotai, the association’s secretary recently lamented to me that Chiang Mai was like a musician with walls of awards and trophies but still poor because we can’t sell our CDs. And there are the provincial authorities, bless them, who have come up with the awful new slogan for Chiang Mai, clinging on to its faded past – Chiang Mai: the most splendid city of culture. Yuck.
There is nothing wrong with any of the above. Of course we want to develop and grow, naturally we want to prosper, we have so much talent here, why not showcase it, our treasure of nature must be protected and a tourism playground doesn’t sound bad at all. The splendid city of culture…well, there is always room for tradition.
The question is how to balance all of these elements while bundling them into one clear identity.
I have no answers I am afraid. Mine is to reason why, mine to write, raise hue and cry!
[i]Citylife this month:
We have some really great articles for you to read this month. James Austin Farrell returns from his daily news job at www.chiangmaicitynews.com to interview Dr. Feelgood about Amazonian healing rituals and food corporations, yes, I know it sounds weird, but read it, you will see. I also interview a fascinating Chiang Mai resident, Michel Bauwens, who is ranked by the en-Rich list as one of the 100 people who offer richness to humanity. This is an entrepreneur issue, so Grace Robinson has introduced you to some fascinating local entrepreneurs. And the hot topic of the month, the massive minimum wage hike is discussed in my feature article. Hope you enjoy!