Can Thailand become a Tourism Superpower? Can Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai and Thailand’s future depend on the sustainable capitalisation of its culture and environment

By | Mon 15 Mar 2021

In January 2021 CEOWORLD magazine published World’s Best Countries for Cultural Heritage Influence. Thailand came fifth in the world’s ranking, just after Italy, Greece, Spain, and India. All of which are steeped in rich history. The Global Cultural Heritage Influence was measured in nine attributes: architecture, art, fashion, food, music, literature, history, cultural attractions, and cultural accessibility. One way to view this ranking is that of ‘soft power’ – the power of culture as opposed to ‘hard power’ of military, economic, and political muscle.

This got me thinking. Thailand is far from being a superpower in the traditional geopolitical sense. We have neither nuclear weapons, nor landed a Thai on the moon. Nor are we a developed nation producing microchips for Apple or Samsung. Yet people from all over the world continue to visit the Land of Smiles. In place of nuclear weapons we have tom yum kung; in place of landing a Thai on the moon (or Mars) we have Songkran. In place of being a rich developed nation, we have thousands of expats and foreign retirees calling Thailand their new home precisely because of its affordability. One US expat I spoke to moved to Phuket, found a wife, and has been enjoying living near the beach with a total monthly expense of only $2500 after having been laid off.

Last year Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards survey crowned Chiang Mai as The Friendliest City in the world. It stated that travellers could “become friends with the guy selling bubble tea on the corner outside your Airbnb by day two,” while enjoying street food and meeting friendly locals. Many of my expat friends living in Chiang Mai can attest to this. They feel safe walking alone after midnight after a night out, which they never do in many world cities. Many expats are drawn to this city for its culture, slower lifestyle, and affordability, often sending their kids to international schools here.

The power of smiles, 700 years old temples, tasty cuisines, and our unique festivals can indeed attract millions of visitors to the kingdom annually.

Like every nation, Thailand, too, has problems to solve – big and small. Chiang Mai suffers from smog caused by burning fields, forests and vegetation between March and April each year, causing PM 2.5 level to skyrocket, affecting the locals’ and expats’ welfare. Green spaces such as rooftop gardens and rooftop vegetables, and public parks must be created in every municipality as is a new garbage collection, sorting and recycling method for a sustainable future. Phuket and other islands must ensure safety of visitors when in the ocean. Political rivalries and street protests must be tempered to stabilise and run the economy.

While Thailand is a world tourism magnet, more can be done. Tourists will spend two to three days in Chiang Mai, then move on – ticking off their bucket-to-do-list. To draw them back, new festivals must be furnished. Cooking contests, extreme sports competitions, LGBTQ parades, balloon festivals, international concerts, Thai kick-boxing international events, stand-up comedies, e-sports competitions etc. come to mind. While casinos are illegal here there has been talks of legalising them in the future.

Japan and South Korea are high in soft power, partly from their animations and K-pop, respectively. Think Gangnam style and Astro boy manga. Thailand will need to develop her own film and music entertainment industry with a global reach in mind. In addition to travellers visiting Thailand, Thailand’s music, animations, and movies could reach their homes instantly via Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon Prime. Cultural export, in other words.

Online streaming business model is promising as it reduces production cost and marketing time. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Zoom and Netflix memberships soared. Building local entertainment industry will invariably mean nurturing local talents, training and gearing them for global reach. Such endeavours can help diversify our economy, hedging our bets against another disaster or epidemic like Covid-19 that destroyed most of the world’s tourism industry.

Speaking of films, The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Lost in Thailand (a Chinese film) were two films that made a huge impact on Thailand’s tourism – the latter prompted thousands of Chinese to flock to Chiang Mai University for selfies.

The key to Thailand’s becoming a tourism superpower is to preserve its rich cultural influence while embracing the 21st century. We can have electric tuk-tuks, EV charging stations, digital payments, and capitalise on emerging trends such as the recently legalised marijuana and plant-based protein markets, to name a few. Imagine a lab-based Thai green chicken curry full of flavor with zero CO2 emission and zero animal slaughtering. ‘Hi-touch and hi-tech’ culture is the goal. I believe we are more than half way towards becoming a tourism superpower.


Born in Bangkok, Edward had spent half of his life abroad in Singapore and Australia. He has moved to and been managing his own hospitality business for six years in CNX, until it was closed due to Covid-19. He is now running for local Chiang Mai municipality parliament, the election of which will be held on March 28th 2021. He has a ‘small’ dream: for Chiang Mai to be on the world map, on every traveller’s must-visit city.