Uncertain future for Chiang Mai’s tourism industry

Tourism industry finally facing the reality that tourists are not going to return anytime soon

By | Mon 1 Feb 2021

This time of the year is traditionally our most bountiful; coffers brim with money abundantly spent by the masses of tourists who head to Chiang Mai to enjoy the cool and clear(ish) climes of the high season. This annual windfall trickles down to shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, tour guides, tuk tuk drivers and even media and marketing companies such as ours. The winter bonanza continues its flow out of cities into suburbs and villages as the deluge brims over and seeps into the thirsty economy. As Chiang Mai’s tourism industry grew at a steady pace from the early eighties when mass tourism first arrived, the high season has always been our one ‘sure thing’ amidst the waxing and waning of trends and economies.

According to La-iad Bungsrithong, the general manager of RatiLanna, who is also Vice President of the Thai Hotels Association [Northern Choper] in a Citylife interview, tourism amounts to a whopping 65% of Chiang Mai’s GDP. Having put all of our golden goose eggs into one basket, now that our tourist numbers have been decimated, it is no wonder shop houses are all shuttered and sidewalks emptied as our quiet streets silently scream the death throes of a dying economy.

For obvious reasons, this year’s high season has failed to deliver much needed income to the many tourism-related businesses, some of which had stretched their savings through 2020 in anticipation of this winter’s windfall.

Following the second spread of the virus over New Year which resulted in city-wide lock down measures, many travel-related businesses say that it is time they give up hope and close shop for good, in spite of having hung on for nearly a year with some glimmer of hope. According to our reporter who spent the weekend walking up and down Tha Pae Road and parts of the old city interviewing nearly a dozen owners of tourism-related businesses from car rental to cooking schools, tour operators to guesthouses, the last glimmer of hope for many has dimmed out.

Max Thammaraks mapping out his business’s post-Covid future

“If you think of tourists as rain then we are in a drought,” said Ekarin ‘Max’ Thammaraks World Food Travel Association’s Thailand Ambassador and MD of Intco, an in-bound tour business which has been operational for over three decades. “Some businesses have simply announced that they will close permanently, others say they will reopen in a few years. Others still are doing anything they can to make money to survive in hopes of being able to open again one day. Some of us who are more established are restructuring our entire businesses in anticipation of rain to come. We are widening our reach, deepening our offers and creating a receptacle that can hopefully take in more rain following this dry spell.”

“Just about every tour company I know in the Tha Pae Gate area has closed permanently,” said Sriyaphat Peeraudomwat, 40, owner of Enjoy Car Rent & Travel. “There are simply no foreign tourists coming and now there are hardly any Thai tourists either. Elephant camps can’t feed their elephants; tour companies can’t pay their staff. We have been operational for six to seven years, but it’s just not viable anymore. We have tried to reposition ourselves for Thai tourists, and last year when the government helped out a little we just about scraped by. But now, following the second lockdown which shut down our province, and with no help from the government, well, there is no way out.”

Many businesses say that last year their landlords had helped them out by reducing rent or even waiving them completely, but now that landlords are losing tenants as more and more businesses shut down, they too are unable to afford to be so generous. As income streams run dry, the trickle-down effect is being reversed to devastating results.

“Towards the end of last year there was some hope,” said Armin Schoch, founder of Impulse Tourism and an old-timer in South East Asia’s travel industry, having worked in the region for decades. “But by the end of January the glimpse of hope was practically gone. Projections of the tourism industry reviving in late spring or early summer of this year was shattered by the lack of testing of vaccines, delivery problems, uncertainty and the collapse of the global tourism infrastructure.”

Schoch went on to say that without a widely recognised Covid passport, “Like the vaccine certificates widely accepted worldwide 30-40 years ago, there is little incentive for a tourist to come to Thailand, spend two weeks in quarantine just to go trekking or sitting by a beach. At the end of the day there is no consensus. Who is to set these vaccination certification standards which are accepted everywhere?”

The answer is probably the same as the question. You’d think WHO would take this role on. But we are far from that point.

“International hotel chains are letting their expensive GMs go,” continued Schoch. “Pilots and flight attendants have no jobs, planes are grounded, tour guides and freelancers in the industry have all left, businesses have collapsed. Even if we can travel tomorrow, it will take years to rebuild the entire tourism infrastructure.”

Schoch went on to say that based on norms, by the end of 2020 the global tourism industry would have been discussing and setting rates for the 1st November 2021 – 31st October 2022 year.

“No one has been talking about pricing tourism products for over ten months,” added Schoch. “No one is deciding anything because there is simply no information to be had. Times are so uncertain it is impossible to plan. We don’t know what businesses will survive by the time visitors arrive. We don’t know if plane travel will be more expensive or cheaper. We don’t know. It is complete limbo.”

When asked whether this has been a time for introspection within the industry, Schoch sighed, “There is no room for introspection in the total absence of any business while we are fighting for sheer survival.”

“The small tour companies are gone,” added Max Thammaraks. “The middlemen, the walk-by mum and pop shops, all gone. It was bad enough pre-Covid with many tourists booking through vast online travel agents (OTA) abroad, bypassing many middlemen in the local economy. So what I am doing is looking at how we can serve our customers in ways that these websites can’t. We are looking at educational or volunteering tourism, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), even the film industry and their location needs. Unfortunately, much of the recovery will depend on the government and since they are being vague, we simply don’t know. For me, I have no choice but to keep going; this is my passion and it is inconceivable for me to close down.”