Tackling tourism in Chiang Mai

In spite of all these impressive numbers, Chiang Mai still suffers from low season syndrome when tourist arrivals dramatically dwindle.

By | Sun 1 Jul 2012

Some visit for a taste of paradise, an adventure, to find themselves or perhaps at the prospect of meeting an Asian sweetheart. Whatever visitors are seeking, Thailand, with its layered charms, multiple attractions and world famous hospitality, has never failed in seducing a diverse range of tourists in the millions. Many expatriates, perhaps even you, came to Thailand for the first time as a tourist.

Thailand has, for a long time, bathed in the mystical image projected from the Western world as an enchanted oriental kingdom. Paradoxically, it has had to grapple with its international stereotype as a sleazy sex tourism destination, as well as the pressure of managing tourism resources appropriately while criticism abounds as to how its environment and cultures have been irreversibly eroded. Hedonistic appeal and competitive price points have, at great consternation to authorities, also contributed to Thailand’s success as a tourist destination. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has headed intense exoticising marketing campaigns, with excited slogans such as ‘Amazing Thailand’, and more recently, ‘Miracle Thailand’.

Tourism has contributed to the development of infrastructure, the rapid rise in standards of living and is considered to be Thailand’s top major foreign exchange earner. In 2007 Thailand ranked 18th for the most visited country in the world with 14.5 million visitors.

Chiang Mai has always sold itself on its culture and natural beauty. Tourism replaced commercial trade as Chiang Mai’s number one source of outside revenue by the mid 1960s. Chiang Mai has recently received various prestigious international awards such as second place in Travel+Leisure’s 2010 World’s Best Awards for top world city; Bangkok was hailed in first place.

Currently the average numbers of tourists to Chiang Mai per year is over five million, of which only one and a half to two million are foreign.

In spite of all these impressive numbers, Chiang Mai still suffers from low season syndrome when tourist arrivals dramatically dwindle. The erosion of Lanna culture, unchecked development, as well as the continuous focus on tired attractions, have impacted tourism revenues and, some believe, are damaging to the city’s future. And it doesn’t help that Thailand has suffered blow after blow in recent years from the tsunami, bird flu, political conflict, flooding and the world economic crisis.

Last year, the government and tourism authorities bestowed upon Chiang Mai a new catchphrase: “The Most Splendid City of Culture.” Due to the ever changing and modernising face of Chiang Mai, some see the officials going for the trusted old culture card in the game of tourism promotion as a tad stagnant. Even the Governor of the TAT, Suraphon Svetsreni, told Citylife that Chiang Mai needed to reinvent itself and promote itself in a new direction in order to attract repeat visitors; after all, not everyone wants to visit Doi Suthep more than once.

In the next three years Chiang Mai is to witness the growth of various mega developments. With its already morphing landscape, it will get harder and harder for Chiang Mai to promote itself merely on the basis of the culture card.

Assoc. Prof. Ploysri Porananond from the Division of Tourism, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, says “The balance between old and new is the beauty of Chiang Mai, I love to sit in a stylish coffee chain and I equally love shopping at Warorot market.”

Chaleomsak Suranun Director of TAT Chiang Mai, thinks that Chiang Mai must still be sold on its tradition and culture; “The strong points of northern tourism are without a doubt culture and nature. We have to accept that change and modernisation will happen. But it is possible to balance it. We have to remind people what our traditions are. We shouldn’t disregard our culture just because of modernisation; we should preserve it. If Chiang Mai becomes like New York, who will want to visit?”

Some readers may remember a past Citylife article about the commercialisation and fabrication of ‘Lanna’ culture. In this article Vithi Phanichphant, a well-respected cultural historian from CMU was quoted saying “Lanna is cooked up”. With all this talk of ‘culture’ in tourist promotion, the issue is raised again; how authentic is this Lanna or northern culture that the tourism industry is so heavily promoting and does it still, or did it ever, exist? Assoc. Prof. Ploysri agreed with Vithi that Lanna culture was largely invented; “Fifty years ago, it was broadcasted that Chiang Mai was the land of beautiful flowers and women and everyone, us included, began to believe it…Lanna culture has been re-packaged, re-created, even re-invented. Look at the ‘costume’ parades, girls never used to dress that glamourously.”

In spite of pot holes in the long-trodden Chiang Mai cultural tourism path, Assoc. Prof. Ploysri said that northern culture does exist in many forms, as in people’s way of life, in architecture and festivities etc., and can still be sold to tourists. Ploysri, as well as many others in the tourism sector, believes Chiang Mai doesn’t need to re-invent itself but simply improve upon its current charms. “In general terms,” she explains, “many post-modern tourists are not deeply concerned with authenticity, and are accepting of staged-authenticity. Most tourists probably know the real thing doesn’t exist anymore but are still satisfied with an attractive impression of it.” Whether it ever existed at all is another matter.

With a sense of urgency to revive tourism in the north, the government recently pledged 380 million baht to invest in the industry. In May of this year, The Miracle Tourism Forum was held by various tourism stakeholders in Chiang Mai, this major event targeted tackling tourism in the north.

In addition to Chiang Mai being promoted as a cultural destination, the forum suggested new directions for tourism, the importance of having a variety of attractions and activities for tourists and improving knowledge so that new market groups can be targeted.

The main topic discussed at the forum was how to draw out the cultural highlights of four upper northern provinces: Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang and Lamphun. This was to be done by elevating advertising and expanding public relations on the main selling points of these provinces, as well as emphasising their attractions and cultural traditions. Furthermore, the stakeholders discussed linking these provinces together and marketing them as one destination.

The tourism authorities agreed that culture was still the main selling point in the north, and that all tourism-related businesses should infuse culture into their products. For example, holding more festivals, encouraging employees to wear Lanna dress, learning to speak the northern Thai language, selling more northern foods and products, using more ‘northern’ methods and style in their tourism products and teaching tourists about local culture.

Another topic that was high on the meeting’s agenda was that catchy acronym; MICE: Meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions. With the recent opening of the new International Convention Centre, tourism organisations are intent on Chiang Mai being a hub of MICE activity. It is hoped that the fact that Chiang Mai is less costly than other nearby destination choices, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, will stand the city in a competitive position.

The city’s international airport welcomes over two million visitors per year and from 1st July this year, there will be more direct international flights to and from our airport. This will encourage more tourists mainly travelling in the East Asian region. More flights will be created to and from Laos, Macau, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and China.

The Miracle Tourism Forum spotlighted how vital knowledge about the needs of various tourist markets is. Kattika Saetia, sales manager of the Shangri-La Hotel, explained how the Indian tourism market is opening up in Thailand. A major reason for this Indian market is wedding ceremonies. Kattika said, “Many Indian couples come to Thailand to marry. They want something different and also are attracted to the affordability of Thailand to host their many guests.” Indian wedding ceremonies in Thailand can last from three to ten days. Wedding parties are typically large and are more accustomed to large hotels, often taking up 100 or more rooms.

The Middle Eastern market is also something that authorities wish to explore more of. TAT says that because Middle Eastern tourists prefer to travel in Thailand’s low season, which is their summertime, this strategy could help mitigate low-season losses. Middle Eastern tourists also have certain requirements, whether dietary or culturally, which need to be catered for.

The low season, which runs from around 1st May until 1st October, is the focal grumble of tourism-related business right now, and the importance of long stay visitors was raised at the forum. Retirees, as well as industrial worker expats such as Koreans and Japanese, contribute greatly to the economy. The Japanese are the fourth largest group of tourists to Chiang Mai. The forum discussed ways in which Chiang Mai can better accommodate long-term visitors, for example creating retirement homes, clinics, mobility and healthcare programmes and facilities for older people.

There is much buzz about the benefits of the high speed train to Bangkok, slated to be complete within three to four years and shortening land travel time to a startling 3.5 hours. Chiang Mai, and what is loosely described as the economic quadrangle, will also soon benefit from another new infrastructure; Road 3 Asia (R3A), which was recently completed and connects Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China.

This recent tourism convention highlighted fresh ways in which to breathe new life into the tourism industry. The fact that the tourism industry in Chiang Mai still holds culture as its prime selling point is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite modernisation and change, Chiang Mai indisputably still has unique cultural spots and ways of life. Inventing totally new attractions would perhaps be out of place and more phony than those which have been enhanced upon for tourism. Chiang Mai is not going to radically change its marketing approach, why should it? It has already succeeded in attracting large numbers of visitors. However, it needs to make sure that it is not stuck in the marketing mud and continues to be introspective in its self analysis as well as innovative in its outlook.