Day One of the Trip Can Be Found Here >>>
The first day of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Mega Fam Trip to Chiang Mai ended after our tram travels around the Night Safari well past 11; the kind of time which I’m used to getting to bed at, in my hometown of Suphanburi. Having flown from Bangkok at mid-day, been taken around to see elephant mahouts, hill-tribes and witness the splendour of five-star service at the Oriental Hotel, I for one was pretty knackered. As for the travel operators who had been on the road even before the chickens had woken that day, well… they really must have been shattered.
Even though breakfast was laid on at our hotel the next morning, I just couldn’t be asked and decided instead for a coupla cups of coffee in the privacy of my own room while watching ‘match of the week’ – PAD vs The Thai Cops on the BBC News. Now, first thing on the agenda for Mega Fam Day 2, was a seminar at the Holiday Inn Hotel on turning Chiang Mai (well….. hopefully anyway) into the Aviation Hub of South-East Asia. As this kinda thing wasn’t really my cup-of-tea, I can honesty say that didn’t really get too much out of it besides a big complimentary mug of cappuccino. One thing I did find interesting however, were some of the statistics on offer.
I hadn’t realized before that foreigners only actually make up 30% of the tourist arrivals in the Rose of the North (Chiang Mai), with the rest being Thais. Contrary to other figures that I have seen posted in the English language press, here we were informed that foreign tourist arrivals have actually decreased over the past couple of years by almost 15%+. With tourism from the likes of Japan, US, UK and Germany being affected most; that’s to say dropping by 20%. As for the amount of Thai tourists arriving, that has stayed more-or-less the same.
Nonetheless, we were to learn that Chiang Mai Airport is still doing big business, seeing to 3 million passengers a year; and, unperturbed by the recent tourist stats, are aiming to entice a phenomenal 6 million passengers plus within the next few years.
So, just how come foreigners seem to be side-stepping Chiang Mai more often these days? One answer to this could be the recent explosion in the popularity of Pai District in near-by Mae Hong Son Province. Once quaint, quiet and relatively unknown, Pai has turned itself into the hippest and hippiest destination north of Had Rin Beach on Ko Phang-ngan. Living in Bangkok for a few months this year and hanging out at Khao Sarn Road quite a bit, I soon figured, from many of the backpackers I spoke to, that the most fashionable ‘hippy’ thing to do was to jump straight on a bus to Pai – so completely bypassing Chiang Mai altogether.
The popularity trend of Pai is incredibly similar to another very similar looking place (in terms of natural beauty) Vang Viang in Laos. When I first visited Pai in 1998, all right there were some guesthouses, but the number of backpackers was still low enough that within a couple of days you knew most of the whitey faces around. If my memory serves me right, there were about two bars – now I ain’t been back to Pai since 2003, but even then the place was completely transforming itself into the backpacker haven of the north. The same goes for Vang Viang in Laos, I was there with a chum in 1996 and there were like three guesthouses and not a single bar just a tiny drinking hole that had Beer Lao on tap at 30baht a jug! If you been to Vang Viang lately you may have noticed just a slight change!
Back on track, and to see what the TAT had in mind to boost tourism in Chiang Mai and the rest of the north (doubt though, Pai needed it!) we headed for the Chiang Mai and the North Tourism Forum at the site of the successful Ratchapreuk Royal Flora Festival a couple of years back. By the time we arrived shortly before the opening ceremony by the TAT Governor Phonsiri Manoharn, the place was absolutely packed out with foreign travel operators who had come along to inspect for themselves what the local travel businesses had on offer. As you an also imagine, the press were there in hoards too for this well-publicized event.
One of the biggest themes on offer it seems to be in Chiang Mai now is spa tourism, and there were tens of booths selling all kinds of related packages at their flashy resorts. And, if you wanna know just how huge the spa market is, overall in Thailand, just Google ‘Spa in Thailand’ to find out for yourself. In fact, Thailand has turned itself into arguably the biggest destination in the world for spa over the past few years. Leading the way in Chiang Mai & Spa is the Four Seasons Hotel which was recently voted the World’s Best Spa. Chiva Som in Hua Hin has also won a similar award.
Perhaps second to health and spa servicing resorts and hotels at the Forum, were travel adventure operators. The variety of activities was just staggering, everything from motor-touring to rafting to game-fishing to even rainforest canopy tours. According to a couple of major operators I spoke to the most popular activity was elephant safari (especially at the Mae Sa Camp as mentioned in Day One’s previous blog). I went on to learn that rock climbing was one activity that had grown immensely popular lately and so had eco-friendly. In regards to eco-friendly tourism, one operator explained “As this activity has escalated in popularity, many back-alley agencies are just adding the name ‘eco’ to every tour they have on offer”. So, it seems that if you really wanna go on an authentic eco-friendly adventure it’s better to stick to the well-established operators who have been in the business for years.
So, even if the backpackers aren’t coming like they used to, to Chiang Mai, it seems, from what I learnt at the Forum, the destination is now attracting a bigger-spending type of tourist. One who prefers a hotel bar brandy to a water-hole Beer Chang. Another ever increasing market, though not mentioned at the Forum, was one which I have written quite a bit on recently, and that is Retirement in Thailand and especially Chiang Mai. The stats available on the number of retires settling in Chiang Mai over the past few years have literally doubled – so perhaps that market has to be focused upon a little bit more.
All in all, it was an interesting afternoon out and I managed to secure enough contacts for plenty more potential write-ups. Got a few excellent inspection invites too, and one will be mentioned in my next Mega Fam blog. As for the operators I interviewed, they seemed more than happy with the Forum and all reckoned that for a ‘first’ of its kind, it was more than a success.
After the Forum, it was time to take a trip around Ratchapreuk by tram while looking forward to the evening munchies. Never to be disappointed by the hospitality of the TAT, we were treated to a buffet dinner in the Ratchapreuk grounds laid on by the Amari Hotel. There was also a groovy trumpeting band to keep our ears in good company. The food was of course decent enough, but after having fusion food for the past couple of days, myself and colleagues decided that something just a bit tangier and spicier was called for and we headed after to a Somtum shop!