Tourism is Unsustainable
The Case of Chiang Mai 1950 to 2020
Chiang Mai tourism is in the worst crisis of its 70 year history. According to a February 1, 2021 article by Pim Kemsingki in Citylife magazine, tourism is never going to recover. She has talked to a lot of individuals about a lot of closed shops that used to cater to tourists’ need for transportation, housing and guides. The COVID-19 epidemic which closed Thailand’s borders in order to isolate and protect the health of people living in Thailand has reduced tourism from 10 million in 2018 to just about zero. For a while during the second half of 2020 it looked like most tourism enterprises might hang on, and then the big wave hit, beginning with an outbreak in Samut Sakhon Province. Very few tourists will put up with 2 weeks in a quarantine hotel in order to spend time in Chiang Mai looking at flowers.
Domestic tourism in Chiang Mai depends on seasonal influxes during the cool season from late November through January when the weather and the Yipeng / Loy Kratong holidays draw millions from around the country. Flowers are at their best, and there is a Flower Festival the first weekend of February. Hotels fill up during this season. Another mass gathering can be expected during the Songkran Festival, April 13-15. Those large gatherings were cancelled by the pandemic. The government attempted to stimulate domestic tourism during 2020, offering subsidies for groups going on tours within the country. This helped a little, but was eventually disappointing, and then a couple of COVID scares shut down domestic tourism entirely.
Overseas tourism to Chiang Mai has expanded every year since Thailand instituted the international plan for converting air transportation in and out of Chiang Mai up to international standards following a blueprint provided by two taskforces in 1975 and 1977 carried out by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
According to insiders in the hotel industry (note the source), the shut-down has become devastating. They submit that a full 65% of Chiang Mai’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) depends on tourism. Every year from 1970 to 2018 tourism grew. At the peak, 3.2 million overseas tourists and 7.5 domestic tourists came to Chiang Mai. 70.3% of them were what the industry calls “free independent tourists” and 29.7% came in tour groups. There has been a noticeable and controversial increase in tour groups from China, especially following the success of a 2012 blockbuster Chinese comedy filmed in Thailand. “Lost In Thailand” was the highest grossing movie of all time in China the year it came out.
It has often been observed that there are two major factors that have boosted tourism in Thailand. One has been successful films, including “The King and I”, “Man with a Golden Gun” (a James Bond movie filmed in Phuket), “Bridge Over the River Kwai”, “Blue Lagoon”, and “The Beach” as well as “The Ugly American”. The other promoter of tourism has been airline industries, beginning with Pan American Airlines, and then Thai Air in partnership with Scandinavian Airline (SAS). [The most interesting article, with great photographs and details, that describes how Thailand’s tourism grew, is a June 13, 2018 blog post entitled “The Golden Era of Thailand Tourism: 1947-1979” on the website My Thailand. If you are interested enough in Thai tourism to have read this far you really should read Jeff’s article.]
To my knowledge, the most influential individual to develop tourism in Chiang Mai was Mr. Kraisri Nimmanhaemin, whom I had a chance to visit in about 1966. Tourism was picking up, and Khun Kraisri thought Chiang Mai should be a premier destination in Thailand because of its cultural diversity, religious attractions, climate, and history. He managed to have PATA come to Chiang Mai for one of its annual meetings. In order to get the town ready, he built the Rincome Hotel on Huay Kaew Road, and then had it connected straight to the airport. He also developed a plan to convert the road from the Chiang Mai Railway Station to the town of Sankampaeng into a strip of handicraft showcases where tourists could conveniently see traditional crafts being made in workshops that had formerly been scattered all over the district and often in people’s houses. Anchored by silk production in Shinawatra family factories in Sankampaeng, and an umbrella cooperative in nearby Borsang, silver, laquerware, wood carving, bronzeware, and celadon stoneware factories and salesrooms were constructed along the road. Elephant camps, mountain treks, and resorts quickly followed.
Khun Kraisri was also the moving force behind other big enterprises, including the acquisition of land (vast amounts of land) for Chiang Mai University. He was a leader in a movement to restore historic temples and to promote traditional festivals as events which attracted more than nearby participants. His business interests were extensive but he was sure that whatever was good for Chiang Mai was good for him, too.
The tourists hoped for by Khun Kraisri and Lieutenant General Chalermchai Charuvastr, Director General of the Tourist Organization of Thailand, would be flying in, staying 3 days, and leaving with bargains they had acquired. The Royal State Railway also expanded services (in all honesty the new services somewhat exceeded the capacity of the single-track rail line completed in 1920). A new generation of tourists who planned on spending a lot less than the cost of air tickets came with backpacks and expectations of adventure. Bus lines also began overnight service to Chiang Mai from Bangkok just as soon as the “Superhighway” was opened in 1968 (beginning at the doorstep of Khun Kraisri’s hotel, as a matter of fact). It encircled Chiang Mai and went over Khun Tan Mountain to Lampang and on to Bangkok and the rest of the world.
Chiang Mai tourism diversified. Over 200 hotels and guesthouses of all price ranges are in the greater Chiang Mai area. Tourists also have diverse needs and desires, as well as abilities to get around and infiltrate remote places. Over time, and with sufficient numbers of tourists, those places change.
If a particular site becomes a significant tourist destination, the normal arc is something like this:
1. The place is hard to get to, but interesting (e.g. a cave, ethnic village, or historic landmark).
2. Accessibility is improved, followed by accommodations.
3. Popularity and publicity develop traffic even more. It becomes a “must-see”.
4. Major developers erect structures that begin to alter the nature of the environment.
5. The basic character of the inhabitants or the site drifts toward commercial goals.
6. The aspect that made the place interesting is gone, but it has acquired a new character that is profitable that depends entirely on tourists.
7. Something happens that obliterates the attractiveness or availability of the place as a tourist destination. This can be as sudden as a volcanic eruption or gradual as drifting desert sand.
There just seems to be something about the tourism industry that impels it toward self-destruction. Over-development is the main culprit. It is apparently impossible to control. The point of no-return depends on conditions. A fragile ecology may mean that even a little tourism will be too much, in which case tourism must be prevented from the outset, but some tourists are intrepid and governments may be lax. Sometimes the attraction is remote and can be protected without very much effort (a long arduous hike tends to cut traffic). In other cases the attraction is so large that even major buildings would not spoil the splendor.
If tourists come for culture (as they do in Chiang Mai), that too can be spoiled by the Goldilocks effect (too much or too little); some cultural attractions depend on heavy traffic as is the case with the theater districts of New York or London, but other cultural wonders are attractive only if outsiders are unobtrusive. Some temples lose their purpose if there are distractions. Cultural events count on people participating in the event, not stifling it. Cultural tourism teeters on the balance between cultural attractions and “what ELSE do the tourists want to do?” Very often it is these alternatives that suffocate the delicate cultural heart.
Early in the development of Chiang Mai as a tourism center, studies began to consider the effects of tourism on the region. A major paper was produced by UNESCO, “Case Study on the Effects of Tourism on Culture and Environment: Thailand” by Chupinit Kesamanee and Kulawadee Charoensri in 1995. They concluded, of course, that tourism would have an impact which needed to be carefully considered when using tourism as an economic objective. Even earlier studies were clear that tourism as an industry is hard to sustain. It is sustainability, in fact, that concerns tourism developers. Their question always is, “What happens if we put a lot of money into this and then it collapses?” The answer they give themselves is speculative, based on how likely the bubble would burst before they recoup their investment. Tourism business decisions are not highly informed by concern for culture and environment. Lower down the economic pyramid are those who propose to become involved in the industry. Housekeepers do not need to think far beyond the issues of travel distance to work and expected salary. But young people signing up for bachelor’s degrees in hotel and tourism are making a bigger gamble that the industry as a whole has a place for them and will continue to need employees with their qualifications.
The future of tourism in Chiang Mai is not utterly hopeless. The province still has natural attractions, religious significance, and history. Ethnic diversity is less distinct than it used to be, but the reason is not due to tourism; the government is succeeding in enfolding all residents in a blended national culture.
The main features that built the Chiang Mai tourism industry now have competition. If exotic culture was a big draw, other countries now have those, too. Chiang Mai has become another crowded city.
Of the twelve best things to do in Chiang Mai on one list I just read, only 3 are not available many other places. Most of the things tourists want to do in addition to cultural exploration can be done just about anywhere that tourism is accommodated. On most lists Chiang Mai cannot compete with the top contenders for scenery or excitement, but if tourism is to be renewed following COVID-19, it will have to do what Kraisri did and develop from the ground up. However, from a business perspective, moving Chiang Mai in a new direction would probably be more profitable and sustainable.
In the end all tourism is unsustainable if things go wrong, as they inevitably do. Sometimes tourism recovers, sometimes not.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.