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Cross-Border Travel the Key to Chiang Rai’s Tourism Future

As the Mekong Tourism Forum opens in Chiang Rai, why is tourism in the attractive northern Thailand gateway to Myanmar and Laos still languishing?

Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand, has issues.

It is at the geographic centre of the Greater Mekong region. But despite its physical beauty and advantageous location adjacent to Myanmar, Laos and the Mekong River, Chiang Rai’s tourism sector has long underperformed.

Consider this. Chiang Rai’s airport was upgraded to international status in 1992, but apart from a few flirtations, no international airlines ever came.

For comparison, around 385,000 international visitor arrivals visited Chiang Rai in 2010 – compared to 1.7 million for Chiang Mai and 4.5 million for Phuket.

It is disappointing because there are no shortage of attractions and potential. The province is the start point of the region’s most scenic river trips, especially the two-day Mekong river cruise to Luang Prabang in Laos. Chiang Rai is also base camp for overland road trips to Keng Tung in Myanmar. Chiang Rai has inherited the mantle of capital of the Golden Triangle, the mythical, historically lawless mountain region where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos met and opium lords ruled.

Chiang Rai, which celebrates its 750th anniversary this year, is also an arts centre, most impressively realized at the Black House and the White Temple. There are elephant camps, royal projects, hilltribe villages, archaeological ruins in Chiang Saen, the wonderful opium museum, and a good choice of high quality hotels – the Four Seasons Tented Camp, Anantara, Le Meridien.

But still, ‘take-off’ hasn’t happened. Why? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, the archetypal northern mountain experience with hilltribes can be done satisfactorily in neighbouring Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai’s larger neighbour has more facilities, attractions, hotels and an international airport with 10-20 airlines serving it, depending on the time of year.

Furthermore, Chiang Rai is a geographic cul-de-sac. It is hemmed in by mountains and the Mekong and Sop Ruak rivers. There are no easy onward land routes into Laos or Myanmar that tourists in buses can use. Crossing the border into Tachilek in Myanmar for a day trip isn’t the real thing. Getting the boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang is. But it is a specialist option that takes two days and quite a lot of money.

In short, Chiang Rai’s real problem is land transport, closed borders and restrictions on visas to Myanmar, Laos and China.

The new USD 45 million bridge across the Mekong River between Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai and Huayxai in Laos is due to open next year.

For Laos, the issue is to allow investment to develop the northern part of their country. The objective should be to add value to overland trips between Chiang Rai and southern China. Otherwise, much of Laos will be marginalized as a mere transit zone. For example, Luang Namtha has regressed as destination due to lack of sustainable development of national parks and national biodiversity conservation areas.

To the north and west of Chiang Rai, the new Myanmar knows how to surprise people. However, the political opening of Myanmar will only benefit Chiang Rai if Myanmar opens its land borders to allow overland trips through Keng Tung to connect with Bagan and Yangon. Today you can only travel to Keng Tung and return back across the same border point at Mae Sai in Chiang Rai.

So at the moment Chiang Rai is a de facto dead end — a pretty one full of charm. But a dead end nonetheless.

Before the new bridge at Chiang Khong opens in 2013, Chiang Rai should recruit top level input to develop a cohesive brand and master plan in which the private sector has the main say.

The Mekong Tourism Forum convenes this week in Chiang Rai to assess what the Greater Mekong Subregion got right and got wrong over the last 20 years, and what it needs to do to do better in the next 20. Chiang Rai should conduct a similar frank and honest tourism audit.

As a leading tour operator in the Mekong region for 18 years, Khiri Travel believes Chiang Rai should build a future based on unique attributes – wonderful natural and cultural attractions with the ability to continue easily onwards by land into Myanmar, Laos and China. It will require travel industry unity, imaginative branding, partnership and trust with foreign neighbours.

If we get it right, a better future beckons for a reinvented Chiang Rai standing tall at the centre of both the Golden Triangle and the Greater Mekong Subregion.


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