October 18, 2005

Thai city may get burst of new tourism

By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat

CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - With its myriad temples,
green-flecked mountains and blossoming art scene, the northern
Thai city of Chiang Mai has been a natural flocking point for
tourists from all corners of the globe for years.

But Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's home town is
threatening to burst at the seams as its native son pours
billions of baht into huge projects to attract more tourism to
Thailand's third-biggest city, 435 miles north of Bangkok.

Local residents say projects aimed at luring more visitors
to the city will also breed more pollution and traffic,
threatening the very attractions that brought 3.8 million
tourists last year -- a 17 percent increase from 2003.

"We are choking on these development projects, which will
make us feel like we are living in a zoo," said Uthaiwan
Kanjankamol, head of a non-governmental organization which
opposes the government projects.

"Throwing money into our home town does not make us feel
good. They should consult us before they do anything. We need
sustainable development, not short-term propaganda."

The tourism industry, which makes up around 6 percent of
the economy, was hit hard further south by last December's
tsunami that killed thousands and simmering unrest in the
mainly Muslim south but is still a big money-spinner in Chiang

Tourism in the capital of the north alone generated 45
billion baht in 2004, 10 percent of Thailand's overall tourism
income of 450 billion baht, according to the Tourism Authority
of Thailand (TAT).

Authorities entertain high hopes for the development
projects, which are likely to run up a multi-billion baht tab.

"The TAT expects the number of tourists visiting Chiang Mai
to grow by 5 percent every year, thanks to the many tourist
attractions to be built in the next two years," said Angkana
Pumpaka, a TAT assistant director in Chiang Mai.


Situated on the banks of the Ping River in a valley crowned
by green mountains, Chiang Mai was the last city to be
conquered by the Siamese in 1774 and boasts its own "Lanna"

It has long drawn foreign tourists with its mix of
easy-going charm and photogenic scenery, even in the low season
from May to October, when fierce heat gives way to unrelenting

Chiang Mai's worst flooding in three decades did little to
dampen the spirits of tourists wading through knee-high water
in the city center this month.

"It's not too high," laughed Verneita, a retired American
nurse on her first trip to the city with her husband.

"You know, in my home town, in Florida, it is this high,"
she said, raising her hand up to her chest.

To build on Chiang Mai's success, the government is
launching an initiative called "Chiang Mai World," which will
develop man-made attractions such as a "Night Safari," an
animal park built on the outskirts of town.

Authorities hope the night safari will attract 1.2 million
tourists and rake in 400 million baht a year.

A cable line is also planned in order to ease the rigors of
sight-seeing, connecting a station in the town center with
destinations like the night safari and areas near the
mountaintop temple "Doi Suthep."

Also on the agenda is an elephant park and bird tunnel
adjacent to the night safari, said Chiang Mai mayor Boonlert

"The elephant park and the bird tunnel could cost billions
of baht and will be built later next year," Boonlert told

But the tourism industry already threatens to overwhelm the
city in mountains of litter left by more than 3 million
visitors a year.

To tackle the estimated 700 tons of garbage left on city
streets a day -- more than double Chiang Mai's litter-handling
capacity of 250 tons a day -- officials hope to import garbage
disposal machines from Britain worth around a billion baht.

"The machine will be fully installed by January 2006 and by
that time we could manage more than 3 million tons of garbage a
day," Boonlert said.

Three floods in the past month alone have also taken their
toll, requiring authorities to dredge the river and main canals
to drain floodwater from the city center, said Sawat Tantipat,
the Chiang Mai governor.

"We cannot deny that flood and garbage problems were caused
by congestion in the city. More roads are needed to allow
people to leave the city more easily," said Suwat.

But Chiang Mai retains its allure even as inevitable
development threatens to erode its old-style charm.

"I love the way of living here," said Viola Franke of
Munich, Germany, on her first trip to the city. "People smile
more than people in Bangkok."