Chiang Mai

by AFP/Jack Barton, Aug 3, 2004 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

A dramatic mountain-top backdrop and more than 300 temples may not be enough to stop Thailand's northern capital Chiang Mai turning from tourist Mecca to urban sprawl.

With its partially walled and moat-ringed ancient city, Chiang Mai is one of the kingdom's biggest tourist draws, acting as a gateway to the fabled Golden Triangle where the hill-tribe cultures of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar converge.

The government wants to turn the area into the spa centre of the world, but pollution and the growing menace of the high-rise building has contributed to a downturn in visitor numbers, according to travel experts.

"Already the pollution is terrible, there are a lot of urban problems and we are going in the direction of Bangkok," says Tanet Charoenmuang, the president of the Chiang Mai's Urban Development Institute Foundation.

"Anyone who comes looking for signs of a 700-year-old city is going to be very disappointed."

The fierce contest for tourists to the Asia-Pacific region is only the start of Chiang Mai's problems.

In March, the National Geographic Society dubbed the city "getting ugly" in its travellers' destination scorecard, based on the urban development that has seen many temples and historic houses dwarfed by unsightly billboards and new concrete buildings tower above height restrictions set more than a decade ago.

Apparently the visitors agree. Last year, the 1.3 million foreign tourists generated 891 million dollars in revenue for Chiang Mai.

But those arrivals were down 5.45 percent from 2002, and those given the task of preserving the city's historic atmosphere say the slump is being driven purely by unchecked development that is turning Chiang Mai into a mirror of its southern counterpart, Bangkok.

According to Chiang Mai Chamber of Commerce president Boonlert Pereira, concerns over rampant development have spread to the top.

"National Geographic said people here think that tourism resources can last forever without management or conservation and have exploited the temples ... this got everyone talking," said Boonlert.

"The prime minister has now allocated 300 million baht (7.3 million dollars) to fix the problems," he said.

But Boonlert said there was a concern that not all government money would be slated for restoring the city's historic appeal.

The government has already started building a night safari on the edge of the city, has procured two pandas from China as the star attraction of the local zoo and has asked Australia to pitch in a few koalas in a bid to draw in even greater numbers.

"With the same amount of money we could have improved many cultural and nature sites in Chiang Mai," said Boonlert, who insists local tourist operators were not consulted on the projects.

Others say no amount of money on animals will reverse the rot.

"It's too little too late, like a bandage on a gaping wound and there is no going back for Chiang Mai," said a prominent travel writer who did not want to be named, adding that the description of "visually striking" used in one of the most popular guides to the city had not been updated in 15 years.

"In the 1990s all those wooden houses were being torn down to be replaced by fast-buck concrete architecture. Many of those buildings were accommodation for tourists who had come to see the old houses."

"As the attractions have slipped there has been no real upgrade of infrastructure. There are still no buses or cabs in Thailand's second largest city," he said.

Thailand has been seeking to promote alternatives to destinations in the Muslim majority south where more than 250 people have died in separatist violence since the start of the year.

Tour operators told AFP that there was no sign so far that holidaymakers were being lured north and doubted if the government's bold tourism predictions could be met.

The kingdom's cabinet last month approved a scheme to shoot for a doubling of foreign visitors over the next four years from the nearly 10 million arrivals recorded in 2003.

That announcement was greeted with caution from the World Tourism Organisation which said Thailand could only manage the growth with a massive improvements in basic infrastructure.

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