The Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar needs to boost cross-border travel if it wants to secure its tourism future, the head of a leading regional destination management company (DMC) has said.
Willem Niemeijer, CEO of Thailand-based Khiri Travel, said the tourism sector in Chiang Rai – Thailand’s northernmost province – has underperformed for too long. Only 385,000 international visitor arrivals came to Chiang Rai in 2010 – compared to 1.7 million for neighbouring Chiang Mai and 4.5 million for Phuket. This, Niemeijer claims, is partially due to the shortage of feasible overland travel options in the area, which could potentially boost tourism not only in Chiang Rai, but the entire Golden Triangle region.
“It (the shortage of visitors) is disappointing because there are no shortage of attractions and potential,” said Niemeijer. “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.”
But he added; “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.”
Niemeijer noted that a new bridge across the Mekong River between Chiang Khong, the Laos border-crossing point in Chiang Rai province, and the Laos town of Huayxai, is due to open next year. He urged the Laos authorities to allow investment to develop the northern part of their country, adding value to overland trips between Chiang Rai and southern China.
“Otherwise, much of Laos will be marginalized as a mere transit zone,” Niemeijer argued.
“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,” he added.
This week’s Mekong Tourism Forum, being hosted in Chiang Rai, will look back over the past 20 years, and consider the steps the region needs to take to boost tourism in the next 20. According to Niemeijer, “Chiang Rai should conduct a similar frank and honest tourism audit”.