CHIANG RAI 15 August 2017: Thai Lion Air took off from Chiang Rai’s airport, 10 August, to establish its first international flight from this far-north town to Changsha in China.
The Chiang Rai-Changsha flight means Chiang Rai has four international routes serving destinations in China. The others three are Kunming, Hong Kong and Haikou with more in the pipeline.
Thai Lion Air has served the Bangkok Chiang Rai route four times daily since 2015 and now has the distinction of being the first Thai airline to fly beyond this far-north town to an international destination.
If the gamble pays off the four-weekly flights should be packed with Chinese tourists who will use Chiang Rai as a gateway to also explore Chiang Mai and Lampang, both within 180 km driving distance, and Phayao just 90 km away. The airline is promoting a THB2,395 one-way fare on the route, but between 17 August to 15 September the cheap fare was flagged sold out on most days.
Based on the standard business model on routes between
Chiang Rai is also the only Thai province with international borders with two neighouring countries; Myanmar and Laos and just 300 km from the border with China.
Chinese tourists flying to Chiang Rai on other routes from mainland China head for casinos in neighbouring Laos and Myanmar, 80 km north of Chiang Rai town. But there are opportunities to tempt the adventurous to travel by boat to Luang Prabang in Laos, a day’s sail down the Mekong River from Huay Xai, facing the Thai border town of Chiang Khong.
Tourism Authority of Thailand director for Chiang Rai and Phayao provinces, Lerdchai Wangtrakoondee, believes Chinese tourists are looking for rural travel experiences, a far cry from the shopping and city sightseeing tours usually associated with tour groups from mainland China.
He is currently promoting itineraries that combine Chiang Rai and Phayao attractions. The emphasis, mainly on rural tourism content, will give China’s ‘next gen’ travellers a chance to “experience travel moments rather than just watch them pass by the tour bus window.
Lerdchai is confident that Chiang Rai will attract more international airline services particularly from China, but the province needs to focus on delivering genuine rural travel experiences and adopt sustainable tourism principles to manage growth. The experiences could include cooking classes, Muay Thai lessons, participating in agro-tourism visits that offer a learning experience and soft-adventure.
Ironically, one of the catalysts that could drive airlines to consider Chiang Rai is the massive boom in airline traffic to Chiang Mai.
“There are already signs of capacity and slot constraints at Chiang Mai airport,” Lerdchai explained. “Within two years all the flight slots at Chiang Mai will be full and airlines are already being encouraged to consider flights to Chiang Rai instead.”
China’s aviation policy tends to favour foreign airlines that file requests for entirely new routes. This is likely to make it easier to gain flight approvals between Chiang Rai and cities in China, as opposed to routes originating in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Chiang Rai’s tourism desperately needs more international travellers who deliver higher revenue and foreign exchange for the province’s economy.
Over the three years tourism has grown modestly at less 3% a year. In 2016 the province welcomed 3,192,110 visitors up 3.7%, but of that total more than 2.6 million were domestic travellers.
Foreigners accounted for 559,059 visits, up by a 0.24 fraction. Predictably, China was the top market delivering 102,781 visits, up 45.14% over 2015. The other top supply markets didn’t perform that well with the exception of Japan (third place) with 23,672 visits representing an increase of 7.15%
France the second largest market saw a 6% decline on 53,274 visits. USA in third place delivered 35,269 visits up 0.97% , while Germany in fifth place with 21,125 visits declined by 15.43%.
However, the shift of airline services to Chiang Rai could offer a lifeline for the province’s small tourism enterprises, guesthouses, homestay and family boutique hotels that make up the bulk of the 16,000 odd rooms in and around Chiang Rai town.
Lion Air’s Changsha flight starts the ball rolling and it will follow through shortly with a flight from Chiang Rai to Guangzhou, a major gateway city just 120 km from Hong Kong.
It is understood that Sichuan Airlines will fly six times a week from Chengdu to Chiang Rai later this month. Established in 1986 the airline already operates international services from Chengdu to Australia, Vancouver in Canada and Prague. It has a fleet of 55 aircraft.
Lerdchai calls this the most promising of all the developments.
“Guangzhou is a very important for Chiang Rai more than the twice weekly Hong Kong Express flights from Hong Kong,” he said. “In the case of Guangzhou there will be six flights weekly …I can see it becoming a big success.”
Beijing Capital Airlines, fully owned by Hainan Airlines, has been flying a weekly service from Haikou to Chiang Rai since last March. The airline has hubs in Beijing, Haikou and Xian.
Loong Airlines, based in Hangzhou and also known as Chang Long, has been identified as yet another airline that is considering a service to Chiang Rai. The airline was established in December 2013 and flies charters to Vietnam; Danang and Cam Ranh. Its main hub is Hangzhou.
There are also talk of Thai Lion Air flying from Chiang Rai to U-Tapao and possibly to Udon Thani or Khon Kaen.
However, Chinese airlines are the main target to shift flights to Chiang Rai as they could offer a mix of flights to both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai that would allow tour groups to shuttle between the two destinations and cut out return tour bus trips.
Presently, Chinese groups based in Chiang Mai embark on day trips to Chiang Rai that require a six to seven hour round trip bus journey on a highway that passes through three hilly sections.
Creative airline scheduling in discussion with tour operators might see airlines offering three flights a week to Chiang Rai and four to Chiang Mai from cities in China. Offering a one-way bus trips could link the two destinations would be an improvement on how tour operators combine the two destinations.
But so far, neither airlines, nor tour operators have bothered to study the travel patterns between these two popular North Thailand destinations that would offer a more convenient and time-saving tour option.
Lerdchai is exploring itineraries that combine Mekong River and Golden Triangle attractions with Phayao province and conclude with a bus transfer to Chiang Mai to close the North Thailand holiday.
Lerdchai is working the TAT office in Kunming to encourage tour groups from Kunming to fly to Jiang Hong, a town on the Mekong River in Yunnan province, where they join a down stream cruise to Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province where they stop overnight. The following day they travel south to Phayao province.
The highlight in Phayao is an opportunity to watch demonstrations of a version of Muay Thai known as ‘Jearng’ that reflects Lanna culture and was originally thought to be dance movements A Muay Thai school in Phayao teaches the distinctive version of Thai boxing to locals and visitors.
But for Chiang Rai’s tourism to take off it needs to shift its focus from budget travellers to what tourism planners call “quality tourism,” or travellers who are eager splurge on their holiday experience rather than counting their coins. Today, the average foreign tourist spends an average of THB3,570 per day and stays an average of three days in the province.
A check of booking websites shows there is a glut of rooms selling at THB500 a night and very few that can command a peak season rate of THB3,500 a night.
Based on an inventory of 16,000 rooms in hotels and guesthouses registered for tourists, the province’s average room occupancy for 2016 was a modest 46.37%.