MAE HONG SON, 27 March 2018: Residents in Mae Hong Son have been waiting decades for a direct air service from Bangkok so understandably they gave Nok Air a resounding welcome, 25 March, when the aircraft touched down on the tarmac.
Almost forgotten by travel planners, Mae Hong Son town nestles in a valley surrounded by mountains in the far northwest of Thailand bordering Myanmar.
The arrival of DD8214, using the ponderous 70-seat ATR72-500 turboprop, marks the moment when “the city of three mists,” is linked once more to the Thai capital.
Attending the launch were: Transport Minister Arkom Termpitthayapaisith; Mae Hong Son Governor Suebsak Aiamwijan; Nok Air CEO Piya Yodmani; Thai Airways International (THAI) acting president Usanee Sangsingkeo and THAI Smile acting managing director Chatchai Panyoo.
Now the airline faces the biggest challenge filling the 70 seats for the three weekly flights to a city that has hardly gains a mention in tour catalogues.
There are two sentiments that percolate to the surface in Mae Hong Song. One is a resentment that Pai, an “upstart” village halfway between the provincial capital and Chiang Mai rules the roost in tourism. Travellers should be visiting Mae Hong Son, but invariably they travel no further than hallway house Pai. That gets under the skin of Mae Hon Son residents.
The other sentiment is more understandable. We are fine without tourists, there something special about Mae Hong Son, being almost forgotten hemmed in by mountains. It has to stay that way.
It won’t stay that way. While the daily flight from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son guarantees a cap on visitors at just 210 per week, the direct flight from Bangkok, courtesy of Nok Air, gives tour operator the missing piece of a jigsaw.
Access to Mae Hong Son by ground transport is a serious challenge. The shorter route follows a mountain road from Chiang Mai, via Pai, with 1,864 hairpin bends end-to-end and is off-limits to tour buses larger than commuter vans.
The downside for tour planners thinking of using the Nok Air flight is frequency. They need five to seven flights weekly. Three is a very conservative start.
But Nok Air can count on codeshare partners, THAI and Thai Smile, to boost seat sales. THAI decades ago flew this route and offered Mae Hong Son in its Royal Orchid Holidays. It still does, but having a seat allotment on the Nok Air flight will give it another option than flying groups through Chiang Mai.
Nok Air says its is using the ATR72-500 turboprop because it can operate on the shorter runway at Mae Hong Son airport. However, in the past THAI flew the route using a Boeing 737. Using the smaller ATR72 is more about passenger demand as the bigger 160-seat 737s would represent a financial stretch for Nok Air.
Mae Hong Son Governor Suebsak welcomed Nok Air’s decision to offer regular Bangkok-Mae Hong Son service to spur the province’s development, especially the tourism sector.
“It will help to spread out tourism to the wider area of Mae Hong Son, rather just the current hotspot at Pai,” he noted.
Last year, Mae Hong Son attracted 862,219 domestic and international tourists generating a total spend of THB 4.17 billion.