NAKHON PANOM, 27 June 2018: Tourism officials are telling us how air connectivity makes it so much more convenient to explore the Mekong Region. Sounds good.
It will get a mention at the Mekong Tourism Forum this week in Nakhon Phanom, either from the Ministry of Tourism, or the provincial tourism office. It’s part of the script.
We should thank low-cost airlines for keeping fares down and giving us options that we could not enjoy a decade earlier.
When officials give us a pep talk on how fortunate we are to be connected we are not supposed to be cynical and say they are living in a bubble. But they dwell in a bubble called Bangkok.
Of course, Bangkok is connected and most cities and tourist attractions in the Mekong region are a maximum 90-minute flight away from the Thai capital’s two gateway airports.
We love to read that 18 million Thai tourists explored the country in May and by the end of the year all the records will be broken.
But as residents of the major cities across Thailand buy a new homes, trade in the truck for a fancy eco fuelled car and plan family holidays perhaps to visit a seaside resort on the Andaman or Gulf of Thailand coast, the reality is that air travel could be a mite more convenient.
For example, if you live in one of the major cities in Northeast Thailand bordering the Mekong River it will take 23 hours to reach the coastal resorts of South Thailand by bus. If you fly it will take five to six hours including downtime between connecting flights when a direct flight would cover the route in less than two hours.
It doesn’t occur to Bangkok residents that their counterparts in provincial cities will pay twice the price and spend double the time sitting on planes to explore Thailand because there are no direct flights from their hometown.
I live in Chiang Rai and there are no flights direct to Northeast Thailand. I am attending the Mekong Tourism Forum this week in Nakhon Phanon and it took me five hours to transfer by plane between these two northern towns.
The bottom line of connectivity? Flight time to Bangkok one-hour and 20 minutes and another one-hour and 20 minutes to Nakhon Phanom; plus two hours and 30 minutes sitting in Don Mueang Airport waiting for a connecting flight.
There should be direct flights from major towns in North and Northeast Thailand to a string of popular tourist resorts along the Andamam Sea coast; namely Krabi and Phuket and possibly Surat Thani to link to Samui in the Gulf of Thailand.
Airline route developers will say this is like a car sales manager asking for a consignment of city cars along with the monthly supply of pick-up trucks. It’s risky gamble. But provincial economies are changing fast and there are already successful examples of direct routes that link Thailand’s hills to the sea.
From Chiang Rai, the big success stories are the direct flights by Vietjet to Phuket and Thai AirAsia’s direct flights to Hat Yai.
There are examples in Chiang Mai, but more routes need to be established to cut the need to travel via Bangkok.
Airlines will need incentives to develop new routes. They will need support from provinces to create promotions and create leisure travel demand. Some routes will fail, but there is enough pent-up demand to make direct routes work. It will take pressure off Bangkok’s overcrowded airports, encourage more efficient use of aircraft and cut costs while making travel more convenient for everyone regardless of where they live.