CHIANG RAI, 4 January 2019: You could say Thai AirAsia made my day over Christmas when the airline announced it would introduce direct international services to Chiang Rai at the end of this month.
The lack of direct international flights has been a pet theme of past columns since I moved to Chiang Rai in 2012. It was always high up on my New Year wish list.
Now Thai AirAsia has taken the bold step to introduce direct flights from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Macau as well as a direct domestic flight between this far north town and Phuket Island in South Thailand.
International airline access was always the single topic that I thought should have been at the heart of every tourism meeting when discussing ways to promote this fascinating northern destination.
Without direct links from aviation gateways such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Rai relies almost entirely on Bangkok’s domestic airline market or bus tours from Chiang Mai.
Whatever you did to promote Chiang Rai the travel times were around five to six hours from source markets such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Far too long for a traveller planning a long weekend holiday. In contrast, from Singapore, Phuket, Bangkok and Bali were all within the comfort range of a long weekend trip.
Despite, Chiang Rai being the only province in Thailand to share borders with both Myanmar and Laos, its gateway status until recently was merely academic.
Hong Kong Express was the first airline to offer a direct flight between Hong Kong and Chiang Rai, which encouraged a steady flow of Chinese visitors looking for a quality travel experience.
But for years there was just a single direct service from Kunming, in Yunnan province, China. It was usually packed with gamblers heading for kitschy casinos either in Tachilek, Myanmar, or in neighbouring Laos, just across the Mekong River border at Chiang Saen.
Chiang Rai, for all intents and purposes, was relegated to the role of a cul-de-sac destination. Instead of exploring neighbouring Laos and Myanmar, or seeking out the province’s distinct holiday experiences thousands of Chinese and European tourists flew to Chiang Mai and “did Chiang Rai” on a day bus tour. More than 10 sightseeing locations done and dusted in daylight and back in Chiang Mai in time for dinner.
One hotelier told me it was the worst possible outcome for both Chiang Rai and the tourists. “They think they have done the North and decide never to return,” he lamented.
Chiang Rai deserves better, but the temptation is always there to sell cheap and nasty sightseeing tours that do destinations through tinted bus windows.
Chiang Rai’s tourism industry should welcome Thai AirAsia’s decision to offer direct flights from two aviation gateway cities – Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. For starters, it will do away with the costly and time- consuming connections at Bangkok’s two congested airports. (The typical roundtrip Singapore fare routed through Bangkok comes with four seat fees one for each sector).
Today it takes six hours to complete the journey from Singapore to Chiang Rai with a roundtrip fare of around THB12,000. The new service will halve the fare and cut travel time to just three hours.
How should Chiang Rai’s tourism players respond? Thai AirAsia will need their support to make this bold move succeed. Hotels and service providers should invest in sales trips to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to contact tour operators who could establish tour packages. OTAs too can cash in and offer combination of flights, hotels and car rentals for a Chiang Rai holiday.
The focus should be on “quality tourism” unfortunately a phrase that is often used to justify higher prices without any service improvements.
Chiang Rai’s travel industry can now take a stab at quality tourism markets such as Singapore, but to be successful it must raise its game and develop quality tourism content that is far from evident now. Service levels, language skills, duty-of-care and value-for-money need to be revisited. Cloning yourself on the Chiang Mai business model would be a disaster for Chiang Rai.
It’s a slippery slope that targets volume at the expense of quality. Core elements such as Lanna heritage and sensitive natural assets that spurred the imagination of visitors in the first place would be lost.
While Thai AirAsia is to be congratulated on this new bold development that will be benefit Chiang Rai, the airline will need to be responsible and work with the local travel industry to raise the quality bar. It also needs to reach out and share its expertise with the province’s travel community.
The link to two neighbours gives Chiang Rai a distinct advantage over other northern destinations that the airline could exploit long-term through its Chiang Rai hub. The destination’s gateway status will ultimately open travel opportunities to Laos, Myanmar and even Yunnan province China. Let’s hope Thai AirAsia has a long-term vision for this fascinating border region.