Chiang Mai’s tourism industry has seen some changes recently, especially in the type, behaviour and nationality of tourists, said Pakkanan Winijchai, director at the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s (TAT) Chiang Mai branch.
The number of independent tourists visiting the northern city has been rising gradually though the number of group tourists dropped slightly after a boat accident in Phuket killed 47 tourists in July, Pakkanan told the Nation in an interview last week.
The 60:40 ratio of independent and group tourists over the past few years has changed to 70:30, Pakkanan added. She explained that the increasing number of free independent travellers included domestic tourists as well as foreigners, especially those from Europe, Australia and India.
The director, who was posted in Chiang Mai two months ago, said the city seems to have become more popular among Europeans, especially Italians and from German-speaking countries, as well as Russians.
Also, some nationalities visit Chiang Mai more often and during specific seasons. For instance, Israelis usually prefer to come during the rainy season to enjoy the sound of rain and waterfalls, as their country is more prone to droughts. But now, many of them also visit during the winter season.
Drop in Chinese
Last year, Chiang Mai welcomed around 10 million tourists, seven million of whom were locals and three million foreigners, Pakkanan said.
Of the foreigners, one million were Chinese. However the number of Chinese tourists dropped after the boat accident. As of November, tourist arrivals to Thailand had reached 34.43 million, up 7.53 per cent, generating an estimated 1.8 trillion baht ($55.35 billion) in tourism revenue, up by 9.79 per cent, over the same period last year. China still led the list with the 10 millionth tourist arriving in Thailand last week.
Pakkanan said Chinese tourists have gradually started returning to Chiang Mai, thanks to new flights being added to the Beijing-Chiang Mai route, bringing the number of flights up to seven daily. The TAT’s Beijing office reported that the trend of big tour groups has changed to small groups comprising six or seven travellers, she said.
“So, instead of mainly relying on Chinese tourists we have a mixed market,” the director said, suggesting that tour operators make adjustments and offer more tailor-made services to serve the changing behaviour of tourists.
The TAT has transformed its strategy by offering more digital information to facilitate the change in trends, she added. For instance, she said, individual travellers usually find information and routes by themselves through the Internet and decide where they should check in, so apart from distributing booklets, the Chiang Mai office is now also providing information via digital platforms and offering a QR code for people to download e-books.
However, her office is facing challenges. She said Thailand, as a popular destination, has seen an increasing number of repeat visitors, though the number of first-time visitors has dropped. The ratio of repeat tourists to first-timers stands at 70:30.
The challenge for her office now is to get more first-time visitors, she said.
But both types of visitors have pros and cons, she admitted. Revisiting groups usually plan their own trips and do not need to rely on tour packages. They also tend to spend less, as they connect with locally based communities and eat local food. Still, she said, it’s good because they boost the income for the locals.
First-time visitors, on the other hand, tend to be big spenders as, never having visited the city before, they go to tourist attractions and dine at luxury restaurants, she said.
Pakkanan said there is an opportunity for Chiang Mai to overcome this challenge, as the city has been evolving, with more activities and new tourist attractions emerging all the time.
“Chiang Mai has become a major destination, because now there are direct flights from Europe to the city. So, we can promote it as a top destination, and design package tours for tourists to stay longer, or around four to five days, compared to the two days that people previously spent in Chiang Mai,” she said.
The TAT is also encouraging operators in Chiang Mai to design new routes and include new places following a government campaign to promote tourism in 55 secondary cities to boost local revenue. Those who spend on accommodation and food and drink at these secondary locations can claim tax deductions of up to 15,000 baht. Some Chiang Mai districts, including Chaiya Prakan, Fang and Mae Ai, have been categorised as second-tier cities.
“We are now promoting new routes combining Chiang Mai with second-tier cities such as Chaiya Prakan and Fang district as well as neighbouring provinces like Chiang Rai, Lampang and Lamphun,” Pakkanan said.
Tourists can depart from Chiang Mai, spend a night or two in the districts before heading to neighbouring provinces, she explained.
Pakkanan is also encouraging locals to visit the city during weekdays, so the city is not too overcrowded during the weekends. Those who opt for trips on working days will also receive benefits from the TAT and its partners.