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Weaving False Hopes around Chiang Rai’s Friendship Bridge



The Chiang Rai Friendship bridge will open in around four months


CHIANGRAI – Chiang Rai Tourism Association urges tour operators to organize more tour package for Chinese travelers to  boost the tourism industry. The association chairman, Apicha Trasin, said the Province should create tour package for Chinese tourists that draw their attention to the far north destination before they visit Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Pattaya.

Chiang Khong border check point

The most popular destinations for Chinese visitors are Bangkok and Pattaya, but as Chiang Mai turns from a rural to urban business centre it has also attracted attention, mainly because it duplicates the shopping and entertainment attractions of Bangkok and Pattaya.

“Today, there are more Chinese tourists visiting Thailand via the R3A route through Huay Xai in Laos, but once the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge opens mid-year, it will boost Chinese arrivals via Chiang Rai,” the association president argued.

It is a very simplistic view of the situation in the far north. The reality is the bridge will serve container trucks that are currently bottled up at Chiang Khong or Huay Xai waiting for the ferry. Their only intent it to make it to Bangkok and the ports of the eastern seaboard as fast as possible. Sightseeing is not on the agenda and new highways from the bridge will head south to the Thai capital and beyond.

Tourist traffic from China to Chiang Rai is limited to special interest groups such as motor cycle enthusiasts, who are happy to travel more than 2,000 km to reach the Mekong River region and far-north Thailand.

Route R3A is part of the so-called North-South Economic Corridor linking Thailand with Laos and Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan province, Southern China. It is really about the cargo and logistics business with tourism traveling on the tail-end, while the huge trucks and trailers cut a corridor through north Thailand to get their goods to the consumer market of Bangkok and to eastern seaboard ports.

Friendship bridge hype is almost overwhelming SME resort owners who firmly believe they are about to be part of a  tourism boom that will transform their businesses in the far north. They will be disappointed.

The flight is less than two hours from Kunming to Chiang Rai

Covering some 2,000 km, Route R3A starts at the Mekong River, Chiang Rai province, at  a brand new bridge that links Chiang Khon to Huay Xai in Laos then to Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Boten in Laos, and Bohan, Jinghong, and Kunming in Yunnan, Southern China.

The tourism association president added that a study had shown that Chinese travelers will arrive at the Chiang Khong border check point and tour operators will pick them up and take  them to Chiang Mai and other destinations particularly in Thailand’s central plains and eastern seaboard regions.

Studies claim that the road and bridge will encourage a boom in overland travel. It would involve a 2,000 km road trip to visit Thailand. A reality check would suggest Chinese travelers could buy cheap fares on charter flights that would cut the journey from days to a couple of hours and get them to the fun cities of Bangkok and Pattaya in a jiffy.

Overland bus travel is not necessarily a bargain. For example the Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang bus trip takes 18 hours and uses part of the R3A highway to Luang Namtha. The single fare is Bt960. If there was a low-cost flight between Chiang Rai and Luang Prabang  travelers would happily  pay Bt2,000 one-way for a one-hour flight to save 18 hours on a bus. They could opt for the boat option from Huay Xai that takes eight hours to Luang Prabang, but then agony is the only word that aptly describes that experience.

Think about it: Why would Kunming residents want to suffer overland travel if there was a faster airline option to get to Chiang Rai? Even on a bus it would cost more than Bt1,000 to embark on a 2,000 km  trip. A low-cost airline could compete and save time and at that distance the fare would be good value.

According to the association chairman, over 10,000 Chinese tourists entered Chiang Rai Province at the Chiang Khong border check point and spent Bt3,500 per day per head last year.

This figure cannot be substantiated. They are most likely traders who are keen to tap the logistics boom that will follow once the bridge opens. Already Chinese companies have bought every single town or shop house under construction on the approach road to the bridge.

There are statistics thrown around that suggest that in 2012 more than 2 million Chinese tourists visited Chiang Rai and generated Bt14,000 million in tourism revenue.

These figures cannot be independently confirmed. Tourism companies should disregard the hype and concentrate on the single fact that Chiang Rai is served by a just one international airline that offers a three weekly flights between Mae Fah Luang Chiang Rai International Airport and Kunming. Total number of passengers if they were all tourists would be 300 a week if  all seats  were occupied.

There are 10 domestic flights in and out of Chiang Rai offered by THAI, Nok Air and Air Asia. That is three less than last year when Orient Thai served the route.

Considering the bridge will open in around four months very little is being reported on how Chiang Rai intends to promote the bridge to improve tourism. The Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Ministry of Tourism and Sports have a plenty of ideas including sporting events focused on the bridge such as a marathon and other initiatives to introduce the overland route between the far north province and China.

But the bottom line is, with or without, a 500 metre long bridge over the Mekong River the journey is still 2,000 km  and will take 25 hours of hard driving to reach Chiang Rai from big city Kunming. The flight is less than two hours. If as  experts claim there are hundreds of Chinese prepared to sit on a bus to reach Chiang Khong then a low-cost airline selling an attractive fare should be able to earn a bundle. But there are no low-cost airlines flying Chiang Rai-Kunming and no one is in rush to be the first. Why? No one wants to take the risk because there is no accurate data for airlines to count on. by Wanwisa Ngamsangchaikit


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