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Chiang Mai, North Thailand Set to Boom

  /  DESTINATIONS   /  Chiang Mai, North Thailand Set to Boom

By Imtiaz Muqbil,
Executive Editor,

Known as the ‘Rose of the North,’ the city of Chiang Mai is hailed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand as “a cultural and natural wonderland with ethnic diversity, a multitude of attractions, and welcoming hospitality.” Dotted with spectacular Buddhist temples and stupas, the former capital of the Lanna kingdom has played second fiddle to Thailand’s beach resorts in terms of tourism popularity. Although it will probably never catch up, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, it is set to benefit big time as improved transportation infrastructure strengthens the connectivity between North Thailand and the entire Greater Mekong Subregion.

The first chart here compares tourism performance figures between 2007 – 2011. While the figures show that growth over the span of five years has not been very significant, the next few years are set to produce a much rosier set of results with 2012 set to prove a game-changing year. Between 2007-2011, however, the following trends were apparent.
(+) Foreign visitor arrivals grew far more than domestic visitor arrivals.
(+) The average length of stay for Thais rose slightly but dropped for foreign visitors.
(+) A similar trend could be observed for the average daily expenditure – up slightly for Thai visitors but down by foreign visitors.
(+) Overall expenditure was up but perhaps not as much as it ought to have been over a five-year period (see chart on left)


By far the vast majority of both Thai and foreign tourist arrivals to Chiang Mai is by bus, thanks to a world-class highway from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. A small percentage arrive by train. Arrivals by air are also a small percentage of the overall number but do help indicate trends.

The Thai government’s policy to increase direct aviation access to Chiang Mai from overseas source-markets, especially within Asia, is producing results. The chart below shows arrivals by visitors who came directly to Chiang Mai from a foreign point, without transiting through Bangkok. The growth is quite significant all through 2012, especially in the months of January, September and November (see chart below)

International Passenger Arrivals at Chiang Mai Airport 2011-2012

The figures for December 2012 had not been published at the time of writing.

The chart below shows domestic passenger arrivals at Chiang Mai airport. These would include a substantial number of foreign visitors, too; those who have spent a few days in Bangkok and then taken a domestic flight to Chiang Mai would be reported as “domestic arrivals.” However, the bulk of the stats would be local residents, including expatriates living in Thailand, as well as residents of Chiang Mai returning home.

Domestic Passenger Arrivals at Chiang Mai Airport 2011-2012

This variation in the profiles prevents the domestic passenger stats from providing a clear indication of visitor arrival trends. Suffice it to say that domestic visitors are predominantly during peak periods such as school holidays (mid-March to mid-May) and the Thai New Year period in Songkran (April). Other peak periods are during long weekend holidays.

In the chart, the peak months are quite obvious, as are the growth levels between 2011-12. The figures for December 2012 had not been published at the time of writing.

The chart below shows passenger movements at Chiang Mai Airport by airlines in 2010-2011.

NOTE: The figure is much higher than in the chart of passenger arrivals above because it includes both arriving and departing (embarking and disembarking) passengers. However, the purpose of this chart is to show the role of individual airlines in the passenger movements.

Although national carrier Thai Airways International tops the chart, the increasing role of low-cost airlines such as Thai Air Asia and Nok Air is apparent.

So is the role of regional airlines flying directly into Chiang Mai directly from China, Singapore and Korea. This is where most of the future growth will come from.

Finally, we have another critical industry “indicator” – growth in accommodation units. Here, too, the increase has been marginal. However, the interesting thing about Chiang Mai’s accommodation is that quantity is perhaps not as important as quality. As the North Thailand region is trying to position itself more as a cultural/environmental destination, it is witnessing the emergence of some spectacular spas and health and wellness retreats.

Source: Ministry of Tourism & Sports


Chiang Mai is not a “mass-market” tourism destination, not yet anyway. But with growing transportation links throughout the entire sub-region, it could quickly become one. The more roads and highways are built, the more real estate developers and travel industry executives add accommodation units. A new convention centre is also due to open in 2013, which will give Chiang Mai a major marketing fillip.
In terms of quantity of visitor arrivals, the future is bright. However, as with many other parts of Thailand, it’s the quality that will matter. With Thailand having crossed the 21 million arrivals mark in 2012, and projecting more than 23 million in 2013, destinations such as Chiang Mai will prove be a lynchpin in the ongoing debate over the management of tourism growth.


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