Chiang Mai was once again crowded with tourists during the New Year long holiday. University student Sai, 22, said she only saw the heads of people when she visited Phra That Doi Suthep to pay respects to the relics of Lord Buddha stored at the famed Chiang Saen-style golden pagoda.
Traffic was also heavy in many famous destinations of the province. A visitor from Bangkok with three family members spent about two hours driving the 40km-from the foot of Doi Inthanon to the mountain top, a trip which usually takes about 30 minutes.
Thanks to the cool weather, the province always lures thousands of Thai as well as foreign tourists.
But from now on, Chiang Mai will not only be popular among those who love cold weather, but also among Chinese visitors, thanks to the smash hit comedy Lost In Thailand, which was mostly filmed in the province. The movie broke China's box office records last week and became the first film to earn 1 billon yuan, and the takings are set to rise.
Because of the movie, it is believed that Chiang Mai will be the next hit this year in addition to other destinations popular with Chinese tourists such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Ayutthaya and Phuket.
According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), about 80 tour agents offer packages following the film's shooting locations. The TAT expects to welcome more Chinese visitors this year, especially during Chinese New Year next month. TAT governor Suraphon Svetasreni said he did not realise the film would have such a big impact when the TAT granted a 2 million baht budget.
Although the official number of Chinese arrivals this year has not yet been released, the TAT estimates that about 2.7 million Chinese visited Thailand last year, a rise of more than 68% from the previous year. The Chinese are now the top foreign visitors, accounting for 13% of the total 21 million international tourists.
One of the reasons for the increasing number was that Thailand's political scene has become more stable. Another indirect benefit to the tourism industry was the standoff between China and Japan over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, known as the Diaoyu islands in Chinese and the Senkaku islands in Japanese.
The TAT also believes that Lost In Thailand brought new Chinese tourists to Thailand during the New Year, following the movie theme tour.
The film's production team stayed in many places in Thailand from April to June last year. Scenes were shot in Bangkok, Wat Yai Chaimongkol in Ayutthaya and several well-known places in Chiang Mai including Trok Loa Chow (aka China Town in Chiang Mai), Warorot market, Wat Buppharam, Wat Saenfang, Wat Phra Phutthabat Si Roy and Mae Kampong.
According to Mae Kampong's former village head Teeramate Kajonpattanapirom, who is in charge of the homestay service, the film was shot in the village for about 10 days in May. So far, however, most visitors to the village are Thai and European tourists.
"It was the first time that our village was selected as a film location in addition to local TV programmes related to travel or health," he said, adding that the village homestay service could host more than 100 visitors a time and it was full during the New Year holidays. Mae Kampong is well-known for ecotourism and won the government's Otop Village Champion award. In addition, it has recently been promoted as a health destination by Chiang Mai's governor. Visitors who stay with villagers eat local meals, learn about northern culture and trek in the nearby green forest. Adventure lovers like the Flight of the Gibbon, a zip-line tour programme, offering 18 staging platforms over the forest canopy where you can travel like a gibbon from one branch to another over a 2km route.
"Lost In Thailand might help promote us to the international level and we are ready to welcome new faces," Teeramate added. But it's not all good new on the tourism front. The Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association (TCTA) has warned the government and local authorities of illegal guide services.
"The movie will surely encourage more Chinese to visit Thailand, but at present there is a shortage of Chinese-speaking guides and that leads to another concern over non-licensed guides and tour agents in big cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket," said TCTA secretary-general Chanapan Kaewklachaiyawuth.
Problems that have been reported to the association vary from light to serious cases, including giving incorrect historical information, guides abandoning group tours and forcing customers to purchase souvenirs as well as drug-related issues.
"We also receive requests from the Chinese embassy to help them with the coordination process one or two times a week. We want local authorities to focus on these illegal guides and related issues before it is too late," Chanapan said. A random check must be performed, especially in big cities, he said. Although only a small number of tour services are disreputable, the problem must be fixed.
"If something serious happens to a visitor like the [rape] case in Koh Samui, it has a wide impact on the whole country. Tourists are very sensitive to any bad news. Today Chinese tourists are still happy to come to Thailand, so we should maintain and improve our quality of service at the same time," he said.
In addition, the government will also promote more destinations or offer new creative packages to help tour agents lure more Chinese visitors.
"We have been promoting Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket to Chinese tourists for more than 30 years. Why not add other attractive destinations like Hua Hin, Khao Yai or Suphan Buri?" he said.
Without something fresh, sooner or later the numbers of Chinese tourists might drop. He cited the decline in the number of Taiwanese tourists as an example. It is estimated that tourist arrivals from Taiwan dropped 16% in 2012 from 432,535 the year before. In addition to the unstable economy, one of the reasons was that there was nothing new on offer, just the same old golf, spa and honeymoon packages.
"Tourism must offer something new, reliable and good quality. We hope local authorities will help us pay attention to the quality of services as prevention is better than cure," he said.
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- Writer: Karnjana Karnjanatawe