CHIANG RAI, 15 January 2018: Three universities and a tourism office in far north Thailand are leading a mission to brand tourism and build cooperation with neighbouring countries.

Chiang Rai’s provincial tourism office is funding the series of seminars, while the universities are providing content and research.

Professors in business and tourism studies from Mae Fah Luang University, Rajabhat University and the University of Phayao contributed research papers at two seminars so far and a third wrap-up seminar for private and public sector tourism players is scheduled for this April.

So far, the professors have coined the phrase “the five Chiangs” to identify the strategic cities in North Thailand, Myanmar Laos and China that can play a role in tourism growth.

Chiang means simply cities and for international travellers the significance is probably not very relevant, as some of the five Chiangs have long since dropped the title. Today’s travellers know them by entirely different names.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the exceptions, two prosperous cities that were former capitals of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. They shaped a culture that remains prevalent in North Thailand.

In Laos, Myanmar and Yunnan province in China equally important cities – Keng Tung (Chiang Tung) in Shan State Myanmar, Jinghong (Chiang Rung) in Yunnan, China and Luang Prabang (Chiang Thong) – were also citadels of a flourishing Lanna kingdom. But do they constitute a brand, a benchmark to draw today’s savvy social media connected travellers to a region spanning four-countries? Probably not, but at this stage the universities are looking at a more achievable goal of uniting the tourism sectors of the four countries that include China’s Yunnan province hoping they can work together and assemble building bricks to create a brand that flies.

They take the lead from the Golden Triangle, once a notorious trans-border alliance of drug runners. Today, it is famous for its tourism attractions. That’s a brand of sorts. The challenge is to broaden the three-country Golden Triangle to include China’s Yunnan province in order to create a cooperative tourism alliance that will drive tourism in the four country region of the five Chiangs.

Kitti Tissakul, head of Chiang Rai’s tourism federation, recommends stakeholders create a one-stop shop, or a unit, that would coordinate the flow of tourism between the four countries from a base in Chiang Rai. The unit would be responsible for processing a visa to facilitate user-friendly travel between the four countries, particularly one including China. A tall order that would require considerable lengthy talks with China to become a reality. The other three countries, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (eVisa), are closer to reaching a consensus on a single visa option.

It would certainly smooth the rough spots, tackle obstacles that make travel difficult. Ideally, traveller should be able to travel visa-free in the “five Chiang region” or at least with a simple single visa for the four countries.

Airlines should consider linking Luang Prabang with Chiang Rai, Mandalay and Jinghong in Yunann province. Direct flights to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Jinghong and Luang Prabang from gateway airports Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore need to be promoted and incentives provided to encourage airlines to pioneer new routes. It should start by linking Luang Prabang with Chiang Rai and Jinghong with Chiang Mai. Once the direct flights are in place and eVisa or visa-free travel are available, tourism to the “five Chiangs” will prosper.

That’s the starting line objective. To reach the starting line the region has to partner with a regional airlines that have a vision and business skills to open up travel to a fascinating region, direct from regional gateway airports such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Both Singapore and Malaysia are in the top 10 supply markets for Thailand and its neighbours.

Airlines operating out of Bangkok are happy with the status quotes that forces travellers living in other cities in Thailand, or cities in the region, to buy two sector fares to reach secondary destinations such as Chiang Rai. It has to change if Mekong Region travel is to prosper. Is there a regional airline out there that thinks out of the box and has a pioneering spirit? It used to be Bangkok Airways. Today, it might be Jetstar Asia, Vietjet, Silk Air, or the AirAsia Group that will take the lead?