Adventure tourism encroaching on protected forests

SEVEN adventure tourism operations around Chiang Mai have been closed down by Thai officials after investigators found evidence of encroachment on protected national park land.

Adventure tourism has become increasingly popular with Chinese and Western tourists who visit Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, as travellers seek unusual and exciting holiday experiences which they can share on social media. Demand for ziplining, which is among the most popular adventure experiences, has grown significantly, particularly with the influx of Chinese tour groups which have fuelled Chiang Mai’s tourism boom. It is estimated that round 300,000 visitors use ziplines in Chiang Mai each year, over half of whom are Chinese.

Adventure tourism is also a very profitable business, with ziplines costing each tourist anything from US$75 to US$150, tour operators are able to take in thousands of dollars each day. Recognising a lucrative opportunity, zipline businesses have sprung up in the mountains and forests all around Chiang Mai. Unfortunately,  lax regulations and controls had enabled some of these organisations to set up, and profit, illegally.

In this recent crackdown on forest encroachment, the Special Operation Unit from the Royal Forest Department investigated twelve zipline companies: Flight of the Gibbon, Skyline Adventure, Dragon Flight Chiang Mai Zipline, Jungle Flight Chiang Mai, The Giant Chiang Mai, Thai Jungle, Flying Squirrels Chiang Mai, Monjam Zipline, Tarzan Canopy, Zipline Chiang Mai, Kaeng Kued Elephant Camp and Skytrack.

Seven of the zipline businesses were found to be encroaching on protected forests and are accused of operating without land deeds. Three of the illegal zipline operations have already been demolished. According to the director-general of the Royal Forest Department, the oldest zipline operation in Chiang Mai, Flight of the Gibbon, was found to have expanded their operations beyond the area indicated on their land deeds. Officials have accused the company of expanding their land by an extra 34 rai.

The Special Operation Unit also investigated 18 hotels and resorts in Mae Tha Chang and Mae Kanin National Parks, which were suspected of illegally operating on protected forest land.

Luxury homes owned by foreigners in the same national parks were found to have been built illegally. The foreign owners are now appealing to the director-general of the Royal Forest Department, claiming they were sold the land under false pretences and that they were never informed that the land, which they thought they had bought, was on a protected national park.

According to the Tourism Police Bureau acting deputy commissioner Surachate Hakparn and the Forestry chief Cholathit Suratwadee, these recent inspections were part of a joint operation which has been investigating over 100 cases of encroachment in Chiang Mai.

The investigations into forest encroachment across Chiang Mai province also raise questions over corruption among local officials. It is difficult to believe that eighteen resorts, a hillside of luxury homes and eight zipline operations, some which had access to public utilities, sprung up in the hills around Chiang Mai without the knowledge of local authorities. It would have been impossible for this much construction to take place in a national park without “permission” from someone. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing investigations will uncover any evidence of corruption.

This is not the first time that adventure tourism operations around Chiang Mai have been closed down by authorities, although the reason for previously closures was linked to fatalities,  serious accidents and inadequate safety standards.

There have been a few high profile fatalities on ziplines in Chiang Mai over the past few years, including, the deaths of a man and woman who jumped off a 1,300ft platform without being secured,  the death of a Chinese women at the Flying Squirrel zipline (initially, the zipline operator claimed that the victim died of shock but doctors later confirmed she broke her neck), and the death of 44 year old Suxongtao, from China, which according Skyline Adventure “was tourist’s fault”.

Of equal concern is the number of serious injuries, which can often cost families thousands of dollars in medical fees, There are no publicly available figures for the exact number of injuries sustained by tourists on ziplines in Chiang Mai because these injuries go largely unreported. According to a local news website, Chiang Mai City Life,  most incidents are not reported to the press because of payments, and pressure, from the tour operators. Citylife also suggests that fatalities at adventure tourism resorts around Chiang Mai have gone unreported.

Questions over the safety of Chiang Mai’s ziplines led the Tourism and Sports Ministry to introduce new laws to regulate adventure tourism operations and improve safety standards. Updated regulations include improved brake systems, extra safety slings, adjusting the degree of incline to ensure ziplines are not too steep, covering trees with impact absorbent cushions,  and improving safety protocols for staff.

While these new regulations sound like an important step towards improved safety standards, it is unclear how stringently they will be enforced. Considering that ziplines in the US suffer from inadequate safety inspections, it is likely that Thai officials will also struggle to ensure all of the adventure tourism businesses in Chiang Mai’s forests run according to the rule of law.

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