Catalyzing sustainable tourism: The case of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Case Summary: 

Chiang Mai is one of the fastest growing cities in Thailand with an economy heavily tied to tourism. As the city grew increases in air and water pollution posed significant threats to health and the growing tourism industry there. Thailand introduced the non-motorized transport system that both reduced emissions and encouraged job opportunities for the urban poor.

Chiang Mai is the capital city of the Chiang Mai province. In 2012 35% of its GDP came from tourism making tourism one of its largest, and fastest growing, industries. Besides tourism Chang Mai also experienced growth in its education, aviation, and medical industry sectors. During its growth, the city has recognized that its infrastructure was no longer sufficient to accommodate its growth and promoted the use of highly polluting transportation means.

To reduce infrastructure stress, decrease pollution, increase the accessibility to tourists, and provide job opportunities the city of Chiang Mai implemented the “non-motor transport” system (NMT). This system provided resources to provide transportation options including walking, cycling, and human-powered taxis called rickshaws. This policy has been deemed a win-win due to its pollution reductions and increased economic growth for the city’s residents. There were several lessons learned from this program.

  • Seek support from local organizations and government. Early in the program the administrators gained support of the mayor and local businesses including hotels, restaurants, and travel agents. This support helped provided data on tourism to the program and provided avenues for feedback and collaboration.
  • Performing analysis to estimate the program’s impact. Original analysis estimated that approximately 500,000 to 1,500,000 miles travelled annually could be replaced by NMT options. These numbers served as a goal and guided program decisions.
  • Develop solutions focused more on the impact of the local citizens rather than implementing a technology such as trains or busses. By focusing on a win-win strategy the goal of the plan was to both alleviate poverty while developing low-carbon transportation options.
  • Keeping project goals in line with the city’s long-term planning. By integrating the goals of the program into the livability of the city the support for the plan and parameters of the plan changed.
  • Utilizing experience from previous programs. The NMT program was built on previous environmental focused programs. The experience from previous programs helped to build policy and seek international finance for program goals.

This program was deemed successful because of its outcomes which included spin-off programs targeting different sources of pollution, and economic growth in the city.

East Asia and Pacific
Action Area 
Planning and Implementation Activity 
Developing Strategies and Plans, Developing and Implementing Policies and Measures, Governance and Stakeholder Engagement, Linking with the Sustainable Development Goals, Low Emission Development Strategies, Long-Term Strategies
Sectors and Themes 
Poverty, Transport
Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)
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