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Pai Bids To Win Back Tourists

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PAI: -- Tourism operators in Pai district are working overtime to return life to their highlands town, devastated by floods in July. Resorts and their landscapes are under repair, returning them to their former natural beauty and plans are underway to attract Thai and foreign travellers back in the coming tourist season.

The tropical depression deluged Pai for three days, the hardest it has been hit in 30 years, causing 14 landslides on Jik Jong mountain which divides Pai and Pang Ma Pha districts.

The heavy flooding uprooted trees, swept away logs and gouged the soil from surrounding communities.

Eleven people were killed and damage to houses, temples, schools and the tourist industry topped 500 million baht.

The disaster reminded people that nature is the real master.

The manager of Bulan Buri resort, Kaew, said the flood had dramatically changed its development plan for the future. The resort had opened barely a year prior to the floods. There are fewer than 10 riverside rooms each charging 15,000 baht a day.

The extension wing as well as the swimming pool would be raised off the ground and moved farther away from the river bank.

''We have to halve the number of rooms we plan to build because the impact of the disaster made us think harder,'' Kaew said.

Although the overflowing of the Pai river had been anticipated, the disaster was beyond her imagination. The investment plan needed to be adjusted to better prepare the resort for the tourist season, set to begin this week.

Jaeng, owner of the 17-room Pai River Corner, said three rooms were swept away by the flood waters and the rest almost completely destroyed. She expects repairs to cost at least two million baht.

The resort offers camping-style accommodation with modern facilities, and was built to serve tourists in the peak season.

''We chose tents because they can be moved to higher ground quickly when the water rises,'' she said.

Tow, owner of Pai River Lodge with 10 bamboo huts, said the flood left him in dire financial straits. He lost more than half his huts and now any plan to extend his property was only a dream due to the lack of money.

Owner of Tingtong Restaurant, who declined to be named, said he had escaped from tsunami-ravaged Phi Phi island and moved to Pai with whatever was left of his life savings to start business anew. He never thought that nature would beat him so savagely a second time.

The wreckage of tables, chairs and other equipment in his restaurant still lays strewn about.

''Nature finds a way of knocking us out,'' he said.

Nonetheless, many are putting up a fight. They are still waiting for the government's promised assistance in the form of low-interest loans.

And yet the tourists appear undeterred. Room reservations are beginning to pick up, although there are worries the resort may not be restored in time for the coming high tourist season.

The Association of Pai Tourism Operators is preparing activities to attract tourists to this tranquil town. One promotion supported by local restaurants, guest houses, hotels, shops and tour operators has an environmental message and will be launched early next month.

''The highlight will be flood-swept logs carved by at least 10 famous artists. We'll place them at tourist spots in Mae Hong Son to raise people's awareness about environmental conservation,'' said Pimlapas Sinwongchai, a key organiser and owner of Pai river mountain resort.

Activities include a walking street, a concert festival, and traditional performing arts by hilltribe people. The aim is for private tour operators to sustain Pai's tourism boom while keeping dependence on the government to a minimum.

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Tourism boom, speculation push price up to a million baht per rai

PAI: -- A boom in tourism in the tranquil district of Pai in the northern province of Mae Hong Son has led to a surge in demand for land.

Located about 70km from the centre of the province, Pai boasts lush mountainous forests, pristine rivers and rice fields.

Its total population is about 10,000, most of them ethnic Tai Yai living in hilly areas.

But the face of the area is quickly changing amid the tourism boom. Tourists, predominantly made up of foreign backpackers, arrive in search of a peaceful long-stay holiday of anything from a week to a year. Some have even fallen in love with locals and settled down in the area.

News of the area's beauty spread, which fuelled a rush by entrepreneurs to invest in accommodation, restaurants and tour businesses. This has boosted demand for land over the last two years and now there are more than 200 hotels, resorts, guest houses and shops in the area.

''Land along the Pai river has changed hands at least two or three times over a short period of time. The price is now at least a million baht per rai,'' said one developer, who admitted that some land being purchased only had sor khor 1 papers, which meant that strictly speaking it could not be sold.

Land encroachment is said to be increasingly rife.

Parcels of land covering hundreds of rai have been snapped up by locals and are then sold on at a profit to groups of investors who had steered their interest away from the provinces in the South devastated by last year's tsunami. Several politicians and celebrities from Bangkok, as well as a number of foreigners had also chosen Pai as a location for their retreats.

Prior to the approval last year of a budget for the development of Pai airport to accommodate 10-20-seater aircraft, there was a rush to buy land as big business groups planned for the construction of hotels and golf courses. Areas where land was sought after included Ban Na Jarong, Ban Na Terng Nai and Ban Na Terng Nok. There are also a few high-end resorts operated by five-star hotel groups.

Good news for speculators was the granting of a budget for the improvement of road routes 108 and 1095, running between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.

''The prime minister visited Pai market in June before attending a mobile cabinet meeting in Phayao. The rush to buy land has now spread throughout the area,'' said one tourist operator in Pai.

Gate Sriboontha, a land agent in Ban Na Jarong said many business groups had contacted him expressing an interest in buying large plots of land. Villagers continued to sell the agents land at between 10,000 baht and 100,000 baht per rai. Most of the land was currently rice fields or hillside plots with nor sor 3 land documents.

As tens of thousands of foreign tourists flock to Pai, residents are making adjustments to the influx of visitors. Many children have learned ways of welcoming the foreign visitors and learn new English words from the visitors, some of whom have volunteered as tutors in their schools.

Many villagers have also moved into the home-stay business, including those in Ban Mae Yen.

''Serious crime is rare here,''said one Pai police officer. He attributed the low crime rate to a police bicycle-patrol team, tourist service centres and village volunteers, who look after tourists.

However, the onset of heavy floods recently has also reminded locals that they need to plan better for the future.

''We need a local curriculum to educate our young people about conservation of forests and natural resources to save them from future disasters of such magnitude,''said Somporn Chavarit, former principal of Hong Son Suksa School and president of the Pai Tourism Association. He said talks were continuing to take place between the education and tourism sectors on matters regarding urgent reconstruction following the floods.

Mae Hong Son Governor Direk Konkleeb blamed slash and burn farming methods as being one of the indirect causes of the flooding. The floods in July were also worse due to the emergence of new communities and construction work which had led to waterways becoming blocked.

''We'll issue the regulations to control fires in forests. Wildfire watch teams would be set up to monitor the situation. Planning would also be reviewed to ban illegal construction,'' he said. In 2004 there were 565 forest fires in Mae Hong Son, which resulted in the cancellation of 20 flights into the province.

--Bangkok Post 2005-10-24

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