Thailand: Chiang Mai
This colorful town is taking on the trappings of a typical city with air pollution, congestion, vice, and shoddy new buildings. Out of town, you'll find "rain forest and stunning karst landscape scenery," which can be toured with "ecofriendly" outfitters. "Cultural conservation is high," but a plan to manage tourism is desperately needed.
Here is a representative sampling of additional anonymous comments from the panelists. They are not necessarily the views of the National Geographic Society:
"A disaster in the offing. Too many people, and little interest in preservation. I see it as one of the underperforming destinations in Southeast Asia."
"Stunning natural surroundings, but the destination is plagued by aggressive tourism operators and mass-tourism-oriented product offerings."
"Very polluted city from industry and the exhaust fumes that get trapped in the valley. Rate of development is extremely worrying, as no pollution controls are in place. Social/cultural integrity is fine; however, this won't remain so with the severe pollution."
"Chiang Mai was a relief to me after arriving in Bangkok. I was able to learn more about the culture, food, and local customs there. I enjoyed the night markets."
"Local involvement and participation in cultural conservation is high. The lifestyles of many urban locals are westernized, but people in rural areas still live simply. Wide spectrum of tourism activities and resources, from culture to nature. Tourism well-integrated with nature conservation in forest areas and places such as elephant training centers and botanic gardens."
"The immediate foothills surrounding Chiang Mai and its associated villages suffer from considerable over-use by trekking companies, leading to both cultural erosion and considerable damage to the environment. Local companies and a majority of incoming tourists are still in the "cheapest is best" backpacker economy, and the profit margins are often too small to allow environmental initiatives, such as switching to slightly more expensive but less damaging packaging for packed lunches. Away from the immediate area of Chiang Mai town there still remain vast areas of primary rain forest, draped between stunning karst-limestone scenery. There are more ecofriendly companies offering low-impact tours now—and visitors willing to pay—so there is hope!"
"With inspiring culture, beautiful nature, and thousands of intelligent, creative Thai citizens, Chiang Mai has the potential to be a Green City on a global level. It could become a beacon for how to manage a "southern" city to optimize environmental, economic, and socio-cultural benefits for city dwellers and semi-subsistence ethnic groups that live in the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, the city is currently a beacon for very cheap souvenirs and very cheap "hilltribe" treks, which pay local people next to nothing and often create serious impacts on their cultures and their access to essential resources."