BANGKOK — Despite their proliferation in recent years, there is little oversight and no regulation of zipline attractions in Chiang Mai province, officials admit, and nearly all of such operations are suspected of encroaching on public land.
After a second tourist in three months died Sunday on one of the increasingly popular attractions, Khaosod English found local authorities there lack clear measures regulating the zipline industry, and not one operator contacted could confirm possessing relevant licenses.
Among officials who admit to these flaws is Chiang Mai Gov. Pawin Chamniprasart, who announced Wednesday he had called a meeting of zipline operators and related authorities to come up with safety standards for the business.
There are currently no specific safety requirements for zipline operations, Pawin said.
“Right now, we don’t have a central standard in terms of structural engineering,” he said in regards to their construction. “Therefore, operators must rely on basic engineering standards for the time being.”
The statement was echoed by Montri Piyakul, head of Chiang Mai’s tourism and sports department. “There is no central standard for ziplines,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Zipline and other jungle-themed adventure activities have grown in popularity, especially among foreign tourists, in recent years. There are now at least 14 zipline stations in Chiang Mai, according to local officials.
However, the boom in ziplines is also stalked by occasional reports of death and injury, which authorities have determined were caused by negligence or shoddy safety standards.
On June 29, a Chinese tourist fell to her death at Skyline Adventure Zipline company. Police said her safety lock malfunctioned, citing witnesses’ testimony, though the company disputed the account.
Two weeks later – on July 14 – a Chinese woman and American woman collided head-on while ziplining at what police described as a popular outfit in Mae Kam Phong, an area in Chiang Mai’s Huai Kaew district. The name of the company was not released by authorities.
The latest fatal incident took place Sunday in the Mae Rim district at Flying Squirrels company, where staff reportedly placed two tourists on a single zipline ride, departing from the customary practice of one tourist per ride.
A reporter films one of the ziplines Tuesday at the Flying Squirrels attraction in Chiang Mai's Mae Rim district.
Police said the weight load caused the device to accelerate to a speed so fast that one of the tourists, 32-year-old Wang Qi of China, broke her neck and died. The two staff responsible for the zipline ride have been charged with negligence resulting in death. The company’s owners have not been charged, but have said they will pay compensation to the family.
Zigging and Zagging
Between Thursday and today, Khaosod English reached out to nine of the 14 operators for which contact information could be found.
One of the biggest and first companies to operate a zipline service, Flight of the Gibbons, said it would only reply to questions by email and then did not respond. Flying Squirrels, where Wang Qi died of a broken neck Sunday, said they possessed unspecified licenses and would call back with details, but did not. Someone who answered the phone at Skyline Adventure and identified herself as Kitsinee said they were in the process of obtaining licenses for the business.
Someone at Eagle Track initially said the company possessed all relevant licenses. Asked to respond to Gov. Pawin’s claim that no standards or regulations existed, he said that he was not sure and referred a reporter to director Nawapol Kantawanich, who did not return calls.
In addition to Flight of the Gibbons, calls were not returned from Zipline Chiang Mai, Dragon Flight and Jungle Flight. No one answered the phone at Sky Track.
One outfit, part of the state-owned Chiang Mai Zoo, said it possessed a license for “adventure activities” but would not provide details.
“We have two types of licenses. The first type is as a tourism business, the other is for adventure activities,” said a man answering the phone this afternoon at Tarzan Extreme, who would only identify himself as Kai. “We got these licenses from the [sub-district administrative organization.]”
He declined to state whether his company is seeking licenses under the new regulations.
“We are working to implement central safety measures, and there may be changes to licenses and registration,” he said. “What [licenses] we have may be changed; we may have to register with a new agency. It’s still unclear.”
As for safety checks, Kai said local officials and tourist police conduct site visits, and his company conducts its own safety audits.
It is unclear how many, if any, are specially trained in zipline ride safety.
Other than a lack of safety measures for zipline operations, Thailand also lacked specific laws regulating amusement parks and theme rides until April, when the Cabinet finally acted on 15-year-old legislation to pass the Ministerial Regulation on Amusement Equipment of 2015.
The regulation granted a one-year grace period for all establishments to comply with its array of requirements. Gov. Pawin said all zipline operators in Chiang Mai are required to refurbish their safety devices in accordance with the new rules by April 24, 2016.
A provincial engineering official with direct knowledge of the inspections conducted of zipline stations said there were virtually no safety regulations for such companies in Chiang Mai prior to April 2015.
“In the past, there was none. In the past, the state couldn’t do anything,” said the official, who is entrusted to enforce the newly enacted law but not authorized to speak to the media. “They have been playing [ziplines] for some years now, but there was no safety regulation.”
The official also confirmed there are no existing regulations pertaining to zipline safety, but said authorities have been instructed by Pawin to draft such measures “as soon as possible.”
As zipline operations have sprung up throughout the forested northern mountains, there are also concerns they are encroaching on public land.
Since these zipline stations are located deep in the forest, Gov. Pawin instructed operators to register their GPS coordinates to local authorities, so that they can inspect whether any of them encroach into national park land or conserved forest areas.
Chanon Kamthong, head of Chiang Mai’s Office of Natural Resources and Environment, said his agency did a “rough check” and found 13 of the 14 zipline operations are suspected of such encroachment: 11 into protected forest and two into parks. He declined to identify which companies.
“I just learned about this issue yesterday. I have just moved to this post,” Chanon said on Thursday. “After the criminal case came up, we instructed the officials to inspect this matter. We did a cursory check.”
Asked how the agency plans to determine whether the companies are squatting on public land illegally, Chanon said they would not know unless the companies came to register their GPS locations with officials.
“If they don’t come to seek permission, we won’t be able to know, because we can’t go and inspect on our own,” Chanon said, citing agency policy.
Thai law bans building structures in or utilizing plots of national park and protected forests without a permit.
But Chanon said his agency has yet to come up with clear guidelines and regulations as to which type of ziplines should be allowed in which type of forest.
During a visit yesterday to the site at Flying Squirrels where the Chinese tourist died on Sunday, Chinese Consul General Chao Xiaoliang said the incident has caused concern for some prospective tourists from the People’s Republic.
“The news was shared widely and quickly among Chinese tourists, especially on social media,” Chao said. “It has caused some Chinese tourists who like and want to travel to Chiang Mai to be worried.”
Chinese Consul General Chao Xiaoliang (left) at Oct. 15 news conference in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is particularly popular among Chinese visitors since the locale was featured in a blockbuster Chinese movie, 2012’s “Lost in Thailand.”
According to Chao, 12 Chinese tourists have died during the past year in Chiang Mai alone. He also urged Thai authorities to tighten safety measures to protect the lives of Chinese tourists who visit the province and nation.
“I want to see measures that would prevent further losses,” the consul said at yesterday’s news conference.
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