Phu Kradueng is not just an ordinary mountain in a national park with an eponymous name. Situated in the country's central north, it occupies a special place in Thai society, and for many nature lovers, it's also a challenge that tests their physical and mental toughness by walking uphill to reach its summit.
As such, attempts over the past two decades to build a cable car have faced fierce resistance.
So, it is unsurprising that the latest attempt by the Srettha government has attracted opposition.
Last week, the government approved 28 million baht to study its potential and design a cable car, something that Lertsak Watthanachaikul, a Pheu Thai Party MP for Loei, and local business communities in the province, support.
The cable car project makes business sense for them as it will bring in much-needed visitors to the relatively quiet province instead of just nature lovers and hikers.
As part of that, the project’s supporters argue that a cable car provides an opportunity for the elderly and those who do not want to do the hike to reach the summit.
They also say the cable car would help transport people who may get ill or injured, carry goods, and even aid officials in managing waste better.
Pheu Thai Party has always supported the cable car project, which was initiated by Thaksin Shinawatra when he was prime minister under the Thai Rak Thai party two decades ago. Sometime later, Yingluck Shinawatra’s government also tried to relaunch it.
While it is certain that the Srettha government and the party’s MPs will try to push the cable car as a tourism magnet, certain questions need to be asked — especially what the government’s long-term vision for Phu Kradueng is.
For now, the government’s policies for Phu Kradueng are contradictory.
On the one hand, the government says it needs the cable car project to attract more visitors; on the other hand, the Ministry of Environment is trying to control the number of visitors to national parks because their carrying capacity cannot cope with huge amounts of visitors.
Both ideas do not seem to go together.
The government needs to look at the current situation at Phu Kradueng. In the past, almost 5,000 people visited the mountain daily during peak times. This year, the environment ministry is limiting the amount of visitors to 2,000 at such times.
Estimated to cost 800 million baht, the cable project is expected to increase the number of tourists to 10,000-20,000 per day.
If the cable car gets built, more people — especially the elderly and families — will have the chance to visit Phu Kradueng. And with more visitors, the surrounding area will become a new tourist zone, spurring hotels, food businesses, or even real estate development.
If the project succeeds, it will encourage more cable car projects in the country.
As a national park, 217,576 rai of Phu Kradueng is a sanctuary for wildlife and unspoilt forests.
What makes this national park so well-preserved and famous is that it is hard to access. Enabling more visitors, it would be naive to think the cable car project will not affect the park’s conservation efforts.
Thai society should know what they are asking for in this project and its ramifications on how it will impact the park. With Mother Nature, it might be wishful thinking that we can have it both ways.