Last month I spoke to you about the great importance of sustainable development in Thailand, which has been guided by the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy that His Majesty the Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej conceived. The King’s aspiration for Thailand was to develop a more resilient and sustainable economic model (partially based on Buddhist philosophy) that would not only lift his people out of poverty, but also enable them to meet the challenges of globalisation.

This month I thought to expand upon the landscape we face as a travel company and the importance of supporting development for local communities. The main issue we address in our niche market of the tourism community is poor income distribution in rural communities of Thailand. Hill Tribe communities in the North of Thailand, comprising some 1.5 million people- are largely disenfranchised from Thai culture and struggle to integrate into Thai society as a result of having their own distinct language, heritage, and having been born from generations of statelessness. These communities struggle to earn a sufficient living wage and remain above the poverty line.

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This is where community-based tourism serves an important economic function, and is an outlet I believe will be essential in preserving the cultural practices, traditions, and sense of community of tribal groups in the face of globalization, building sustainable livelihoods for local communities, and in the delivery of an authentic, unique travel experiences to visitors.

However- I want to make an important distinction between two types of “community-based tourism” in Thailand because I believe there is a lack of understanding and commitment to sustainable tourism, despite its emergence and growth as an alternative to mainstream tourism.

A popular tour in the region affected by mass tourism is a visit to the tribes, one of the most popular being the Karen Long Neck Villages.  An estimated 40,000 tourists per year pay between $8-16 USD to stop by these villages to gaze upon the women’s unusual appearance and take pictures. Unfortunately, the entry fee is rarely dispensed to the villagers directly. Instead, the long neck woman has to sell trinkets, crafts, and photo-ops to make a living, essentially working in a live-in gift shop.

While these tours are definitely exciting, unique experience, they’re also ultimately, in my opinion, a trip to a human zoo (for lack of a better term). With few opportunities to engage with members of the local village or spend money in the community, these excursions fail to utilize tourism for development, leaving no added benefits for the surrounding community. The goal of tourism shouldn’t be taking pictures of exotic things to brag about back home. Travel is about forging relationships and making connections with people from different cultures. Create a symbiotic relationship with locals by reaching out to find common ground with the people you met, instead of treating them as spectacles to exploit.

 

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Far from “using” tribespeople to attract tourists,  hill tribe tourism should not feel intrusive or exploitative- but should rather “use” tourists to bring income to remote areas- precisely what Lanjia Lodge in Chiang Rai and Lisu Lodge near Chiang Mai strive to do.

Since their inception, both Lodges have been committed to community-based travel, structuring their operations and activities around bringing monetary benefits and work opportunities to locals while also providing unique and authentic experiences for visitors. It’s an interest and a unique way to think about travel, I think.

Local people are directly involved in the lodges- as partners and planners on a profit-sharing basis, and as employees on above-average wages. The Lodges’ provide training and employment to local residents as hotel workers, as well as singers, dancers, and musicians performing in cultural shows. Workers dress traditionally, and the villagers make handicrafts to sell to guests. Food and ingredients are also sourced from local suppliers, and guests are able to arrange visits to homes of the villagers with prior consultation from the tribe leaders. Tourism at the Lisu community has been an important factor in preserving Lisu heritage but most importantly has been a powerful economic tool to bring much-needed income into the surrounding communities and improve local livelihoods.

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Community-based tourism represents both a “type” of tourism as well as an ethos. As new generations of travelers worldwide seek more meaningful experiences in their leisure time, I believe it’s our duty as well-informed travellers to support meaningful community-based tourism and help to grow this market :)

 

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