How to be a responsible traveller in Thailand

by Rebecca Townsend / 06 January, 2018

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Tourists ride an elephant at Nongnooch Gardens in Pattaya, Thailand. Photo / Getty Images

Thailand's known as the Land of Smiles, but tourism is often just feeding big operators instead of locals. Here's how to be a responsible traveller in Thailand.

Thailand drew in a record 32.6 million foreign tourists in 2016 – nearly 10 times the number of visitors to New Zealand. The Southeast Asian country is a growing tourist destination for New Zealanders, with more than 47,000 New Zealand residents travelling there in the year to September 2017 – most of them holiday-makers.

And even more New Zealanders are likely to travel to Thailand now that Thai Airways has launched daily flights for its Auckland-Bangkok service, up from five times a week, and introduced a Boeing Dreamliner service.

While tourism is important to Thailand’s economy, increasing visitor numbers also generate concerns about infrastructure, sustainability and environmental impacts.

Bangkok-based Somsak (Pai) Boonkam co-founded social enterprise Local Alike to help local communities and businesses manage tourism for positive benefit.  

For Pai, one of the major challenges is how tourism contributes to income inequality.

“Thailand is the biggest destination in Southeast Asia. We have generated a lot [of profit] but the income distribution is not that great. The money is just distributed among big tour operators and hotel chains. Less than 10 percent of money goes to local villages. I was born in the village myself, so I know the problem first-hand.”

One of the issues Local Alike tackles is the usual tendency for tourists not to engage with members of local communities. “[Tourists] go and take photos but don’t really spend time or money in that community,” Pai says. “The tour operator might bring you to the temple, but there is no benefit to the community surrounding it.

“In my experience, [locals] are being treated as a human zoo. Travellers just walk into their village with the tour operators and take their photos without their permission."

Community-based travel aims to bring more benefits to locals, but also manage the relationship between locals and tourists.

Local Alike not only operates tours, but also works with communities on issues like capacity and development.

“Villagers use [community-based tourism] as a second source of income," says Pai. "Coming in a group is a better way for local villages to manage tourism. You cannot just walk in the village and expect to see everything."

Five percent of Local Alike’s profits and 10 percent of local revenue are pooled into a community development fund to support projects such as waste management, education and environment initiatives.

Thailand's beauty sees tourists flocking to its beaches, but what harm is tourism doing to local communities? Photo / Getty Images

“We’ve been working with [one village] for six years. They had been affected by mass tourism. Two thousand travellers visited the village every year, but the village got nothing. Not even a dollar or pennies. The only thing they tried to make money from was selling necklaces from the hill tribe," says Pai.

“It’s been six years now and they have a homestay in the village. They also built the museum, the Akha museum, from the tourism funds. Now they can negotiate with the tour operator who brings those 2000 travellers, and the tour operator pays to get into the museum. They can use the money for good things, like waste management and for their children. They also plant more tea in the village.

"This is what we mean by using tourism for development. Not just seeing tourism as an economic tool, but really make sure you spend money on other things to improve their livelihood."

Riding elephants has traditionally been a popular tourist activity in Thailand, but Pai says interest from European and American tourists has waned as they have recognised the harm it causes the animals.

“So that stopped some tour operators from doing that, but other operators are still doing it because Chinese travellers still want to do that.

“But riding elephants is something that as a traveller you shouldn’t do. Now, tour operators have changed their offerings from riding an elephant to taking a shower or bathing with an elephant. For some tour operators, it’s 10 times a day – that’s also doing harm to elephants."

His advice is that tourists considering such activities ask how many times a day the elephants are interacting with groups. 

Wellington’s Eliza Raymond is co-founder of social enterprise GOOD Travel, which creates itineraries for Thailand and four other Asian countries, as well as others internationally. She says the impact of the tourism sector is huge.

“One in 11 people around the world are employed in tourism, and it’s generating a huge amount of income. Around 10 percent of global GDP is through tourism. Tourism is growing at about 4 percent per year. It really matters, and the way that people travel really matters.”

Organisations like GOOD Travel are adopting ethical and community-based approaches to address concerns such as how tourists engage with locals.

Raymond says sometimes it takes just a change in attitude. “We often say, well what would you do at home? Would you go up on the street to a random kid and ask to take their photograph? Normally you wouldn’t.”

Top tips for New Zealand travellers heading to Thailand

  • Do your research. Do tour operators or accommodation providers have information available on what they do to manage the impacts of tourism? 
  • Be respectful of local people. Treat them as you would others at home. Ask before you take photographs.
  • Thailand struggles with carrying capacities, resulting in degradation in the environment. Be conscious that the destinations you choose are not oversubscribed.
  • Beware of elephant experiences and remember they are wild animals. Elephants often go through painful domestication in order to be trained for tourists. Even with water-based experiences, they are often overworked.
  • ChildSafe Movement advises against giving money to children on the street or engaging in orphanage tourism. In doing so, you create the demand that keeps children on the street or in orphanages, even if they have parents and homes. If you want to help children in need, check out ChildSafe Movement’s “7 tips for travellers.  

Asia Media Centre 

Author: Rebecca Townsend
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