The Impact of Tourism on Indigenous Communities in Thailand

... and how community based tourism can help

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The rise of tourism has had, and continues to have, an undeniable impact on our world. As the citizens of developed nations have gained increased spending power, they have ventured further and further off the beaten track, bringing their dollars and their expectations with them.

While it’s wonderful to be able to experience new sights, learn about new cultures and explore new places, what’s most important is to be conscious of the effect we have on the places we visit. Wherever we go, we leave something behind: our economic impact, our environmental footprint, our words, our attitudes, our ideas – and the weight of our impact has a proportional relationship to the size and economical health of each community we visit.

This isn’t always negative. Thoughtful, sustainable eco-tourism can be advantageous for both tourist and community, creating a mutually beneficial partnership wherein the community thrives and develops thanks to the travelers’ investment. However, in the small, more vulnerable indigenous communities such as those here in Chiang Mai and throughout Northern Thailand, there is good reason for travelers to be extremely careful in their approach.

How Responsible Tourism Can Benefit Indigenous Peoples

Employment opportunities in small, remote communities are sparse, meaning that many indigenous people are obliged to travel to cities to find work. Without education or skills they can endue in exploitative situations. Tourism brings jobs, which allow local people to live and work in their home villages and keep their families together. Often, the jobs that tourism demands – hosting homestays, selling wares or guiding treks – can be fitted around the important work of farming, which means indigenous people can bring in extra income while continuing to support their families and keep their traditional ways.

Tourism can also foster value in cultural traditions, ensuring that indigenous customs, clothing, and beliefs are maintained and continue to strengthen and evolve. The United Nations Environment Programme states that tourism can “boost the preservation and transmission of cultural and historical traditions,” which often encourages “the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, the protection of local heritage, and a renaissance of indigenous cultures, cultural arts and crafts.” In countries like Thailand, where indigenous culture is not valued by the dominant ethnic majority, tourists’ enjoyment and celebration of it can, in fact, be empowering.

When tourism arrives in a new area, it often brings with it new infrastructure and new investment. Development can improve health and travel provisions, as well as prompt an influx of higher quality commodities. But perhaps tourism’s most important advantage is that it brings opportunities for increased understanding between people groups: the cultural exchange that can happen between people of very different backgrounds and situations has the potential to be enlightening on both sides. Preconceived notions and prejudices can be dispelled and cultural differences can be enjoyed and celebrated.

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The Potential Negative Impacts of Tourism

 

There is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation [and] belligerency -Edward Said, Orientalism

Here in Thailand the tourism sector, at its worst, is accountable for numerous and harmful human rights abuses. Thailand is well known for its vast and flourishing sex trade and tourism plays into this neatly: the number of ‘sex tourists’ continues to grow year by year, despite the government’s apparent attempts to quash this toxic industry. Unsurprisingly, victims of sex trafficking are usually the young daughters of poverty-stricken indigenous communities.

 

Aside from this huge problem, tourism can be damaging in other significant ways. The travel industry is often deeply voyeuristic in the way it views indigenous cultures. In Chiang Mai, tourists’ hunger for ‘authentic’ experiences of traditional culture can imprison indigenous societies in a stagnant state, where they feel forced to reconstruct their ethnicity as palatably and photogenically as possible to their visitors. This often results in a commodification of cultural markers, so that religious practices, cultural observances and festivals are sanitized or embellished to attract and impress tourists. Before long, commodification can lead to a lack of respect for traditional symbols and practices, and to the fragmentation of the community’s values.

Unchecked, profit-driven tourism can also have harmful physical effects on communities that are already vulnerable to government land grabs. Investors’ greed spurs unethical practices that can even include human rights abuses such as loss of land or access to resources, loss of traditional livelihoods, and exploitatively low pay for industry employees. In this way, ironically, communities looking to profit from tourism can eventually find themselves crippled, trapped and enslaved by it.

Chai Lai Sisters’ Approach

The most important principle for the women who run Chai Lai Sisters is that of self-determination. They believe that it is important to for the community itself to maintain control over the way tourism impacts their homes, and the way their life is viewed and experienced; as members of that community, the young women who spearhead the agency have the power and insight to do so. They want to ensure that their people have the freedom to define their own identities, and to evolve their way of life in ways that benefit them.

 

Karen Woman and elephant

Cultural survival is founded on self-determination: the ability to determine one’s own future on one’s own land.- -Cultural Survival Magazine

They want to share their culture without demeaning or diluting it, to allow travellers to enjoy the landscape without ruining it, and to make sure that the voices of the community are heard at all times. To this end, the girls have even written a mini guide for you on how to be polite and avoid faux pas while you are spending time in a Karen village.

Another key practical focus of the Chai Lai Sisters group is to provide employment for women. This, they have seen again and again, boosts the local economy by ensuring that income from tourism is fed back into families. It also lessens the risk of trafficking by giving women more agency and independence, so reducing the likelihood of them looking to find employment through suspect agencies. Nukul, one of the Chai Lai Sisters’ founders, articulates these aims beautifully:

We are happy to have tourists come and enjoy our way of life. This can happen in an ethical way with respect and dignity for our community. We want girls to have good jobs they can depend on. We want them to have confidence that they can succeed and take care of themselves and help others.
— Nukul

By traveling with us you can be our partner in preserving Karen culture and enjoy learning their forest wisdom.