Draft Ecotourism Strategy
Chiang Rai Hill tribes
For the Hill Area Development Foundation
Ecotourism has an enormous capacity to assist the hill tribes economically and politically. It also has the capacity to overwhelm and swamp some villages. While the growth may initially seem slow, it is incremental and it needs to be managed very well. Thus this is a strategy aimed at providing a basis for future action.
The following was a background to the workshop held by Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF) in Chiang Rai on 14-15 January 2000 titled "Ecotourism A solution to increase income and conserve nature" — Community based Ecotourism: Is this the solution to economic development and conservation?
In the past , small groups of people visited the hill tribe villages. In groups of one or two, they would walk into the village, carrying their own bags. They would stay in the village for a few days and live, work and play with the villagers while they were there. The stay was an exchange between two groups; villagers would learn about other areas in Thailand or other countries, while the tourist would learn about hill tribe village life. Now tourists go to a village in large groups, arriving in minivans or buses. They stay in the village about 20 minutes, walk around the village, peer into people's houses, take photos and then leave. There is no exchange between the villagers and the tourists. The villagers rarely profit from the visit. They feel exploited and unhappy with this situation, but they can see the potential of tourists visiting their village.
With an increased awareness around the world of conservation and the environment, a new type of tourist has developed. These tourists prefer to travel to natural areas in a styles with minimum impact on the local environment. They are interested in visiting local cultures, meeting people, communing with nature and keen to share experiences. This kind of tourism is termed Ecotourism.
Hill tribe villagers and development agencies in Northern Thailand are interested in exploring the potential of ecotourism. Ecotourism is one strategy to assist in community forestry. The villagers can use this participatory approach to manage the forest both for conservation and for economic development. The new opportunities for income sources provided by ecotourism can decrease the villagers dependency on harvesting forest products.
* To explore the meaning of ecotourism.
* To provide a forum for sharing ideas on ecotourism development between villagers and development workers in Northern Thailand.
* To identify key issues regarding the implementation of ecotourism in highland areas of Northern Thailand.
* To discuss the impact of current tourism on hill tribe people.
This strategy has been developed on the basis of cataloguing the obstacles as identified during the workshop and the pre and post workshop tours of the hill tribe villages with a view to defining actions, specifically those which can be taken by the village committees and those which need to be undertaken by a coordinating organization such as the HADF to achieve the best results from ecotourism.
a. Social impacts:
Many tourists are unwittingly intrusive and violate village standards of courtesy and custom For example photographing pregnant women.
In some villages when a tourist bus pulls up people forget their proper role and rush to try to maximize sales to the visitors.
b. Economic impacts/benefits
Tourism is intrusive and has little economic benefit for the villagers as a whole.
Tour companies make profits but leave little revenue behind in the villages.
Tour companies exploit the villages and make lots of money while the villages make little.
The existing fragmentation of the approaches by the different villages:
If villages try to charge tour operators more they will take their custom to another village.
Some villages who have the resources are unable to attract clients to use them.
e. Sharing benefits equitably
In some villages where ecotourism has developed only a few families get all of the benefits.
Some villages are better placed than others to attract tourists because of closer proximity to the main tourist routes.
Craft outlets nearer the visitor car parks usually do a better trade.
Reaching international tourists to encourage them (a) to come to Thailand and (b) to include the Hill tribe villages in their itinerary is beyond the resources of any village.
Tour guides are not well informed and/or give misleading or false information which does not do justice to the hill tribe people or their culture.
There is little interpretation in the villages to tell tourists about what they are seeing or how they should behave.
Language is a problem especially in communicating with foriegn tourists.
At a Village level:
Monitoring of the community resource:All villages need to evaluate what they can offer or project to attract or interest ecotourists with a special focus on traditional culture.
Amenities and facilities:There also needs to be a review of the facilities and amenities which villages might need to install to cater for tourists such as public toilets as well as assessing the compatibility of the accommodation being offered with the acceptable standards for ecotourists with the standards which a coordinating body suggests.
a. Social impacts:
Impact assessment:Before seeking to expand their ecotourism activities all villages need to assess the potential impact which tourism may have on the village and what might be done to minimize any adverse impacts.
Setting standards:Villages need to define what they want as acceptable standards of behaviour from visitors.
Develop greater pride in culture:Hill tribe people must be encouraged to recognize how envious many people are of the strong identifiable culture of each of the different hill tribes and encouraged to take pride in their culture and nourish it if they are to continue to prosper from ecotourism. It is important that hill tribe people maintain their mystique, otherwise ecotourists will lose interest in visiting them.
Village standards of conduct:Village committees need to involve the whole community to also establish both the image which the village should be aiming to project if it is to benefit from ecotourism as well as the standard of behaviour to show to visitors.
Tour operator standards:Tour operators need to be briefed on the code of conduct ad those who don't respect it should be discouraged /stopped from entering any villages until they show the proper respect.
Size of the operation:Once it begins ecotourism can grow rapidly. There needs to be constant monitoring and counting of visitors and a strategy to stop the numbers growing beyond that limit if it looks like overwhelming any village.
b. Economic impacts/benefits
Villages need to coordinate a plan of action and set a base price to charge tour operators for services. This will require coordination from a central agency such as HADF. If all villages are consistent then tour companies will be forced to share more of the economic benefits with the villages.
Villages need to develop solidarity and a basic charge for various services. It needs to recognize only that more remote villages may need to charge less to attract tourists but otherwise all prices will be in the same minimum range.
Villages must also show solidarity when dealing with rogue tour operators who don't provide good information to their clients or who show disrespect to a village. If they are banned from one village they should not be made welcome in another.
Encourage networks and word of mouth:Villages need to realize that the best marketing comes from word of mouth recommendations and should therefore focus more closely on quality control to ensure that all visitors get the best possible experience from their visit and an appreciation.
Village identification: Villages need to appreciate that there is a great value in having a good name and ensuring that the village name is placed prominently in English as well as in Thai to ensure that the name can be remembered by tourists who have had a good experience to pass on to other tourists.
Collective promotion: The villages need to collectively market themselves through a coordinating agency such as HADF as it is important to reach the international tourists and tour companies before they come to Thailand.
Extending the time visitors spend in a village: Part of marketing must be directed to making ecotourists understand the time that it may take for them to gain an appreciation of what the village has to offer. The more mystique there is, the more curious ecotourists will be to try to spend more time in the village.
Specialist tours: There is scope for specialist tours for going in to more detail for those groups with special interest such as traditional medicine, jewelry making, weaving and embroidery, cooking and agriculture.
e. Sharing benefits equitably
Economic distribution: Villages need to recognize that the whole village has in some ways helped to create the resource which has attracted the ecotourism and therefore to work out a system to ensure that the whole village benefits from ecotourism. Village committees should determine what share the village should get from each activity from homestays to tours.
Overcoming geographic disadvantage: Those more remote villages which are not well placed to attract tourists should concentrate on those aspects of ecotourism which don't rely on the passing trade such as organizing song and dance groups which might travel to put on shows for .
f. Presentation and Interpretation of Village:
The main difference between ecotourism and ordinary tourism is the degree if information and understanding passed on to the visitors about what they see.
Code of Conduct Signs: Signs can be placed at all visitor parking areas with a community welcome to indicate an acceptable code of behaviour. Such signs should be in both Thai and at least English. Such signs should be succinct and explicit.
Parking Lots: Villages need to plan the size and siting of the visitor parking area very strategically so that it will help to direct and manage the behaviour of unguided tourists within the village. Tourists rarely venture too far from parking areas. The siting of parking areas also has relevance to the profitability of stalls for the sale of handicrafts.
Interpretation: Villages should aim to improve the presentation of information about the village so that tourists understand what they are seeing. This could be done by either placing more bi-lingual signs around the village so that people will understand what they are seeing (and can't be misinformed by guides) or by selling a simple bi-lingual leaflet which will encourage visitors to follow a self-guided walk through the village. This would encourage tourists to follow a defined route and not to be intrusive in unexpected or unwelcome areas and it could provide a small revenue by the sale of a the small guide.
Explanatory signs: In any museum and display home there should be bi-lingual signs. Such signs need not be elaborate but only be computer printed A4 size laminated paper.
Demonstration: The value of craft is not just in the sale but in the interest it creates. Tourists are likely to stop longer and contribute more where they see the craft being undertaken. It is useful to try to have craft work being undertaken where visitors are most likely to see it.
Craft: There are many people in other countries who specialize in art and craft and who are always seeking new skills and want to learn more about traditional ways. Villages need to encourage the maintenance of traditional crafts within their villages. For example silver-smithing and jewelry making should be practiced in the villages beside weaving and embroidery.
At a coordinating level (HADF)
Code of Visitor Behaviour: A simple code of visitor behaviour should be developed with the involvement of all villages.
The code of visitor behaviour should be published in as many ways as practicable to reach the greatest number of tourists before they enter a hill tribe village.
* Laminated signs spelling out the code of behaviour in Thai and English should be placed at the visitor parking areas in all villages.
* Publishers of all tourist guides such as the Lonely Planet should be approached and asked to incorporate the code of behaviour in future editions of their guide books.
Basic Guidelines on catering for Visitors: Some basic market research needs to be undertaken by the coordinating body to produce a set of guidelines for villages on what s needed to cater for ecotourism such as hand washing facilities, the supply of drinking water with no ice, toilet paper, bedding requirements etc.
Coordinated approach on basic charges and tour standards: A coordinated approach to the minimum charges by all villages for services to be provided to tour companies is needed to ensure solidarity and avoid tour operators exploiting villages.
Assist villages in interpretation signs: Villages do not have the resources on their own to put in place interpretive bilingual signs nor are they best placed to know the sort of information that needs to be included. A few pilot projects should be undertaken to help visitors understand the significance of particular places and objects. One project might trial a self guided village tour selling a leaflet. Another could trial installing signs at relevant sites. The merits of each could then be evaluated and passed on to other villages perhaps with the aid of TAT.
Coordinating tour packages: A number of packages need to be developed to meet the needs of incoming groups. These need to be coordinated to spread benefits as far as possible amongst the various villages. This needs to be coordinated so that tour leaders/operators can make one approach to cover the hill tribe area knowing that it will provide a quality experience.
Identifying administrative obstacles: There needs to be some examination of any obstacles which might be experienced such as licensing, taxation, insurance, etc. so that inbound tour operators can be alerted before they come. If a tour operator runs into unexpected bad experiences they may not come again and discourage others.
Identifying administrative resources: Coordinators need to be able to identify the resources which can be drawn on to meet the particular needs of specialist groups such as crafts demonstrators. They also need to be able to recommend guides and translators for foreign groups. It needs to know which villages can provide access and suitable accommodation to suit the needs of the groups.
Identifying Thai operators to assist international groups: International groups want to deal with reputable and competent operators in Thailand who understand what there needs are. It may be that the coordinating group has to provide some of these services itself. (It is easier to recoup costs from providing tour services than it is just for advising foreign groups. Actual involvement in a small way may be essential to ensure some quality control initially and it enables better monitoring).
Coordinated approach to promotion: The promotion of ecotourism for the hill tribes in foreign areas is beyond the resources of any village. Coordinators should use their network particularly amongst NGOs to attract ecotourists as distinct from other types of tourists. Articles in magazines and journals are most likely to interest the actual ecotourists. Using word of mouth promotion and networks should encourage good ecotour operators to include a hill tribe experience in their itineraries.
Links with other destinations: Because most ecotourists will spend so long in reaching Thailand, most will want to spend about 10 to 12 days in the region and include other destinations beside the hill area, the coordinating body should work in cooperation with other agencies such as TVS/REST to link the hill tribe destinations with other tours in Thailand or in the region such as Luang Prabang.
Independent tourists: Most of the above have been directed towards catering for tour groups. There is a need to cater for the independent travellers who may be potential ecotourists. The coordinating body should produce a guide for independent travellers. This might be sold through TAT or the YMCA or vehicle hire outlets which are places which might attract a lot of independent travellers. It might include a guide to home-stays in the Chiang Rai area which includes both hill-tribe and non-hill tribe destinations.
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