Ecotourism

Surveys, Marketing and Monitoring

From the paper by John Sinclair at Ecotourism Workshop, Chiang Rai, 15 January, 2000

Ecotourism is a double edged sword. On the positive side it can help the community economically and politically. On the negative side it will inevitably change the culture in some ways. Already we can see the impact on culture and the changing attitude to wearing traditional dress.

Not all of the changes to the village life resulting from ecotourism will be for the better. Therefore we need a survey not just of how to get ecotourists into the villages but surveys of how can the adverse impacts of ecotourism be addressed.

One of our main objectives should be to ensure that ecotourism can coexist with normal village life and that villagers should not feel inferior nor that they are being regarded as exhibits.

Ecotourism should encourage villagers to take pride in their culture and not to abandon it at the first opportunity.

The surveys of the values of the villagers should treasure should be done before a village considers embarking on ecotourism. If lose what makes your village unique and special, you will also lose what makes your village interesting and attractive to ecotourists.

The values which are important from an ecotourism viewpoint are:

* traditional dress

* traditional buildings;

* traditional ceremonies;

* traditional rituals

* traditional crafts such as weaving, silver-smithing, embroidery etc.;

* traditional cooking;

* traditional music, dance, stories;

* The history of the village.

Experiencing the Full Diversity

I see the greatest asset of the Chiang Rai Province being the diversity of hill tribe cultures which can be experienced in a small area. All cultures should be able to benefit more if there is cooperation between the cultures rather than competition between the separate villages for the ecotourism baht.

The majority of ecotourism are more interested in spending four separate days with four different cultures than spending just three days and experiencing the culture of only one hill tribe and one village. It is the diversity of the experiences which can be obtained in this area which makes this region most attractive to ecotourists.

They would like to experience a walk in the forests and learning about traditional medicine , the rituals and ceremonies, the craft and cooking as well as normal village activities such as traditional agriculture, animal husbandry, administration, building and thatching. They are interested in hearing the songs and stories.

Market Research

1. Establishing the Optimum Package: If you are seeking to attract international tourist, it must be appreciated that they will spend some days to reach Chiang Rai. They would prefer to spend about 4 to 6 days on an attractive program while in the region to justify the travel time they have invested.

Such a package should be put together by a coordinating group so that the incoming ecotourists will be exposed to all of the hill tribes in the district. For example, they might spend a day walking in the forest with the Lahu, a day with the Yao learning about their craft, a tour of an Akha village to learn about the ceremonies, and village and building layout, and a day in a Lisu village where they will learn some songs and dances. These are only some suggestions about a possible package which I think would be most attractive to the ecotourists I am most familiar with.

2. Settling on a price: Don't undervalue the hill tribe culture by setting too low a price on any ecotourist package.

Setting the price is a fine balancing act. If the price is cheap people may not think hill tribe culture is worth much. If the price is too high then you may not get any ecotourists because you are also competing with other tourist attractions in Thailand such as Phuket and also competing with other tourist attractions in other countries such as Luang Prabang, the Great Barrier Reef or the Taj Mahal in India.

If the price is low you will attract a lot of tourists mainly young people who may be more interested in a bargain and who will be intrusive and not respect the culture and the values of hill tribes. Higher prices tend to screen out younger people and be more attractive to genuine ecotourists. Because most ecotourists are older, and prefer to avoid crowds the two groups are largely mutually exclusive.

It is best to set a price which you know is attractive ad then see what you can afford to include in the package and still make a fair profit rather than working out what every part of your package will cost and then adding on a margin.

An Australian price: I charge ecotourists in Australia for my safaris about $2500 baht per day for usually a minimum of 9 days and leave the clients with the responsibility (an additional cost) of clients getting to the starting point by themselves. The price is all inclusive from the starting point to the finishing point and includes all meals (including some alcohol), all accommodation, all entry and tour fees (this includes boat trips and other guided tours)and access to national parks. The only money safarists usually spend during the tour is for film, souvenirs and occasional ice-creams and other refreshments.

Despite the price my safaris are almost always fully booked based mainly upon the reputation for providing an informative, comfortable and good experience.

I make a rule that despite the rigours of my safaris they work because I insist that at all times clients must be warm, dry and well fed. If they are cold or wet or hungry they will unhappy. I should also add that if they are unclean or have to go without a bath for too long they also become unhappy. They do not want to pay a lot of money to be sick or miserable.

3. Size of Groups: You need to determine the optimum size and frequency of groups. For a four or five day tour, I would suggest a maximum of 8 people a minibus load. This is easier to accommodate in villages than a larger group. However, for international groups there is an incentive to try to have groups of 16 to qualify for a cheaper air fare and this may need to be broken up into two minibus loads following slightly different itineraries to avoid them both being in the same place at the same time except in Chiang Rai.

4. Frequency: Initially tours may not be as frequent as villagers would like because it takes time to become well established. However, villagers may want quiet times in the village when they are not distracted by tourists. These may be ceremonial times or times when they are very busy such as harvest time. These need to be clarified as soon as possible so that times when villagers can be left alone are clearly established.

5. Viability: Tours need to be viable both socially and financially. I pay a lot of attention to making sure that people get on well with each other even though most will initially be strangers. It is slightly easier to make sure that people are happy with larger groups because the larger the group, the more likely it is that everyone will be able to make at least one friend.

No tour should run at a loss. Because I set a fee and then see what I can afford to include in the price it is possible to run with fewer people and still be profitable. However, you must then consider whether it is socially a viable group.

If a group has a potential capacity of 8 then it should be at least half full say a minimum of four or five.

Delivering Value for Money: If you charge people 2000 baht per day then you should plan to deliver a quality experience. This may require some upgrading of the services you currently offer, but that should ultimately be to the benefit of the whole village. It may require upgrading of bedding, bathrooms and seating.

6. Catering: Most of my profit comes through catering for the group. From my experience, it seems that while people want information they are prepared to pay more for food than they are prepared to pay for a good guide. In Australia the cheapest Thai meal in a restaurant costs over 200 baht. Therefore international tourists are prepared to pay well for good Thai meals. They are also interested in learning more about Thai cooking and watching the meals being prepared as increasingly we are practicing styles of Thai cooking in our homes.

7. Payment: Almost all international tourists (except Asians) pay for tours well in advance. Most people book for my tours at least 3 months before the tour commences and pay a 10% deposit to confirm their booking. Some tours are filled (with me holding a 10% pre-payment) up to 8 months before the tour begins. Most tour operators in the west insist fill payment for tours at least 15 days before the tour begins. This has an advantage for tour operators because it means that not a lot of capital is required to set up a tour operation.

8. Timing: Plan to capitalize on optimum times. North Americans take most of their holidays in their summer, July and August. It is worth seeing what special attractions could be offered at this time such as the Swing ceremonies which might make them come. It may also be possible to attract people for the New Year festivities in February. Villages need to consider whether they could cope with extra tourists at that time. Australians take most holidays in December and January.

In Bali tourists pay a lot of money to go to witness Hindu cremations. Cremation dates are known well in advance. So if there are any festivals like this that can be capitalized on they should be planned in advance.

9. Facilities and amenities: Examine what facilities you have in the villages to cater for tourists. bear in mind that n the dry season you may be able to provide tents to accommodate tourists. However, there will need to be adequate facilities for them to bath and eat. Not all international ecotourists will readily or comfortably accept the normal village amenities.

Promotion and Advertising

To get international ecotourists to visit the hill tribe areas it is important to get them to begin planning in advance before they get to Thailand. This is beyond the resources of the hill tribes and it requires some coordinated effort. A coordinating body such as HADF or TVS/REST could use their overseas networks through NGOs overseas to attract groups to Thailand and to the hill tribe area.

However, before you begin to promote there must be a package which is being promoted. Then you need to set a price. Then you start to advertise it. Then once there is an established clientele, you hope that word of mouth will help ensure that there is a continual flow of ecotourist traffic thereafter.

Long lead time: One factor which needs to be considered is the long lead time between promotion and response by clients. International tourists generally have holiday ideas and plans for a few years ahead and so it may be some years from the time that they hear about and decide to include a visit to the hill tribes in their Thai holiday before they actually get to make the visit. Therefore ecotourism based on international visitors is not going to expand quickly.

Here are some hints on promotion:

Concentrate promotion to the journals NGO's. People who subscribe to NGO's are more likely to be philanthropic and predisposed towards supporting good ecotourism. They are also more likely to be the kind of people who will respond to what they see. For example, they are likely to go home and write letters to the Thai Government urging them to accelerate giving hill tribe people Thai citizenship.

Use the same promotions: If the promotion works well try to always advertise in the same place. That way people will know where to look when they decide to follow up what they have seen earlier.

Try to provide a most satisfying experience to clients. The best advertising comes from personal recommendations.

Target your advertising. Stick to a careful policy for at least a few years. Don't diverted from it by salespeople who want to sell you advertising elsewhere.

Some Rules we observe on the "Don'ts" of advertising ecotourism.

Don't oversell. Glossy promotions only raise expectations and unfulfilled expectations create unhappiness. Avoiding glossy / colour brochures helps recruit a more discriminating clientele. It is also cheaper and environmentally more friendly. It is better to have client's experiences exceed their expectations as that makes them more enthusiastic.

Don't advertise in newspapers. This attracts clientele which doesn't usually fit in with the pattern of ecotourism.

Don't advertise on the page in magazines. This doesn't work as well as making sure that people have a brochure.

Don't quote prices in $US. Ecotourists think that this is likely to be a much higher price than would otherwise be charged.

I have mostly focussed on tours of more than one day because most ecotourism is based on groups on tours. I have also focussed almost exclusively on international tourists because I am not experienced nor qualified to speak on Thai domestic tourism.

Monitoring

There needs to be continual monitoring that the basic standards are being met and that you are providing the quality of service which is expected.

Monitoring has to be done continually at two levels:

(a) communicating with the villagers to avoid or reduce unnecessary and unwanted impacts; and

(b) communicating with the ecotourists to ensure that their expectations have been met and what they suggest to improve the experience for future ecotourists.

We need to identify and heal problems early because otherwise they may become festering sores.

At the end of each trip I ask all ecotourists to tell me what they most liked about the trip. This tells me where I should be providing them opportunity to spend more time and the type of experience they liked best. I also ask them to tell me where they think the tour might be improved for future trips. This is a useful guide. My groups also collectively produce a diary of their experiences and this also offers some clues on how they responded to the various experiences and is shared with everyone else on the trip.

I also tell groups of proposed changes I plan to make in future trips to find out how they react. Then as soon as one tour finishes I immediately start planning how I might modify the itinerary before the next tour to respond to the various comments.

Monitoring is the most important aspect of ecotourism if you want to maximize the benefits it can deliver. Remember, you must rule ecotourism. Don't let ecotourism rule you.

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