With more than 30 million arrivals to Thailand per year the natural beauty that draws many visitors to the kingdom has been put in peril. That’s why sustainable tourism is so crucial to the development of this sector
When the term eco-tourism was coined in 1983 by the Mexican architect Héctor Ceballos-Lascuràin, it came to encompass all sorts of nature-based trips where the onus was on the tour operator to provide an environmentally friendly excursion. As the term morphed into “responsible tourism,” the onus was more and more on the traveller to behave responsibly by respecting the local environment and customs. But as the market continued to grow, the field has evolved into “sustainable tourism,” the term most commonly used today, where the onus is on all stakeholders.
All these terms, and other offshoots such as community-based tourism, are branches of the same tree that have similar roots and principles, such as low volume/low impact, which is only common sense: the fewer travellers on any given outing, the less impact they will have on the environs. The necessity of sourcing local foods and using local transport is also easy to grasp; both contribute to a lower carbon footprint for each visitor and the company.
Instead of throwing more textbook definitions at you, let’s look at the Thailand-specific picture and three of the frontrunners in this field: Lisu Lodge, Khiri Travel and Local Alike.
When the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association came to audit the Lisu Lodge as part of its certification process in 2012, the lodge was awarded 97 points out of 100. Lisu Lodge would have had a perfect score, but in the “recycling food” category there was no box to tick for feeding leftovers to the villagers’ pigs.
That’s a good introduction to how comprehensive the lodge’s approach to sustainability is. The building, and by extension the entire brand, has been constructed around such key pillars as preserving the environs and keeping the local communities intact by respecting their cultures and providing them with employment opportunities. All the staff comes from the nearby Lisu hill-tribe village who supplied the inspiration for the name, and who work as guides, drivers, cooks, receptionists, maids and performers.
The lodge itself has been constructed in a Lisu style, using only locally sourced materials save for some tiles from Bangkok and a super-efficient gas water heater from the United States that produces no emissions. In its early days, Lisu Lodge tried alternative energy sources like solar panels but found them too erratic for the guests’ convenience, while wind turbines were too noisy.
To bolster local incomes and provide another activity for guests, Lisu Lodge pioneered white-water rafting in the area. And while the sport has become wildly popular, spawning dozens of independent tour operators and attracting hundreds of visitors during peak season, the lodge makes efforts to minimise environmental impacts by conducting annual tests to monitor the state of the water.
The waterborne excursions offered by Lisu Lodge are only one of a raft of outdoor activities that embody the most basic elements of eco-tourism, like trekking, cycling and visiting the kingdom’s oldest tea plantation to learn how to pick the leaves and brew tea.
Preserving and appreciating the local culture is another speciality. That means trips to the Lisu village for guests, who can also take in performances of songs and dances by hill-tribe members. They can even request consultations with the local shaman on everything from health to mystical matters.
Interactions like these are one reason that the owner of the company, Chananya “Ann” Phataraprasit, does not sell room nights, as many other eco-lodges do. Instead, her company, Asian Oasis, only sells packages ranging from one to five nights or more. “If I sell room nights, people will skip the community. People will skip learning. People will skip the experiences. It’s part of what we have a commitment to do,” she said.
Ann hastened to add that this is not a field with huge revenue potential. Simply put, these kinds of lodges do not have a large number of rooms or guests ever to become massive moneymakers. They also tend to be one-off experiences; repeat visitors are rare. Eco-lodges are, in fact, a niche market, but there is potential for steady growth. To ensure that long-term growth, entrepreneurs must continue to evolve.
“We have to adapt to the growing demands of the clients. People today want to experience something totally different from 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. People are looking for bigger rooms, more comfort and different tours. We have a huge rice field because people are concerned about organic living and we grow organic vegetables too. So we are adapting all the time to the changing market. That’s what makes your business sustainable,” said Ann.
Founded by Dutchman Willem Niemeijer in Bangkok in 1993, Khiri Travel adopted a sustainable tourism business model early on, he said, because the company was not interested in the high-volume market of mainstream travel. Khiri’s tours revolve around cultural and natural excursions, or educational experiences, which by definition are niche-oriented.
On a practical level, it’s a model that makes a lot of economic sense in the long run. “To manage a company well, 360 degrees well, you have to look not only at a profit, but giving back to the local community and training and retaining staff, as well as providing a better working environment for the staff. Because if it’s only about money, then your staff will only be there for the money and leave for another company that offers them more,” said Willem.
In the travel business, the so-called Destination Management Companies (DMCs) like Khiri Travel have a special responsibility and power because they control so much of the supply chain. DMCs recommend hotels and restaurants, hire drivers and guides, put together itineraries for tours and provide other crucial logistics. These choices can make a big difference. “If we have a choice between two hotels the one with the better sustainability practices wins,” Willem said.
However, with the growth of eco-tourism and its various offshoots came all the weeds of “greenwashing” as loads of tour operators and hotels began billing their operations as environmentally sound. At the time, there were no such certification bodies in place to challenge these claims. That changed with the emergence of organisations like Earth Check for hotels and Travelife for tour operators.
Khiri Travel spent a year preparing for the Travelife audit in the three countries that host their most significant operations (Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar). That process included audits of its offices to measure everything from energy use to waste management, and audits of their work in the field to ensure minimal negative social and environmental impacts, as well as positive fiscal or cultural contributions to rural communities. Finally, they received the coveted certificate in 2015.
The certification, rapidly becoming an industry standard in Europe, proved the DMC’s dedication to the “triple bottom line” that places people and the planet on par with profits, while also recognising that without the latter the former two get short shrift. Through the certification process, the company learned a lot about its operations, which in turn made achieving sustainability seem much more feasible.
“We learned that it’s possible to make your business 100 per cent sustainable by buying carbon offsets and managing your water usage and garbage output. You can measure what you do and try to improve every year,” Willem said.
Somsak “Pai” Boontam earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and an MBA in sustainability before he began to work on development projects with hill-tribe communities in Thailand. After working for the Mae Fah Luang Foundation at Doi Tung in northern Thailand, he co-founded his community-based tourism company, Local Alike, with Noon Pakavaleetorn, in 2012.
Local Alike offers sustainable, socially responsible and immersive travel experiences that preserve the culture and generate income for local communities. The outfit has won many competitions in Thailand and Singapore for social enterprises, attracting much media attention in the process.
The real catalyst for his interest in tourism came from trips he did “in rural parts of India, Myanmar and Laos where I came to realise that tourism could be an important force for not only employment and income but also a source of hope for communities.” He adds, “Coming from a poor rice-farming village in northeastern Thailand and growing up without electricity, I could relate to the people and their struggles.”
Having expanded into Vietnam in recent years, the social enterprise works with dozens of different communities in Thailand to offer an equally diverse array of itineraries. From cultural explorations to culinary classes, and living like locals do, from Chiang Rai up north, to Trat province in the east, to southern communities like Nakhon Si Thammarat and the mostly Muslim village of Koh Yao Noi.
In and around Bangkok too, visitors can partake in tour opportunities like “A Day as a Fisherman,” where you visit the district of Bang Khuntian to learn about fishing and tie-dying with natural dye, riding kayaks on the canals and trying local food. Or you could opt for a close-up look at life in the slums of Khlong Toei or how to make Thai-style jewellery.
But how does community-based tourism benefit these communities?
“They get 70 per cent of the net price of the tour, and another slice of the profit gets put into their community fund,” says Pai. “Having visitors and making money also helps to keep these families together and makes them proud of their cultures. So the communities benefit in many different ways,” he said.
By Jim Algie