The Greenwash Of Ecotourism - Thai Style

By Teena Gill
Inter Press Service

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Aug 25 (Panos) - With its lush flora, springs, caves and orchards the cluster of villages near the mist- enveloped Pra Chang mountain in northern Thailand's Phayao province seems an ideal location for ecotourism.

But just a year after it was initiated the project -- called the Responsible, Ecological, Social Tour (REST) programme -- is prompting strong criticism from Thai environmentalists who say it does not live up to any of the grand adjectives in its long name.

Officials at the nongovernmental organisation running the project admit it has fallen well short of its ecological aims but want to continue with it for the sake of the local communities involved.

It is all part of a growing debate in Thailand over whether ecotourism is really the green and sustainable alternative to mass tourism that it is made out to be, or merely a ploy to open up ecologically sensitive areas to tourists.

Financial crisis-hit Thailand hopes to attract some 17 million tourists in 1998 and 1999, and with them some sorely-needed foreign exchange. Currency devaluations following the financial crisis of 1997 could make Thailand a cheap and attractive tourist destination and the government has been fervently embracing ecotourism.

But whether such a move will benefit local communities remains an unresolved question -- so hazy is the current debate, in fact, that there is no standard definition of ecotourism within the government.

Supporters say ecotourism is good for the environment, and involves and benefits local communities. But others argue it only makes locals' lives entirely dependent on tourism at the cost of traditional sources of income -- if tourists do not turn up, locals find it hard to make ends meet.

REST officials say their idea was to encourage local communities to carry out tourism on a small and sustainable basis. But they claim the project has whetted villagers' appetite for money- spinning mass tourism, threatening its ecological aspect.

''The villagers just do not seem to understand the ecological benefits of ecotourism,'' complains Udom Charoenniyomprai of the Chiang Mai-based Inter-Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT). ''They feel the earnings are too little and the tourists too few. But this contradicts our ecotourism policy.''

IMPECT is the local partner in the REST programme, which is part of a nationwide chain of 13 ecotourism projects. Since its inception in 1997 the project in Phayao has earned around 50,000 baht (1,250 dollars) from 12 groups of Canadian, Japanese, Polish and Thai tourists.

Its critics say blaming villagers overlooks other flaws.

''The Phayao project is a typical example of an agriculturally weak and vulnerable village being targeted for tourism activities and gaining access to easy money,'' says Chayant Pholpoke, an activist with the Thai Network on Tourism, who has participated in an evaluation of the REST project. ''Instead of first strengthening their existing economic base another new activity has been pushed into their lives.''

Critics of ecotourism also say that the money which finally reaches the local communities is too small to make a difference. Given Thailand's feudal rural structure, most of the income is siphoned off by influential individuals instead of being fed back into the village through community organisations as planned, they say.

''To expect to earn income from tourism which operates under the old economic-political structure is frightening,'' says Attachak Satyanurak, lecturer at Chiang Mai University's History Department, about the REST programme.

But the fact remains that since the late 1980s Thailand's average income from (foreign) mass tourism has been over five billion dollars annually -- the largest source of revenue in the country's service sector. And if things go according to plan, a current 'Amazing Thailand' tourism campaign will net 15 billion dollars in 1998-1999.

Such lucrative earnings mean local considerations may well take second place to the need to earn foreign exchange for the national economy.

Critics say that, at the national level, the concept of 'ecotourism' has been cleverly appropriated and distorted by official bodies and private operators who are deeply involved in mass tourism.

''According to the National Plan we will further develop ecotourism in the north of Thailand,'' says Saratwadee Asasupakit from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) regional office in Chiang Mai. ''But there is still no standard for defining what ecotourism means,'' she admits.

With the number of tourism sites in Thailand reaching saturation point, and under pressure to earn more revenue, TAT has targetted the country's 81 national parks for new tourism projects in recent years.

In the past such intervention has been extremely controversial -- as in the late 1980s when authorities allowed the construction of a tourist resort and golf course in Khao Yai National Park, central Thailand. The project was eventually shut down after several elephants died falling off cliff faces while trying to avoid new roads and deer died after eating golf balls.

Despite such experiences, TAT's ecotourism plans include further opening up national parks ignoring warnings by environmentalists.

In the process, the government has ignored the fate of thousands of hill tribe people and villagers who live in many of Thailand's national parks but have no ownership rights to the land they live on. For example, in the Doi Inthanon National Park where TAT is planning to start nature walks, over 10,000 ethnic Hmong and Karen people are under threat of relocation.

''We have not found a single ecotourism project in Thailand where rural and indigenous people have been actually empowered to make an informed decision themselves on whether they want to develop tourism or not,'' says Anita Pleumarom, coordinator of the Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team based in Bangkok.

Just as with mass tourism, Thailand's brand of ecotourism seems to put profits over people, according to Pleumarom. And with such an approach there is little chance of the earnings -- however large -- reaching the right people, she says. (END/PANOS)


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