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Keeping it local: Community tourism in Thailand

  • Story Highlights
  • Community tourism aims to bring benefits closer to locals and protect environment
  • For tourists its a chance to experience and take part in local way of life
  • Initiatives in Thailand's Andaman coast reaping benefits for locals and travelers
  • Threat of mass tourism, but hopes large and small scale can co-exist
By Dean Irvine
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(CNN) -- From a lush mountain-side overlooking the western beach of Tung Nang Dam on Thailand's Andaman coast, Noi recalls the noise of the tsunami more than the sight of it.

Local resident Noi has opened her home to tourists who also help with her conservation efforts.

From rare mangroves to mountains, the north Andaman coast has it all for eco-miinded travelers.

"The first wave was big, the second was small, the third was the biggest, but the noise... it was so loud, I heard it before I saw it."

The water went as high as the tree tops below us, but lucky for Noi and the other residents of the village, Tung Nang Dam was protected from the devastating wave by the mountain.

But many other villages that had existed cheek-by-jowl to the Andaman Sea were not so fortunate when the wave struck on December 26, 2004 . Further up the coast, Ban Talae Nok, a village of around 200 people, lost 47 residents.

Yet from the devastation came concerted reconstruction efforts, with funding from the Thai government, charities and NGOs. Today the village is in good shape, re-built a few hundred meters away from the coast, with new housing and a new school.

For everyone from the area, the tsunami will always be a vivid memory. However the biggest challenge facing this beautiful and undeveloped area of Thailand is how to keep back the tide of mass tourism that has engulfed Phuket, a two-and-a-half hour drive down the coast.

It is hoped that one way is the successful introduction of community-based tourism to the area and the reason Noi was leading me and my guide Tui, through the forest -- a jungle trek being just one activity during my two-night stay in the area.

As the term eco-tourism becomes increasing murky and over-used by resorts and tour companies, community-based tourism is trying to bring the ideas of ethical and environmentally-responsible travel closer.

For the local people it's a way to retain more control over the types of tours and travelers visiting their area, as well as bringing the benefits of tourism closer to home; almost literally, with "home-stays" a feature of many community-based tour projects around the world.

For tourists it's a chance to get an insight into a different culture, getting as "authentic" an experience as possible, while also enjoying more typical holiday activities like hiking or lazing around on a beautiful beach away from the madding crowds.

A new kind of eco-tourism

As we stomp back through the forest to Noi's house for lunch, we stop by an impressive banyan tree towering above. While red ants from the tree begin to crawl up my leg and start biting, Noi calmly and skillfully plants an orchid she had been nurturing in the nursery in her garden for the last year into a damp nook of the tree.

Sitting in a hammock after a lunch prepared with ingredients from the garden, Noi contentedly talks about her life and why she is happy to let "farangs" -- or "white foreigners" - like me visit her home.

"Seeing tourists come in to help with the [conservation] work, the rest of the village have been more supportive and the number of people coming to the island to steal the orchids has fallen," she says, happily swinging back and forth.

It's a small but significant positive effect from community tourism, one that seems just as important as the bigger concepts like creating sustainable development in the region.

Noi's conservation efforts began when she approached the North Andaman Tsunami Relief (NATR) in early 2005 and received some vocational training and a small amount of funding.

NATR was set up by Bodhi Garrett, an American who grew up in Nepal, and who originally moved to area in 2003 to work on a turtle conservation project.

With a focus specifically on the needs of the local people after the tsunami, the organization has since morphed into Andaman Discoveries, a not-for-profit group and tour operator that works with some of the communities in the area to try and encourage responsible tourism.

"When groups from outside come in and what to know more about the locals' way of life, it adds a real sense of value to their lives. There's a lot to learn from the environment here," he said from the group's office in Khura Buri.

"Looking at what was needed [after the tsunami] and evolving the capacity to provide it really led us through a whole series of activities up to community-based tourism. The disaster relief then led to empowerment, because communities had really lost their identities.

"Andaman Discoveries was born out of the need to provide opportunity and ongoing services. How could we do that and generate opportunity for people and not require ongoing external funding? Tourism was a strong part of that. It provides an immediate source of income that is most often connected to the conservation of natural resources."

Community tourism across the world

The Andaman region may have some unique and tragic circumstances surrounding its community tourism efforts, but elsewhere in Thailand and in other countries community-based tourism is a growing area.

Defining the horizon for community-based tourism in Thailand is the Community Based Tourism Institute, an NGO that recently brought together communities and tour operators from Thailand and the UK who have been noted for their respectful and sensitive practices.

Offshoots from projects can be powerful, with less young people leaving their villages and a stronger community spirit. Yet there are some limits to the size and scope of many community-based tourism initiatives.

A successful model can attract entrepreneurs who don't always have the same sensitivity to the local area and communities, and increased popularity can put too many pressures on an eco-system and village life.

Yet neither Garrett nor the villagers of Ban Talae Nok that are engaging with tourism are under any illusion that it is a panacea.

"When we asked people what they thought was the future of the area and what they were concerned about, they said tourism. They knew it was coming, thought it was a bit scary having seen what it did to Phuket, but wanted to make some money from it," said Garrett.

For their part, Andaman Discoveries carefully picks the tour companies in the UK and elsewhere to encourage tours to the area.

They won a Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award in 2007 and arranged tours for over 200 people to the area, many of whom stayed in the homes of locals, as well as enjoying long-boat trips into the mangroves, helping in community center activities or hiking.

My trip had to added drama of a villager being bitten by a snake - the first time in 20 years -- with the victim's leg swelling up like a blackened balloon and having to be rushed to hospital.

The battle between conservation vs. development

The region itself is an area that Garrett believes has the potential for genuine cultural and environmental heritage, but it already threatened by big development projects.

In Tung Nang Dam 70 plots along the beach that was devastated by the tsunami are owned by private property developers, mostly bought in the last 10 years. In Ban Talae Nok similar land buying is taking place, with one villager selling his plot of land to unnamed developers and taking his family to Mecca with the proceeds.

The tsunami aid from donations and sponsorship that has helped to provide vocational training and equipment to villagers is set to dry up in October, putting added pressure on those with property to sell.

Yet rather than selling up and moving away, many in Ban Talae Nok are looking to well-managed tourism and related projects to add to their income and keep the village's development going.

Cashew harvesting, fishing and rubber tapping are all still essential occupations for many in the village, with tourism a welcome, and increasingly sought after, supplementary income.

"I'm not worried about the future or when funding for projects in the village dries up," the chief of Ban Talae Nok said, taking time out from fixing his pick-up truck next to the community center.

"The main job for me is to decide what to do with the money we get; we have plans to build a pier from the beach and to get buy some more kayaks. The only this is, sometimes it's lonely making decisions by yourself."

Others in the village are also confidently facing up to the future and making choices that will ensure their community stays strong and the lure of economic migration to Phuket or Bangkok can be resisted.

Cha organizes the home-stays for tourists, but has also trained in marketing to try and promote the community's soap making set-up, mainly run by the village's tsunami widows.

A recent trip to Bangkok, secured a contract with a major hotel for their locally-sourced and produced products. Each woman receives around $50 for a full order, compare that to less than $1 for half a day spent shelling cashew nuts.

"Ideally in five years time, you're looking at a healthy functioning community tourism group that is not only generating customers of their own, but bringing in customers from tour operators like Andaman Discoveries and providing products to the resorts that are springing up around them, said Garrett.


"If that doesn't happen, people will still have a much better idea of what the threats of tourism are, as well as experience of how to reap the benefits and have the message that they have a basic right to benefit from tourism in their area and control the negative."

For Ping, the 25-year-old community youth leader from Ban Talae Nok it is simple: "Big resorts will come, but if the community is strong and they are doing the right thing for conservation there won't be any problems."

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