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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

'We Are Not a Zoo'
When tribes are turned into objects
By JULIAN GEARING

Manee Lataa, a handcraft seller in the village of Padua outside Chiang Rai, has not heard of eco-tourism. But she says anything that brings more visitors is good news. Thousands of hilltribe people such as Manee make a passable, if erratic, living from the visitors who come to peek into their homes and take photos of village life. Now, Thai officials are touting eco-tourism as a way to help preserve natural habitats while contributing to local incomes.

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Thailand: The Struggle for the Highlands
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• 'We Are Not a Zoo': When tribes are turned into objects

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The trouble is that current set-ups still exploit the tribal people, argues Meeju Morlaeku, an Akha woman who is called on to represent ethnic minorities for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "Eco-tourism uses hilltribes as a drawcard in the same way that tourism always has, if not more," she says. The industry is not all bad, she adds, "but for highland communities, there are more points of harm than points of gain."

Travel respresentatives like to portray the business as one in which all parties win: The extra income helps mountain communities improve their standards of living, visitors get to learn about a normally inaccessible culture and companies make profits. That's the theory. But an influx of visitors into traditional settlements brings problems too. The Lisu village of Ban Tonlong, just over an hour's drive from Chiang Mai, is a good example of how an attraction can be ruined. Development has brought not only paved roads, but also the demise of traditional architecture and the presence of rubbish in the streets. The "authentic" sights that once drew tourists to the hill country have vanished. In their place are inhabitants slowly losing their identity and relying heavily on being merely objects of curiosity for visitors.

Indeed, some villages are treated more like "human zoos" than culturally significant settlements. A stream of cash-rich visitors in search of illicit thrills can also tear into the fabric of poor communities. "In many cases, this phenomenon encourages drugs and prostitution," says Payom Dhamabutra of the Institute of Ecotourism in Bangkok. Images of foreign tourists in search of the fug of an opium pipe and cheap sex with young tribal girls may seem like stereotypes, but such problems have considerably worsened over the past decade.

Tribal peoples, who are often exploited because they are not recognized as citizens, should play a major role in running the tourism business, Meeju argues. As things stand, most tourist dollars go to outside travel companies rather than to the minorities. "Hilltribes need to be empowered in order to make their own decisions to protect their culture, their language and their way of life," she says.

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