A publication of the Asian Development Bank No. 2     December 2008
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Governments need to look beyond financial goals to environmental and social impact
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Toward Eco-Friendly Tourism

Hosting visitors in villages of southern Thailand offers sustainable benefits but also poses several challenges

Home-Stay Tourism Visitors dock at the Ban Talee Nok village in the Andaman Sea in Thailand
Photo by the North Andaman Community Tourism Network

In the northern Thai village of Baan Jalae, 30 kilometers from Chiang Rai, men in traditional costume dance before appreciative tourists. This is ordinary enough, but what is unusual is that the women are preparing meals and sleeping quarters— for visitors who will stay at their homes.

The ethnic Lahu people, an independent and close community, are opening their homes to the more curious and adventurous tourists. In doing so, they are increasing incomes, helping preserve their culture, and learning from visitors.

The emergence of “home-stay programs” in rural communities is emerging as a way to attract tourists as well as to preserve culture and the environment, says Somsak Malee, manager of the Mirror Foundation, a nongovernment organization that runs such programs.

Significantly, the extra income can help families stay together and deter the young from leaving for city lights and becoming involved with traffickers, a common problem here, says Natee Lafu, a Baan Jalae mother.

The home-stay program, which is also running in the nearby Akha and Karen villages of Baan Yafu and Baan Arpha, can have other positive effects, such as strengthening a sense of ethnic identity, protecting land rights, and reducing deforestation.

In southern Thailand, too, the Muslim village of Ban Tale Nok, set between coral reefs and a rainforest on the Andaman Sea, has turned to home-stay tourism to help recover from the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami.

Beyond Thailand, other countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) are looking more toward eco-friendly and sustainable ways of riding the tourism boom.

International tourist arrivals in GMS countries rose 11.2% to 25.6 million in 2007, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Income from tourism generated $18.85 billion and employed 3.74 million people across the GMS. Between 1995 and 2007, international arrivals to the GMS rose by an annual average of 8.12%, more than twice the world average.

Tourism is also a key contributor to growth. In Cambodia it accounts for 15% of gross domestic product; in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, 7.5%; in Thailand, 6.5%; and in Viet Nam, 4%.

Such growth has spurred debate on its impact—both positive and negative—on communities and the environment.

The aim is to support responsible operators and projects while reducing negative impacts, says Christine Jacquemin, a sustainable tourism development officer with the Mekong Tourism Coordination Office. Too often, according to Jacquemin, the tourism industry focuses on visitor numbers rather than the wider impact. Governments, she adds, also need to look beyond financial goals to environmental and social impact.

Reinforcing this view is Polladach Theerapappisit of the University of Western Sydney’s School of Social Sciences, who says in a 2007 paper that those who do business with ethnic communities should have an “inbuilt poverty reduction/community development plan.”

In Viet Nam, a sustainable tourism program set out in March 2008 by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism focuses on local communities in the central provinces of Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Tien Hua, and the far northern regions of Cao Bang and Bac Kan.

Viet Nam, especially in the coastal region, is expected to attract up to 7.5 million visitors by 2010 with annual revenues of over $2 billion, according to its Institute for Aquaculture Economics and Planning. The institute sees coastal tourism accounting for 80% of all tourists and 70% of tourism revenue.

But dealing with the negative aspects is the challenge. The famed Ha Long Bay, its treasures recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is already under pressure from rising tourism and environmental damage.

To combat this, there is a need to widen the network of marine-protected areas for sustainable livelihood in coastal regions, says Nguyen Giang Thu, a director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

A network already exists to provide alternative income sources to fishing—the goal being to reduce pressure on local fish stocks while pursuing sustainable tourism. For example, in 2001, the government chose the southern region of Nha Trang Bay as a marine-protected area site, along with the Cham Islands and Phu Quoc.

Handicraft Demonstration Hands-on activities give visitors an appreciation of southern Thai art
Photo by the North Andaman Community Tourism Network

The number of visitors to Nha Trang Bay almost doubled to 400,000 by 2006 from 2001, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), partly as a result of investments for the management and upkeep of the area.

In other areas, such as the Cham Islands in central Viet Nam, tourism has yet to take off but villagers have been trained to make fish sauces and to market and distribute these products.

In Cambodia, where seaside tourism is exploding, safeguard measures are also needed. Cambodia still does not have “the institutional framework for the management of tourism within protected areas,” says the Mekong Tourism Coordination Office in a recent conference paper. However, this may be soon addressed as the GMS core environment program selected Cambodia as a pilot site “for the development of a strategic environmental assessment of the tourism sector.”

The seaside province of Koh Kong is an example. It is well known for its beaches, forests, mountains—and casinos. Improved roads to Koh Kong from Phnom Penh and Thailand have raised concerns about the ecological impact of development on people and wildlife.

A 2008 IUCN study on the mangrove/ wetland village of Boeng Kayak in Peam Krasop Commune, Koh Kong, notes the benefits and threats of tourism. The Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary is the only nationally protected area in Cambodia that includes a pristine mangrove forest. United Nations agencies and the Cambodian government are working with the community of Peam Krasop, which attracts 15,000 visitors a year, to manage the region for sustainable tourism development.

The IUCN study highlights a range of benefits, including the increase in jobs and incomes through boat, bird-watching, and fishing tours, and sales of food and handicrafts to tourists.

But the study also notes the need to develop a zoning plan, improve infrastructure, and provide tourist services such as food and boat rentals. It anticipates challenges relating to the proper disposal of solid waste and sewerage, illegal activities by outsiders, rising competition from other tourist sites, and the exodus of youth from the village.

Across the GMS there are no simple ways of achieving sustainable tourism. Political will and the commitment from the tourist industry, as well as recognition of the rights and needs of local communities, are among the main challenges.

Trying to adapt and change is itself a challenge for many in tourism, says Pacific Asia Travel Association communications manager John Koldowski. While individual operators are taking sustainable tourism to heart, “it’s been a slow slog across the broader travel and tourism industry,” he says.

Economic realities and business models are slow to adapt. For many tourism business operators, according to Koldowski, the difficult business climate means the priority is financial survival. But public pressure is increasing. A heightened awareness about environmental protection and global warming is pushing more tour operators “to realize that they have to do more than say they are ecologically friendly—they have to prove it,” he says.