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Eco Tourism and Thailand

ecotourism in thailand It seems increasingly difficult to look at any travel related information without finding the travel industry buzzword, eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is an attractive concept, offering the traveler a unique experience with exotic flora and fauna while generating desperately needed funds to preserve the attraction.

Opinions vary as to what eco tourism is. Phrases such as "pack everything in, pack everything out" and "take only photographs, leave only footprints" are commonly quoted.

Some will argue that so long as the eco-system is not significantly impacted by the eco-tourist, the money earned by tours can be used to further conserve what is already there. Perhaps tourism can provide alternative incomes to the indigenous population so that destructive harvesting such as slash-and-burn farming, over-fishing, or destroying coral reefs need not be practiced.

Yet another might question how much eco-tourism benefits the people who have depended on the eco-system for generations. How much of the tourism dollar filters down after tour operators, governments and middlemen take their cut? And what about the local people if an eco-tourism would suddenly and significantly alter their culture. Take the case of a village in Northern Thailand.

Locals Say Eco tourism Is Destruction

Elephants in River Along with the 700 Karen families who live in Wat Chaan, Somsak says their lives are simple and content, mostly dependent on farming and hunting. Clothes are homespun and people have known little want.

"I don't want to live anywhere else," says the young man dressed in jeans and shirt, who divides his time between his forest village and studying at Chiang Mai University. "My life and identity is in the forest and I intend to live there forever as a farmer."

Somsak's wish however may no longer be so simple. The Thai government, with a $1.25 million loan from Japan, plans to turn his remote Wat Chaan into a thriving tourist destination, where visitors from rich countries will pay handsomely to stay in the forest and observe the Karen.

Wat Chaan's future has become the object of a bitter contest for Somsak and the Karen community and the government. The Karen's outrage is shared by many academics and grassroots groups who say the project -- which would require cutting down thousands of acres of virgin forest -- would affect natural water supply to the Karen village and destroy their livelihood.

"We want a halt to the project because we fear we will have no homes or will lose our culture and environment,"explained Somsak.

Five years ago, Somsak lead a successful protest against Thailand's powerful Forest Industry Organization (FIO), which had plans with Finland to chop pine trees in the area for export. The project was later abandoned. For the Karen, the project would have meant sacrilege. Somsak says that according to tradition, Karen are not allowed to cut down a single tree.

"We are taught by elders to think about the future of our children. If we protect our forest there will always be rain. We believe a spirit in the forest protects us," he explained. "The FIO has not consulted with us, the Karen, who live on the land. We are ready to discuss the project and will not oppose it if there are clear plans that our livelihood and environment will be protected," added Somsak.

"I do not want to see my people turned into a human zoo," he explained. "If we are to change, then we must do it on our own terms."

Courtesy of: Inter Press Service 09-Nov-98

If the eco-tourism concept in a given region is nothing more than commercial exploitation, who bears that responsibility? Is it the responsibility of the tour operator or the local government? Or does the eco-tourist share some of the responsibility for an adverse impact on the land and the culture?

Have tour operators simply redefined what they once called adventure tours to take advantage of a trend? What is the difference between eco-tours and adventure tours?

Megan Epler Woods said "Eco tourism is tourism based on appreciation of and consideration for the natural and cultural environment."

Nature based tourism is appealing to birders, observers of cultures, nature trekkers, cavers and many others. The activities can be ecologically unobtrusive depending on how they are carried out. Properly implemented eco-tourism projects will benefit the local population. And funds set aside for preservation can increase the quantity and quality of local flora and fauna. Travelers and their collective conscience will eventually do much to determine the quality of eco-tourism projects

So is eco-tourism opportunity or opportunism? Perhaps it is both. At it's best, it is a synergistic relationship among tourists, tour companies, governments and the local population that benefits all concerned proportionately while preserving or improving the natural environment.