By Michelle Groothedde, Associate Intern Sustainability & Social Responsibility, Pacific Asia Travel Association.
In Doi Inthanon National park, about 90 kilometres from Chiang Mai, in the North of Thailand, two communities, Pha Mon and Mae Klang Luang, both ethnic Karen communities, have worked in community based tourism for 11 and 18 years respectively. On a mini field trip we visited the two villages that are only 30 minutes apart and looked at the differences between them regarding history, product range, management, experience, and target markets. The villages are beautifully located in the mountains surrounded by stunning rice fields.
The trip was organised in order to learn from CBT in Thailand for the Myanmar CBT Network. The Myanmar Community-Based Tourism Network was set up in March 2016 as a joint initiative of Tourism Transparency and ActionAid and is an informal network that provides a platform of exchange for interested stakeholders, such as travel agents/tour operators, tour guides, NGOs, communities, and government.
Community based tourism (CBT) means that tourists visit a local community, which is often located in rural and well-preserved areas, to get a rich and engaging experience of a local community’s traditional cultures and way of life. The community benefits from CBT by getting that little bit of extra income that can be used for various things, such as support in education, construction, environmental projects, and medical care. CBT is a real challenge for these communities as they struggle with cultural differences between themselves and tourists, and the changes and fear of losing their culture and identity that tourism brings.
Pha Mon is home to about 600 Karen people and earns approximately 1,000,000 Baht per year from CBT. Pha Mon is located 30 minutes off the main road, which makes it secluded. They offer a high value and high price experience. Their main target market are French tourists as they have established a long-term partnership with a French tour operator, Thailande Autrement, who was looking for a local community partner to further develop their cultural programmes. Pha Mon occasionally receives Thai visitors but mostly for day visits.
The average stay in Pha Mon is 3 day and 2 nights. Tourists arrive at Pha Mon village in the late afternoon, after which they are welcomed by the CBT village coordinator and have dinner. The next day the guide takes them for a walk through the village to learn about the village and its culture. They are taken around the fields, as the main source of income for both villages is agriculture and in both villages, agriculture comes before tourism, especially when it is time to harvest and all farmers are needed on the field. The Royal Project has had quite a big impact on CBT in the village and has helped to provide more income to farmers since it started.
Tourists have the chance to buy souvenirs in the form of crafted items like woven bags, traditional clothes, and baskets directly from the lady weavers. They can watch the weavers at work and can even have a go at the weaving themselves. They also learn about different food and fruits while visiting the village and villagers often invite tourists to taste and have a look around. At specific times a year the village offers traditional ceremonies performed in their paddies on the hillside during which they carry baskets with bright flowers. This is also an initiative supported by the Royal Project. After the visit to the village, the tourists can then hike to the top of Doi Thenon, which usually lasts about 2-3 hours. On this trail guests can do bird watching as this area is home to many different types of birds. There are also possibilities to do cycling tours on the mountain tracks.
The Pink Bamboo House
The Pink Bamboo House is located a short distance from the village surrounded by stunning rice fields with the mountains in the background. The community built the Pink Bamboo House itself and did an incredible job. It has 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms with a large balcony on the first floor spanning the length of the house, inviting you to relax and enjoy the amazing views. There are beautiful little details visible in the house such as bamboo towel holders (there are many bamboo household items in the house that the construction men weaved in themselves), comfortable Thai mats to relax, and a bamboo hammock on the ground floor and it really shows the level of detail and love put into the construction of this house.
The Pink Bamboo House offers a high value and high price experience to the tourists. The house is earning the village over 1,000,000 THB per year, which is about US$30,000 and there are approximately 140 families that participated in the construction of it. The villagers mostly offer their labour in exchange for a share. The earnings from the Pink Bamboo House go to a community fund, which is used for education, environmental activities, small construction, house maintenance, and to help people in the village.
In addition to the extra income, there are more reasons for Pho Mon to engage in CBT practices. First of all, the village wants to show tourists how Karen people live in harmony with the forest and demonstrate their sustainable forest practices. They also want to teach them the local ways and culture of the village and believe it is a way of motivating community members to work together.
The direct benefits from community-based tourism in the village are obvious as it creates more income and more jobs, but what are the challenges?
Overcoming the different opinions and fears about CBT and to decide if the village wants to invite tourists to their village was the initial problem and will probably remain an issue for some time. CBT inevitably brings changes and especially the older generation is worried that their traditional culture and way of living will change in a negative way or even disappear completely. Because of the extra income CBT generates for the village, the younger generation now attends school and often university in Chiang Mai. After their studies, young adults are encouraged to come back to the village but often find it hard to find their way in the old lifestyle again. They bring modernisation to the village and the older generation doesn’t know how to manage or deal with that and believes that tourism just accelerates the problem.
Then there are some problems with communication to outside parties and organisations they work with, or that have an influence on CBT in the village. These include the national park, the government, the Royal Project, tour operators, tourists, and the Community Development Organisation. The community’s culture is the initial reason the village attracts tourists and that is what they want to display but it is sometimes difficult for the village to make outside organisations understand their norms, values and way of living. Tourists are often unaware of their expected behaviour in the village, for example, about dress code when outside the house. Villagers were often shocked when visitors would wear revealing clothes and sunbathe on the balcony. The inappropriateness of this can be difficult to communicate because of language barriers.
The CBT village committee tries to counteract these challenges through communication and activities that help to mitigate these challenges, such as educating local guides, tourists, and villagers about different cultures and raising awareness on both sides.
Mae Klang Luang
Mae Klang Luang has a population of approximately 700 people and earns about the same amount of money per year as Pha Mon, but only by accepting larger groups at a cheaper price. Annually, an estimated 10,000 people visit the village; about 70% of them are day visitors, only 30% stay overnight and then mostly during winter season. It is noticeable that 95% of the visitors are Thai. More and more Thai students spend a night or two in the CBT village, enjoying the peace and quiet of their surroundings and the scenic environment outside the village. Mae Klang Luang is located at the entrance of Doi Intanon National Park close to the main road, which facilitates visitor flows in comparison with the more secluded Pha Mon.
For 18 years, Mae Klang Luang has been inviting tourists to stay in their community. Initially 20 villagers were involved in the CBT project and it has now developed to 80 people being involved, including people from outside communities investing in the project. The village has 11 homestay houses that are part of the CBT group, and there are also some independent houses for private homestay. Like Pha Mon, the money derived from CBT is mostly used within the village. All the CBT houses have similar prices, although the independent houses have set their own.
Tourist activities include a walk through the village, taking pictures in the new bamboo hut (specifically constructed to accommodate tourists who want to get a closer look at the rice paddies without destroying them), do a coffee tasting and then have the chance to buy the coffee. They also visit the women’s group that works together in custom weaving and tourists can buy those products as well. Mae Klang Luang is also known for its walking trail through beautiful scenery to a scenic waterfall.
What are the challenges in Mae Klang Luang?
The biggest challenge here is the same as in Pha Mon, namely, changes in culture. There have been significant changes in the village because of CBT and people in the village have different opinions on CBT and are sometimes struggling to manage it. Mae Klang Luang is different to Pha Mon because of its location and accessibility, and therefore CBT in Mae Klang Luang has grown rapidly and continues to grow. While Pha Mon only accommodates a small number of tourists, Mae Klang Luang offers a range of different accommodations and accommodates mainly day visitors. Therefore, CBT has a bigger and more visible impact in this village and is more dependent on tourism.
Another big challenge that Mae Klang Luang may face in the future is the competition between the private homestays and the CBT group. Initially, the independent houses were working well together with the CBT houses, but that is changing. There are more often conflicts between the two parties because the independent houses set their own prices. Managing two different systems like this is difficult. While the CBT group has clear rules and regulations and aims to contribute to the community through its community fund, independent homestays apparently tend to reduce their contribution due to the high individual cost. This complicates fairly and easily distributing benefits arising from tourism.
Finding a balance
Pha Mon and Mae Klang Luang face both similar and different challenges doing community based tourism in the villages while having similar ways to address these challenges.
First of all, both villages have a management system in place, which is led by an elected group of people that organise every aspect of CBT in the villages. The idea is that CBT brings benefits to the overall community. The group has a coordinator who acts as a spokesperson and functions as a link between the village and outside organisations. Both villages hold monthly or 2-monthly meetings and all issues that may arise are addressed. Anybody in the village can raise concerns and the issues are then dealt with. In Pha Mon, profit is distributed as a set percentage system. Mae Klang Luang has a similar system and committee. This management system helps to keep track of all activities and income related to CBT and aims to distribute income fairly and equally.
There is now an excellent communication system, both internal and external, which makes the CBT experience better for everybody. Key to the long-term success of CBT in these villages is that the villagers themselves hold all control. There are many organisations trying to pressure and influence CBT activities but in the end all decisions go through the CBT management group in the village. The strength of the village is their united front as every member of the community counts and have a voice. Issues are addressed and discussed and they decide on the best possible solution by compromising. These villages are a best practice example of CBT that benefits both community and tourist. Tourism improves living standards of the community in the village while maintaining their culture and the natural environment. Tourists benefit from the environmental and cultural activities the village offers to give them a rich and deep understanding of the village’s culture in a responsible way.
In a way they are stuck between authenticity and development and the key is to find a balance between the two to benefit from it and move forward, without losing their identity. It was hard for some people to accept CBT but the true values of the villages are still very evident and treasured, which is what makes them so special. Tourism can have a destructing effect on destinations after their discovery because of increased popularity but by controlling each and every decision based on integrity instead of monetary benefits, the effect of tourism in these villages is minimal, which benefits the village as well as the tourist as they can continue to experience a true and authentic Thai village in the mountains.
If you are interested in visiting either Pha Mon or Mae Klang Luang, or want to know more about the CBT network, click on the links. Learn more about the people on this field trip by clicking the links below: