State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Case study: Promoting a more inclusive tourism industry for Chiang Mai's hill tribes

by Nicole Girard

'I'm studying Chinese so that I can be a guide for Chinese tourists,' explains Nahnenuhn, a 20-year-old indigenous Karen from Thailand, 'I think it's a good future for me to help support my family.' Nahnehuhn comes from a small village near Mae Saring and moved to Chiang Mai to study. Like everyone else in the city, she has seen a dramatic rise in the number of Chinese tourists to Chiang Mai, and the potential economic opportunities this has presented for its residents, including the indigenous hill tribes from remote villages.

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, nestled in the mountain ranges of the Thai highlands, a long-time tourist destination for both domestic and international tourism. Since the 1960s, Thais have ventured to the so-called 'Rose of the North' to experience its cooler climate and indigenous cultures. Trekking and visits to hill tribe villages have been cornerstones of Thailand's tourist promotion in the north, displaying posters of colourfully dressed Akha women in the airports of Bangkok and featuring them in its 2015 'Discover Thailand' marketing campaign. Visitors to the north are increasing among both Thais and foreigners, with the number of tourists from China alone exceeding 4 million in 2014. So what does this mean for Thailand's indigenous peoples?

When Chiang Mai's tourism boom first began, the self-sufficiency of Thailand's northern indigenous peoples had already been eroded through a series of government policies, including the creation of national protected parks, a ban on traditional swidden agriculture and the prohibition of opium production. Supplementary income, through work in the city or village homestays for tourists, was therefore a necessity. Though the government had started to issue some national identity cards to indigenous residents, many communities were and still are essentially stateless, with little access to health and education opportunities. Consequently, the opportunities presented through tourism, including construction work in the city on tourism infrastructure, were one of few viable livelihoods options. Many indigenous men and women also entered the sex trade, a form of exploitation fuelled by tourism.

Trekking and homestay tours began to pick up in the 1980s. At this time, indigenous communities such as Hmong, Lisu, Akha and Lahu began to sell their handicrafts and cultural wares in the Chiang Mai night bazaar or perform traditional dances at the Chiang Mai Old Cultural Centre. A select number of people from these groups were moving to the city for these opportunities due to economic insecurity in their villages, a need that – together with their lack of Thai language skills – left them vulnerable to exploitation by Thai tourist guides. Homestays in villages were initiated by Thai guides, who would receive the majority of the fees, split with guesthouses and tourist agents in the city that sold the tour packages.

By the early 1990s though, villages were starting to tire of this situation. 'Fees given for accommodation, food and to guides were much lower than ours', says Thellie, an eco-tour coordinator from the Mirror Foundation, an NGO based in the neighbouring city of Chiang Rai.

'There was little interaction with villagers by guests, and little or no explanation of culture and traditions. This manifested in ignorance and insensitive practices by guests, because they were uninformed, and the feeling of a zoo-like experience for both guests and villagers.'

The Mirror Foundation was formed in 1991 and is run by Thais, including indigenous staff, with the aim of running a variety of projects to support indigenous communities across northern Thailand, including anti-trafficking campaigns, citizenship initiatives, scholarship programmes and handicraft livelihoods, among others. Only later did they include ecotourism as one of their projects, however. Thellie explains:

'Once our other projects were established, there was a realization that the villagers were being exploited by unscrupulous tour agents, so the [ecotourism] project developed as a response to this, but also to give employment opportunities to villagers, as guides, and homestay families'.

Unlike many outfits, the Mirror Foundation places an emphasis on participation. 'The project was done in coordination with villagers, and a training programme set up for those interested in becoming tour guides.' By allowing indigenous peoples to play a major role in staffing and decision making, the organization aims to build their capacity and achieve a broader transformation of the local tourism industry:

'All our guides are from local indigenous groups and licensed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), and encouraged to work for themselves or other agents, as well as the Mirror Foundation – this helps to spread the ethos of our work out into the tour agency community, which hopefully realizes that it is more beneficial to them long term if the villagers are treated fairly, and not exploited.'

The revenue they receive from their ecotours goes back into the Mirror Foundation projects, with the goal of being self-sustaining.

When asked how tourism has affected the villages, Thellie replies:

'I think that it is safe to say that tourism has altered the lives of villagers. Not just for those communities where tourists visit, but for the communities where the youth leave to find work, or spouses, within the wide range of areas in the tourism industry. Tourism, along with exposure to the wider society, has the power to improve lives, motivate individuals, and give opportunities which were not previously available; but each also brings with it the ability to destroy, de-motivate and deny opportunities, if not handled properly.'

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