Young social entrepreneurs are using the language of tourism to redefine the contours of the Thai economy, identity, outlook and culture
They could be rebels but they chose to be who they are, not ashamed or diffident or overtly proud, but honest and true to their grain. And in a country inured to a democracy that is now governed by militarists, they embody a new kind of nationalism and people’s power that’s subtly changing the socio-economic narrative of Thailand, demolishing every known stereotype and forcing a policy change. You could call them social entrepreneurs, who are rescuing vulnerable communities, redrawing the Thai identity beyond the sex-tourism gaze, lending voices to real issues and solving them in their micro-environs. These little dots of resistance to status quo may not qualify as protests or political movements but are more collective impacts of individual efforts that can no longer be brushed under the carpet. There’s an old Thai proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” And this second best time is being spearheaded by the country’s globalised youth, who are back to reclaim their destiny on home ground, one that is buried in the legends of Siam. And they are talking in a language that everybody understands — tourism.
Beginning as a marine biologist, Sirachai Shin Arunrugstichai had a passion for photography and hoped to be a journalist covering stories like protests, religious events and politics in Thailand. But lost in a crowd, he applied his newly-acquired skill set to something that his years as a deep sea diver had taught him, the need to conserve marine habitats which Thailand was fast losing to over-tourism and the beach economy. His photo stories on what once was and what it has become are telling reminders of human depredations of natural resources that could spell doom for Thailand’s tourism sector, which constitutes 20 per cent of the nation’s GDP. His work on Maya Bay, the sharks of the Andamans Sea, the plight of water nomads, the reappearance and disappearance of fish, restoration and regrowth of corals and mangroves has gone a long way in influencing tourism policy and getting a global audience. Thanks to him, the authorities have bravely shut down the fragile Maya Bay for four years, crumbling as it was under the weight of 5,000 footfalls when it is equipped to handle only 170 visitors at a time. As the sharks are slowly making their way back to the waters there, Shin asserts he isn’t against tourism as such but over-exploitation. He argues if there is no sustainable management module, then there would be no tourist economy or marine resources left for livelihood or humanity. “With our dependency on rich resources of the surrounding two seas, the marine and coastal ecosystems of Thailand have borne the cost. In accommodating mass tourism, which does not exactly serve the purpose of conservation of resources, and unable to prevent continuous degradation throughout the years, we need to change now. Some specks of islands have completely changed in five years and I document the changes to build a consciousness.” Shin now works closely with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which for the first time is regulating the beach economy with permits, graded arrivals and limiting stay periods on the country’s pristine stretches. Shin’s narrative-driven photo stories are now what he calls Lego blocks that make for a larger story of exploitation and a new-age colonisation by greed. Even the Western tourists, who once turned Thailand’s sylvan beaches into an indulgent and hedonistic hideaway, are now being forced to reshape their ideas of the permissive and expansive Orient.
Then there is Lee Ayu Chuepa, who has turned Thailand coffee, traditionally very bitter and had with condensed milk, into a specialty brew with applied research and his US training on growing and roasting techniques. Born to the Akha hill tribe, the traditional growers of coffee, he wasn’t really committed to it till he completed university, worked for an NGO and learnt how curating specialty coffees could lead to high economic worth. So he turned agriculturists into agri-preneurs and made coffee, a crop he had grown up with, as a tool of community development. Having experienced the creature comforts that he obtained through a Western knowledge system, he realised they would have no meaning in a resource-scarce or depleted world. “Look at what our conveniences and aspirations have given us. We chased gains but look where it has landed us, a plastic sea, no water and poverty of our people,” says Lee, highlighting the growing Thai consciousness to save neighbourhoods, culture, communities and people without subjecting themselves to the approbation of others. Today Lee’s Akha Ama Coffee is both a national and international brand, with a chain of boutique cafes in Chiang Mai and other cities. Lee’s social enterprise is based on smart logic and the right market linkages. His farmers follow sustainable cropping methods, adapt them to customise the coffee to flavour profiles in demand, rotate other crops like avocado in lean times and directly sell to the buyer networks, primarily the tourism industry. So all boutique hotels in Thailand pick up curated batches of Akha Ama coffee from the farmers themselves. Not only that, Lee emphasises on creating a bio-diversity rich plantation that is complete with living organisms, birds and honey bees, allowing natural processes like pollination to improve the ecosystem for his coffee. He even consults R&D and knowhow specialists on growing best coffee varietals and ensures a zero-waste model where leftovers of a harvest are used as fertilisers, manure and even body scrubs for the cosmetic industry.
He has made every young person of the community a stakeholder in the coffee enterprise so that each knows how to present his/her products and where to sell. In short, the growers collectively dictate the market than the latter forcing them into a straitjacket. “We need to start a movement in our agriculture sector,” he says, his idea already cascading into local fruit buffets at every tourist hotspot, allied products at every shopping hub, plantation tourism and more importantly international branding of local fruits. The much sought after Durian is a Southeast Asian favourite but the Thais have marketed a superior variety that sells at $10,000 a kg! “The dream may not be as beautiful as you imagined, so I am motivated by new dreams. I have followed the ancient wisdom of banana leaves from our people. This is not a textbook project. More than money, social values matter,” Lee tells us, summing up the resurgent face of Thai entrepreneurship from the hinterland.
But in Bangkok itself, the luxuriant world city that’s ever ready to serve your every craving, its repressed underbelly has found a voice in Somsak Boonkam. He has been inspired by India’s Dharavi to conceive his own slum tourism project at Klongtoey and transform the community that the city hides under its flyways. “We are using our backward clusters as a powerful communication tool. We are not denying but owning up to the reality and helping tourists get a rounded perspective of this city that I was born in and not see it through borrowed lenses,” he tells us. He isn’t looking for sympathy or empathy but is pooling limited resources of small host communities and sharpening their collective competitive advantage in the booming tourist economy. He keeps it real, training communities to design travel packages based on local carrying capacity, skilling local youth as savvy tour guides, empowering women to set up craft and cuisine classes, forming collaborative clusters of communities which can share limited resources and offer homestay facilities. And he uses social media to market his tours to keep a steady flow of visitors.
His beehive approach has helped individual tour operators from getting wiped out in a highly competitive tourism market and developed a system of affordable tourism seen from an insider’s perspective of Bangkok, taking you to unknown sights and experiences. Financial sustainability is on the top of Somsak’s agenda, so he allows local hosts to keep 70 per cent of the tourism revenue and diverts five per cent for public projects such as education and waste management. Through his module, Somsak has been able to restore pride among local communities who tend to become subservient and faceless employees of the large hospitality industry in a global tourist destination like Bangkok or set up formulaic home-unit massage parlours. But with the slum redevelopment project, locals are for the first time becoming an equal stakeholder and owner of the throbbing tourist economy. With 36 million tourists coming into Thailand and Bangkok being its catchment area, locals continue to be excluded from a lion’s share of profits although they lend their resources, culture, heritage and skill sets to define the Thai experience for the world. Somsak is continuously upgrading his tourist packages and creating specialist groups of tour guides, transport operators, pricing experts and hosts. He has even created a system of an elected body to manage the community development fund that comes from tourism and allocate it for addressing the most pressing need of the community that he might have overlooked himself. That could be something as basic as creating a playground for children of the host community. This has encouraged a democratic participation in everyday lives among locals outside the semi-dictatorial governance structure at the central level. Somsak believes that tourism can be a sustainable business only if it enhances and does not replace local businesses and jobs. Thailand’s young brigade are applying the rules of Muay Thai and championing their own causes that are setting off a slow revolution of ideas and independence. Despite the obstacles.
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)