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'Eco-Tourism' Not Always Eco-Friendly

Elephant RidingWhat you should know about trekking, hill tribes and the environment 'Eco' tours and hill treks seem all the rage these days, but a lot of people are unaware of how damaging tourism can be to the hill tribe people and their environments.

Almost all villages in Thailand visited by tour operators today have lost everything their elders have taught them going back hundreds of years. In the worst cases they are starving, addicted to drugs, and selling their children as prostitutes or slaves. Meanwhile, large numbers of travelers trekking into the hills are the number one source of water pollution in these remote areas, and countless bamboo trees have been sacrificed to make rafts for advertised 'rides.' And because hill tribe tours and treks have become part of the tourism 'industry,' very few trekkers actually get the authentic experience they dreamed of.

How did it happen?

TrekkingNot long ago, small numbers of tourists began trekking into the hills with local guides to get an authentic glimpse of a totally self-sustained way of life. More people jumped on the bandwagon, introducing candy and cigarettes to the villagers, and even drugs. Soon, tour operators figured out they could make more money by guiding tourists into the hills for an 'adventure' in the tropical jungle. Foreign tourists arrived in vanloads daily to the villages, unknowingly corrupting their way of life and bathing in their rivers and streams with chemical products.

Many of them had stereotypical ideas gleaned from Hollywood adventure movies that tribal villagers sit around fires and smoke opium every night. So the tour operators encouraged villagers to grow opium on their land, or buy it from nearby drug lords to sell to the tourists. While the tourists could smoke opium and then go back to their own countries, the villagers were left with the every day temptation to smoke it again and again, resulting in a weakened workforce for their farmlands.

What can you really expect on most hill treks today?

Lunch timeMost hill treks and village tours today do not provide an authentic view of village life. Once shy villagers now rush out to meet the tourists with souvenirs for them to buy, most of which are made in Burma and not by the villagers themselves. The peddling usually continues until the tourists leave. Children as well as adults ask and beg for money. Many have quit working their fields just to meet and beg and sell junk to the tourists. Tourists are now seen as a source of income and not as friendly visitors.

Everyone considering a hill trek should be aware of how tourism affects hill tribes and the environment, and should be very discriminating when selecting a tour operator.

How to get a real Eco-Tour

Bamboo RaftingBeware of trekking operators advertising a new area or village. Most hill tribe villages do not own land, but are given an area to plant crops by the Thai government. If it is not used, then another village will take over the fields, usually a village that does not accept tourists. Villages that give up their land in favor of making a living from the tourists usually wind up with nowhere to plant seed for basic food to eat and sell. When tour operators decide that a village is 'used-up' authentically, they typically move on to exploit another village, leaving the previous village to flounder after having given up its land.

Good eco-friendly tour operators return to the same villages year after year and maintain a fair working relationship with the villagers. Some donate a portion of their profits to help protect and improve the environment in the village, as well as buy books and other supplies for local schools. Among other things they help pay for regular doctor visits to the village, yearly supplies of blankets and clothing, and compensation for some villagers to watch for and report poachers in the jungle and rain forest.

These operators tend to offer the most rewarding village visits, where tourists won't be aggressively peddled or made to feel as if they should be providing handouts. The tourists and guide are more respected by the villagers, as they know that some of the money paid for the trek goes to help them and their local environment.

Avoid treks with more than 5 other tourists. Many people are told that a 'small number' of tourists will be taken on the trek, only to be piled into a van with 10 to 15 other people. Get the exact number of people in writing on your receipt, and complain to the tourist police if you are not given a refund.

While 6 people should be the maximum, the fewer the better, and a private trek is best. The impact of even 50 visitors a month can be devastating to a village and should not be allowed. Some excellent operators take visitors to a village only once a week and then no more than 6 persons. Others work with several villages, and take tourists to a different village each day.

Ask to meet your guide first. Find out how much the guide actually knows about the village. Tell your guide that you want to smoke opium and if he agrees, find a different operator and guide. Many tour operators don't actually know their guides are selling drugs to the tourists, so you must ask the guide separately. If you go on a trek and the guide tries to sell pipe loads of opium, do not say anything to the guide or tour operator. Turn him in to the tourist police as soon as you return to the city. This is the only way the practice can be stopped.

Find operators that used recycled bamboo rafts or other reusable water transport. Most plants and animals aren't on the endangered species list due to poaching, hunting and gathering, but because of destruction to the habitat. Not long ago, many rare birds lived along the Mae Kok, Ping, Fang and Mae Taeng rivers. Because of bamboo cutting for tourist rafting, the birds have fewer places to root and nest, and the beautiful stands of bamboo that were once abundant along the riverbanks are now gone forever.

Responsible tour operators retrieve the bamboo rafts at the take out point and bring them back to the starting point by large truck. The rafts can be used again and again for a year or so. Some operators sell the rafts for other uses, or simply let them rot on the riverbank after a single ride. Then, they cut fresh bamboo for new ones. It's even better to find an operator that uses rubber boats, kayaks or canoes without gasoline engines.

How to behave on a trek

RaftingDo not bathe in streams and waterfalls using chemical soaps and shampoos. Many hill tribe villagers used to be able to eat small fish, frogs and insects from now-polluted streams. They don't know why there is nothing left to gather or fish for, but knew that it was all fine before the tourists arrived. They also figured that if the well-educated, smart and rich tourists think it's okay to bathe in the streams, why shouldn't they? Before tourists set such an example, villagers gathered water and washed their clothes and bodies away from the streams and waterfalls to avoid polluting them.

Do not buy and/or smoke opium from villagers and guides. Guides typically pay villagers about 400 baht for 20 or more pipe loads of opium, then resell it to tourists for 100-200 baht a pipe load. This is big money for the guide, with sad consequences for the villages, many of which do not even grow their own opium, but are coerced into buying it from local drug lords. Meanwhile, village children see foreigners smoking and think they can do the same every day, and still go to college and make lots of money just like the tourists do. In worst cases, opium-addicted villagers will sell their children in order to support their habits.

Do not give candy to children or money for pictures. In fact, nothing should be exchanged directly between tourists and villagers. A village is a very communal place, and what belongs to one belongs to all. Jealousy and hate between villagers can arise because one family or person received something from a tourist and another did not. Jealousy, believe it or not, is a major contributor to the drop in population in villages visited by tourists. The ones driven away are actually the lucky ones though, as they wind up in a neighboring village that is closed to tourists.

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