One cup at a time
In Loei, a coffee shop supports a sustainable, community-based tourism venture that serves as a model for the future.
For many, the city is the place for pursuing opportunities, but one woman has chosen to do the opposite. Jitchanok Tahwichai, 27, is part of a new trend powered by young people making their mark in the countryside and paving the way for sustainable community-based tourism.
After graduating from Thammasat University four years ago, she decided to move back to the northeastern province of Loei and develop a career there. Not far from Phu Rua National Park, she has created an attraction where the focus is on continuous innovation, with a Living Museum and "natural classroom". Here, tourists can learn and try techniques for harvesting rice, weaving cotton and making vetiver floors as local people have done for generations.
Additional activities have included a concert held last year, and this year she plans to turn the homestay into a retreat for tourists.
All this is backed by her primary source of revenue -- a café known as Café de Mena.
"I'm happier here because I can take care of my mum and I can do anything," she tells Asia Focus. "When I wake up in the morning, I can see the mountains. I can have a pet. I can have anything. It's my place. And [the cost of living and business operating expenses] are cheaper here than in the cities."
Café de Mena has grown a lot since it was opened in 2016. Ms Jitchanok serves her customers a "low-carbon" menu that uses locally grown resources, including rice from her own paddy fields which she was able to purchase thanks to the café income. In December, the peak season for tourism, a maximum of 500 tourists visit her property each day.
"Almost all my customers come from the city," she says. "They bring money to local people and the locals provide knowledge and nature to city people."
Sustainable tourism has become Ms Jitchanok's forte. She has created her own "community of happiness".
Thailand has little problem attracting international travellers. Around 35 million tourists from abroad visited the country last year and the figure is expected to reach 50 million in the next few years, says Chuwit Mitrchob, deputy director of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta).
Revenue from Café de Mena helps to support a sustainable community tourism venture in Phu Rua district of Loei. Katherine O'Chee
While the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) focuses on demand, Dasta dedicates itself to the supply side by managing sustainable tourism in six designated areas including Loei.
In other Asean countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines, the tourism industry is also booming, contributing up to 10% of each nation's GDP. However, the majority of tourism income still goes into the pockets of major hotel chains and global shareholders, while local communities and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are left empty-handed, says Mr Chuwit.
This phenomenon isn't exclusive to Thailand. Mongolia's tourism industry is similarly dominated by a few giant tour operators who "bring the tourists from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar to other provinces across the country but bring back the money -- about 90-95% -- to Ulaanbaatar," he tells Asia Focus.
LINKAGE & LEAKAGE
Mr Chuwit believes numbers shouldn't be the sole priority for governments and policymakers. "We cannot look at tourism income only. We also have to look at how to diversify this income into the grassroots level … or the real sector."
To narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, tourism income needs to be more evenly distributed. Mr Chuwit calls it "maximising linkage and minimising leakage": ensuring that as little income as possible is "leaked" out of local communities and that they gain the most benefits from their investment in tourism activities.
"We have to promote 'creative tourism', where local communities can deliver happiness and be happy themselves, interact with the tourists and feel a part of the tourism industry," he says. "They will no longer feel left behind, like the past."
Take Pattaya, notoriously known as Thailand's sex capital, as an example. Recent efforts by Dasta have involved introducing tourists to attractions other than the resort city's overcrowded beaches, including its grape farms located on the other side of the city.
Jitchanok Tahwichai has developed a "living museum" in her home province of Loei where visitors can obtain hands-on experience in local farming and craft techniques. Photos: Katherine O'Chee
In the northern city of Nan, community law has actually banned the construction of hotels and department stores by big businesses.
In Phanat Nikhom district in Chon Buri, traditionally viewed as an industrial area, the TAT is helping to promote another tourism opportunity: bamboo weaving. These woven baskets, made by local people, are exported for large sums of money. As part of creative tourism, visitors have been invited to observe and immerse themselves in this local practice.
Increasingly other Asian countries, including Mongolia, are embracing the move toward community-based sustainable tourism. Last week, a Mongolian delegate visited Thailand to share ideas on this form of tourism. In the Mongolian province of Bayankhonger, an eight-year master plan aims to transform cultural and historical sites into well-managed tourist destinations. It highlights landmarks such as the White Cave, a location symbolising the beginnings of humankind, as well as the Great Bichigt Rock, home to a natural gallery of 3,000-year-old petroglyphs.
Yet Mr Chuwit warns that because tourism is "so fragile and easily disrupted by natural disasters and economic downturns", local communities must treat it only as a supplementary way to support themselves.
To avoid bringing too much disruption into these communities, Dasta uses various methods to control numbers, such as establishing a booking system.
"At Dasta, we keep saying that we are not a 7-Eleven convenience store, where people can come around the clock. Visitors have to make an appointment in advance, so that local communities can plan these tourist activities around their own lives," says Mr Chuwit.
But for some communities, an overreliance on tourism income has become entrenched. Gantemur Damba, president of the Mongolian Tourism Association, says that in one village he visited, a local leader told him that tour drivers in the area earn more in a month than they would as farmers in one year.
"This is a danger," Mr Damba tells Asia Focus. "Soon a lot of people … [will be] attracted to become a tour driver or guide. Who will then keep the agricultural business running if the economic benefit is so low?"
Conflict within communities may also result from some villagers receiving more tourism income than others, he adds. Such imbalances are due to an unclear income distribution system: who receives how much?
A local resident demonstrates rice-winnowing technique to tourists in Phu Rua district of Loei. Katherine O'Chee
Ms Jitchanok has fortunately avoided these kinds of conflicts by practising the sufficiency economy philosophy developed by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It centres on living life not too extravagantly but also not too thriftily -- a middle way, in other words.
During the low season, she turns her Living Museum into a learning centre for children and opens its facilities up to local people wishing to make their own products. For each cup of coffee purchased at her café, she donates 10 baht to the museum.
"When you come here, you are not only drinking coffee," she said. "You having a glass of coffee in your hand supports [local people's] lives."
Mr Damba sees the sufficiency economy as far more difficult to apply in Mongolia where hierarchies in individual tribes as well as the broader society dominate.
Constructing sustainable tourism spots, after all, depends very much on the nature of a community, he said. "Some [communities] are similar and some are different. Mongolia is totally different from Thailand because we have mobile communities. It's not place-based [like Thailand]."
To create tourism with maximum benefits for all parties, he believes different sectors must learn to work together. "It has to be a collaboration from the beginning, between the government which holds the leadership power, the community which holds the natural and cultural resources, local and international NGOs that have the capacity by training and consultation, and the private sector which holds the market product … [to determine] if a local resource can be in the market or not."
Dasta acknowledges that support from companies through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities is important.
"Because Dasta is a government organisation, we have a limited budget, so we need an 'invisible hand' from the private sector -- charitable organisations -- to help us," says Mr Chuwit.
In his view, the tourism industry's main vision must extend past the bottom line. "Tourism is beyond money. It can become a particular tool to strengthen local communities as well." Indeed, young SME owners like Ms Jitchanok are showing Asia just how it's done. Their message is this: "The real love and spirit is at home, not in the big cities."
Visitors take in a rice paddy in Phu Rua. Katherine O'Chee