Local community-based tourism falls at the centre of plans already under way to restructure the country's travel industry
The Tourism and Sports Ministry plans to promote community-based tourism (CBT) to attract quality tourists and to increase earnings within local communities.
Speaking in a seminar on the "Stability, Prosperity, and Sustainability Tourism Forum 2016" organised recently by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, its minister, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said the tourism industry generated 2.3 trillion baht, accounting for 16% of GDP in 2015, and is forecast to reach 2.5 trillion in 2017.
"Those earnings can drive the country's economy as well as help strengthen local communities," she said. "We want to focus more on community-based tourism as a way of sustainable tourism development. We believe tourist spending must not only benefit the big players, such as hotels or spa operators, but also local people and their communities, especially those in the agricultural sector. I believe tourism is key to helping reduce that gap of the haves and the have-nots."
According to the minister, CBT generated about 20.7% of total tourism revenue last year. The figure is still low although it has shown a slight increase from 15.3% in 2013 to 20.3% in 2014. The biggest group of visitors are Europeans.
To promote CBT, the minister plans to work with local authorities including tambon administrative organisations and village heads to train them to understand CBT. When they know their community's strength, they will know how to promote such activities for tourism, she said.
According to the Community-based Tourism Institute (CBT-I), CBT refers to tourism activities and services which have been developed by local community members, working together in a club or group and sometimes in partnership with the private sector or not-for-profit organisations.
These activities and services are designed by the community and are based on the local life, culture or natural habitats that the community is "proud and comfortable" to "share with guests", according to CBT-I expert Peter Richards.
"CBT can be enjoyed by mainstream tourists," he said, adding that it is most appropriate for visitors who want to have deeper experiences and learn more about locals, their way of life and their culture. The activities can be a half-day or an overnight stay programme with hands-on experiences like teaching visitors how to cook local foods. The activities should also be unique, fun or inspired to give tourists the experience of local insights.
In addition, community members need training and experience to understand and know how to welcome visitors. Somehow, they might need to work with tour guides or tour agents to take care of tourists, he said.
CBT is also a global trend. Tourists no longer just sleep or sit in coaches waiting to hop off only for photo opportunities, said Robert Basiuk, the Tourism and Environmental Management specialist and executive director of Borneo Adventure in Malaysia.
Instead, today's tourists tend to seek new activities and new experiences far more than just the photo opportunity, he said.
On the other hand, with CBT, local communities are more active. They become a part of the service industry, providing transport, guides, making handicrafts, food and all kinds of activities.
CBT also offers job opportunities so that people will not migrate to the cities to find work. Women who have skills in cloth weaving can still work in their community. They are able to work at home and look after families. Above all, they can keep on doing what they do best while integrating tourists to become a part of their activities.
"Tourism in this sense means everyone is employed," he noted.
As a result, CBT is niche. It is not for mass consumption and it is not cheap. It is high value tourism, he noted.
For CBT to be successful, there needs co-operation among several key players, he said. First, government should have good policy and management. Community should be active. Private sector can also plays important role other than investment, but become a good partner with communities while non-government organisations can give technical input.
"The role of government is very important in making sure that policies are very sound. In Thailand, the challenge is to come up with a policy that actually meets tourism sustainability," he said.
As Thailand has been on the path of mass tourism for a long time, it is very hard to pull back on that. "To pull back on it, you have to do it gradually. You can't change it suddenly. It has to be a long term plan," he said. The good news is that Thailand's image over the years has changed to become more family oriented with more diverse attractions which Mr Basiuk regards as "a good starting point".
"I do believe Thailand could be an example on how to do it right because the country has been in the tourism business for long," he said, adding that there are many good CBT examples in Thailand. In addition, the value of the country's attractions is very strong as visitors do keep coming although, of course, not as much during the times the country has been in crisis.
His advice for the government to speed up the CBT is that it should look at the part of tourism that they don't want and fade that out and go along the path that they do want.
"The ultimate goal is to do good business, which means sustainable and equitable business for all people involved," he added.
A local prepares sweet snacks in Ban Bang Plup.
A woman weaves in Ban Na Ton Chan in Sukhothai.
In Ban Koh Klang in Krabi you can learn how to make a boat.