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new frontiers

Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues in the Mekong Subregion

Vol. 5, No. 1 January-February 1999


THE REGION

ADVENTUROUS MEKONG TOURISM PLANS

The Pacific Asia Travel Association’s (PATA) Adventure Travel and Ecotourism Conference, held in Chiang Mai from 1-4 February 1999 in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), had a special focus on the Mekong sub-region. On this occasion, Anita Pleumarom of the tourism investigation & monitoring team (t.i.m.-team) wrote the following commentary, published in The Nation [2.2.1999].

AGENCIES such as the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the Tourism Working Group of the Asian Deve-lopment Bank-led Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) scheme and the Tourism Authority Thailand (TAT) have put forward ambitious plans to promote the Mekong River Basin as a new tourism destination. In this context, many environmentally and culturally important areas in the region are targeted for adventure and eco-tourism.

Over recent years, eco-tourism has been offered as a benign alternative to the much criticized mainstream mass tourism. It has been widely promoted as respon-sible travel to natural attractions, while safeguarding and improving the welfare of rural and indigenous communities.

However, many official tourism bodies and private industry just view eco-tourism as a new cash cow and only pay lip service to ecological and social concerns. To project a "green and clean" image and to attract and satisfy certain customers, they are simply designing and marketing new nature-based tourist products without proper assessment of the multi-dimensional impacts.

So it is not surprising that eco-tourism policies and practices have been increasingly subjected to criticisms. An illustrative example is the ongoing controversy over the TAT’s and Royal Forestry Department’s (RFD) attempts to open up Thailand’s national parks for com-mercial eco-tourism activities. Given TAT’s and RFD’s abysmal failures in terms of environmental protection, there are justifiable fears that their version of eco-tourism may result in another mass assault upon the country’s forests, mountains, beaches and marine areas.

Also the efforts to expand "green" tourism into Thai-land’s neighbouring countries - as undertaken in the context of PATA’s 11th annual Adventure and Eco-tourism Conference in Chiang Mai from 1-4 February – may have far-reaching implications and therefore need careful scrutiny. This requires an understanding and discussion of the overall tourism plans for the Mekong region.

In 1995, PATA came up with a grandiose "Mekong Dream" to accelerate regional tourism development and to facilitate travel between the six GMS countries – Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Since the convening of the first Mekong Tourism Forum, held in Pattaya on occasion of PATA’s annual conference in 1996, a worldwide campaign has been launched to promote 30 tourist sites as the region’s "jewels" and several projects have been underway to integrate these destinations into travel circuits.

Last year, a Japanese consulting firm, Pacific Con-sultants International Asia (PCIA), presented a study entitled Concept Plans for Tourism Development in the Greater Mekong Sub-region 1999-2018 to the Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism Activities (AMTA). AMTA, which was set up on 1 January 1997 at the head-quarters of TAT in Bangkok, is the secretariat of the GMS Tourism Working Group. Apart from the ADB and the national tourism organizations of the six GMS member states, PATA, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the World Tourism Organization play a vital role in AMTA.

The Concept Plans, developed as part of AMTA’s Mekong/ Lancang River Tourism Planning Study Pro-gramme, suggest that the GMS be turned into a world famous eco-tourism area. According to the study, which includes proposals for tourism planning and develop-ment over the next 20 years, a major goal is "to con-solidate a ‘Mekong’ cultural tourism, eco-tourism and adventure tourism network by linking destinations, circuits and routes" by the end of 2006. By 2018, it anticipates the GMS region to be "one of the world’s most important eco-tourism and cultural tourism destinations" and "a safe, accessible and ‘good value’ (value for money) destination to experience the rich, natural, historical and the diverse cultural heritage of the peoples and places along and adjacent to the Mekong/Lancang River."

The eco-tourism concept has nurtured notions of small-scale and controlled development. But this Mekong tourism initiative aims at luring millions of additional international visitors to the region. Moreover, the list of priority projects proposed in the study are in line with the ADB’s GMS mega-infrastructure program-me and reflect a heavy emphasis on improving trans-portation systems involving navigation, highway con-struction and air route expansion.

The study says: "In the long term, there will be emphasis on the creation of networks and gateways, transportation nodes and international standard faci-lities to accommodate all segments of the tourism market throughout the sub-region."

So in the final analysis, there will be a focus on eco-tourism and other "alternative" tourism forms such as village and ethno-tourism as long as there are major bottlenecks in infrastructure which restrict large-scale tourism. Once all gates have been thrown open and the necessary facilities are in place, the plan is to tout for all shades of tourism, which undoubtedly means a shift to the development of mainstream mass tourism.

Is this meant to be a viable strategy towards more responsible and sustainable tourism in the long run?

Thailand has often been described as a negative tourism model because reckless development has de-stroyed many places and brought undesirable changes in society. If policy-makers and practitioners are serious about reversing this trend and intent to spare other parts of the Mekong region from tourism-induced disasters, lots of questions need to be resolved.

For instance: Are Mekong countries prepared to handle a mass influx of visitors into newly opened up destinations in the region? Are effective mechanisms in place to protect nature reserves from encroachments to build resorts, golf courses and other facilities?

And what about the impacts on local communities? Have the concerned agencies taken the necessary precautions to ensure that the livelihoods of local residents will not be harmed? Are there any concrete proposals on how to tackle tourism-related problems such as prostitution, drug abuse, gambling, crime and other social vices? Can authorities stop the menace of turning ethnic villages into "human zoos"?

What efforts are being made to involve locals and public interest groups in the planning and implemen-tation of Mekong tourism projects? How can people respond when hotels and resorts spring up next to their homes, when limited water resources are siphoned away for tourist consumption, or when highways are cut through their villages to establish tourist routes? Have regional tourism agencies considered the diffi-culties of consulting affected people and to work towards more participatory tourism in the region? In Thailand, at least, citizens have certain choices and can make use of their democratic rights to question and resist harmful and unsustainable tourism policies and projects. But in sharp contrast, people in military-ruled Burma are being forced at gunpoint to move from their land and homes or to provide unpaid labour in projects for the sake of tourism development.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the GMS tourism plans have properly addressed the critical issues related to tourism expansion. Meanwhile, the eco-tourism initiatives under these plans simply appear to serve as a short-term marketing gimmick and as a public relations tactic to conceal the real environmental and social risks.

One thing is clear: Without a more problem-oriented approach and the establishment of an effective monitoring and control system, we can expect that the road to Mekong tourism will be bumpy and dangerous - just like the adventurous overland routes into "virgin" territories of Laos, Yunnan in southern China and Burma, which PATA, the TAT and other agencies promote by organizing "friendship caravans" for off-road drivers.

PATA ECO-TOURISM CONFERENCE: BUSINESS AS USUAL

[TN: 3.2.99; 4.2.99; BP: 8.2.99; ENN: Jan.99] – THE Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) held its 11th annual Adventure Travel And Eco-tourism Conference from 1 to 4 February in Chiang Mai, attracting 338 delegates from 35 countries, mostly buyers and suppliers of "green" tourism products. The conference theme was "Niche Within a Niche", referring to the highly specia-lized sub-segments of adventure travel and eco-tourism. Presentations and discussions focussed on traveller profiles of several visitor source markets as well as products based on different tourist experiences such as cultural and natural attractions, land-based travel like trekking and safaris and water-based activities including rafting and marine tourism.

PATA officials did not leave any doubts that "eco" stood for "economics" rather than for "ecology" at the conference. Joseph A McInerney, the regional body’s chief executive, stressed PATA wanted to work more closely with Asian governments to step up promotion efforts because the regional economic crisis had heightened the need to generate more tourism income to compensate for the shrinking manufacturing sector. With regard to competition among Asian nations in terms of tourism promotion, he said that competition would be beneficial to the whole region. "That’s what free trade is about: Competition is good because the more competition out there, the more people will become aware of the diversity Asia has to offer," he said.

"Get conservation people to think in business terms and get the private sector to think of conservation as a sexy thing to do"

Jens Uwe Parkitney, German eco-tourism writer

Harold Goodwin of the British University of Kent, pointed out in his keynote speech the importance of eco-tourism and the business opportunities available. Another keynote presenter, Chris van der Merwe, ma-naging partner of Adventure Geographic-South Africa, spoke on how to create successful ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ adventure itineraries and add value for customers.

Presenting a keynote on "The Effects of Current Events on the Eco-tourism Market in the Asia Pacific Region", Jens Uwe Parkitney, a German eco-tourism writer, suggested that business and conservation can match well. "One problem seems to be that many scientists and conservation workers on the ground are not trained for business and marketing and use their energy in position-defense rather than in developing approaches attractive to the industry," he said. "I think the mind-shift required here is one of the biggest challenges: Get conservation people to think in busi-ness terms and get the private sector to think of conservation as a sexy thing to do."

As part of the conference, PATA in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) also organized a "Friendship Caravan" for off-road drivers from northern Thailand to Yunnan in southern China via Laos. The caravan was initially planned from Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma. But this plan was bogged down in red tape and security issues so that the event had to be canceled (see also new frontiers 4[6]).

BURMA

CHIPS DOWN

[BP:10.1.99; 28.1.99] Burmese authorities reportedly warned gamblers from Thailand of visiting one of the casinos in Tachilek opposite Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district. According to a letter sent to the Mae Sai police beginning of January, Burmese officials were preparing a raid on the casino. They claimed the casino, owned by Thai military official Pol Lt-Col Adul Boonset, a close aide of former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, operated illegally as the owner had failed to obtain an additional permit.

There has also been a tale in tourism circles about a container of one-armed bandits that was shipped to Rangoon to open the first casino in the Burmese capi-tal. But the gambling machines never left the container because permission had only been granted for the casino and not for the essential equipment, needed to legally extract cash from customers.

It was reported that a German company, whose name was not revealed, had negotiated rights with the owners of the Nawarat Concorde Hotel in Rangoon to use its premises for a casino.

Despite the one-armed bandits being tied up in red tape and the opening of the casino being delayed for months, the German promoters were said to be still optimistic that the business will be up and running this year, particularly attracting a clientele from Asian countries. Plans were already made to organize charter flights from the Middle East and India. In the mean-time, construction teams would transform the 12-year-old Nawarat Concorde Hotel into a gamblers’ oasis, with the ballroom the focal point for roulette and blackjack tables, and the one-armed bandits - Las Vegas style - lined up in the lobby, corridors and even in the rest rooms.

While the sealed container with the gambling machines got stuck in the harbour, 250 foreign companies lost faith in Burma’s tourism industry and departed, disillusioned that the military regime’s pro-mises made to attract foreign investment and visitors had failed to materialize.

CAMBODIA

THE ROAD TO ANGKOR

[BP: 4.2.99; TN: 9.1.99] THAILAND’S minister in charge of tourism, Pitak Intrawithayanut, and his Cambodian counterpart, Veng Sereyvuth, recently mapped out a strategy at a meeting in Buri Ram, northeastern Thai-land, to promote overland tourism to the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.

Pitak confirmed that he was ready to push the project and secure overseas loans to improve and create road links. If he succeeds, travellers could drive all the way from eastern and northeastern Thailand to Siem Reap.

Like other neighbouring countries, Cambodia eyes the more than seven million tourists who are likely to visit Thailand this year. Siem Reap with the renowned Angkor temples is an attraction that could lure an estimated 10 per cent of the tourists to Bangkok.

There are still travel advisories warning tourists to avoid overland travel in Cambodia for safety reasons, and they will probably stay in place unless the political situation improves. But once there are signs that the country is on the road to recovery, tourism promoters believe the demand for overland travel between Thai-land and Cambodia will intensify.

Although it may take some more years to upgrade roads, if the Asian Development Bank (ADB) supports the tourism ministers’ project, the idea of overland tra-vel seems to have fueled the construction of more tou-rism facilities in Siem Reap. It is estimated that as many as 900 rooms from four-star to guest house lodging will open by 2000. That will effectively double the town’s room capacity and force hotel prices down.

However, the tourism picture is still marred by political unrest, and foreign investors and tourists are slow to return. Perhaps that is why Bangkok Airways has cleverly identified Siem Reap as its priority and pioneered daily flights from Bangkok to Angkor Wat over the last two years. It was also recently reported that the airline wants to introduce a direct service from Phuket in the next months.

However, direct flights from to Angkor, rather than via Phnom Penh, have reduced Cambodia’s tourism ear-nings and drawn complaints from Phnom Penh-based tourism entrepreneurs who say the flights primarily benefit Thailand. Cambodian tourism officials have made conflicting statements on this matter. While tourism minister Veng reportedly shrugged aside the calls to halt Bangkok Airways direct flights and wanted the airline to expand its role in Angkor tourism, secretary state of tourism Thong Khon was quoted as saying that the direct flights to Siem Reap would be stopped "as soon as possible". He added that Bangkok Airways had a contract that only allowed charter flights to Siem Reap, but the airline had incorrectly imple-mented a regularly scheduled service.

PARADISE POISONED

[PPP: 25.12.98-7.1.99; 8-21.1.99; BP: 6.2.99] – THE seaport and resort town Sihanoukville has been dusted in 3,000 tons of mercury-contaminated poison, which Taiwan petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics Corp dumped in southern Cambodia. As a result, the town’s tourism and fishing industries may be ruined, and the threat of sick-ness and birth defects are likely to haunt this commu-nity for years to come.

The highly toxic waste believed to be compressed industrial ash, was discovered in December by environmental officials in an exposed heap a few kilometers from Sihanoukville, 185 kilometers south-west of Phnom Penh. A dock worker died shortly after cleaning the hold of the ship that transported the waste, sparking hysteria and rioting in Sihanoukville that led to four more deaths in traffic accidents as panicked residents fled the town. Under pressure from the Taiwanese Environmental Protection Agency, Formosa Plastics agreed beginning of February to take back the waste, but more than two months after its discovery, it remains at the dump site. Meanwhile, industry ministry officials and even the World Health Organization (WHO) have tried to make people believe the waste is harmless, although independent tests have found that it contains concentrations of mercury that are up to 20,000 times higher than safety standards.

An investigation team of the Phnom Penh Post had found that:

  • Sihanoukville – a tourist favourite because of its fine beaches and seafood – was powdered with waste from up to 90 uncovered trucks working for several days and nights, unloading the Taiwanese freighter ‘Shung Sun’ from December 4;

  • The trucks were cleaned next to freshwater reser-voirs used by many houses for drinking and cooking and in dozens of other spots around Sihanoukville;

  • A government committee was looking to disprove rumours that tons of more toxic waste were dumped in seawaters near Sihanoukville.

Sihanoukville has been earmarked for Cambodia’s biggest tourism project. A few years ago, the Malaysian Ariston company signed a contract with the government to develop a US$1.3 billion mega-resort here, including hotels, marinas, golf courses, casinos, and international airport and a power station. This project has been postponed or abandoned. But if the plans to develop mass tourism in Sihanoukville pursue, government and industry certainly have an interest to ensure that not only local people but also investors and tourists will not be fully informed about the dangerous contamination whose scale and long-term effects are not yet known.

LAOS

GOVERNMENT OPENS ’99 WITH AUSTERITY

[TN: 21.12.98; 16.1.99] – TAKING the example of ‘Amazing Thailand’, the Lao government has prepared similar programmes for ‘Visit Laos Year’ in 1999 and 2000 to boost the tourism industry. This is a costly affair, particularly for a country that is experiencing a serious financial crisis.

"Since the summer of 1997, Laos has seen a depreciation of its currency and an inflation rate higher than any country in Asia," said Wayne Camard, a representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Vientiane. The kip currency has lost 70 per cent of its value since the Asian crisis began, and the rate of inflation has been 142 per cent last year, according to the IMF. Foreign reserves have dwindled enormously to an estimated US$100 million, which is equivalent to about two months of imports.

In January, the cash-strapped government announced severe austerity measures and tax increases to ease financial troubles. By cutting public spending on construction projects now deemed unnecessary, such as state guest houses, hotels and housing for communist party members, Laos hopes to alleviate fiscal pressure from budget and trade deficits. Wary that the regional economic crisis shows no sign of abating, the socialist government is now using the official media to urge a return to self-sufficiency away from more open market-oriented policies undertaken a few years ago.

SPECIAL REPORT

NAM NGUM "ECO"-CASINO REMAINS EMPTY

In 1996, the Lao government approved a giant casino-golf course resort project to be developed on more than 18,000 hectares in a protected forest area at the Nam Ngum Reservoir (see new frontiers 3[3], 3[4], 3[6], 1997). The casino and adjoining hotel, promoted by the Malaysian investors as part of an "eco-tourism" project, opened last October, but the big buck gambling tourists are staying away, writes AFP correspondent Frederick Balfour.

The following is edited from his report (TN: 24.2.1999]

Talk about a high-risk invest-ment. This casino is miles from the nearest town, the dealers outnumber the players by three to one, and locals aren’t even allowed to play. But that doesn’t bother the Malaysian developers of Dansavanh Nam Ngum resort, the only gambling center in Laos. They are betting their casino will lure business to this poor, landlocked country.

"The gambling center is catalyst to bring people, and a resort can put Laos on the map," said Sivadraga-sam, director of Lao-Syuen Develop-ment Co Ltd, a joint venture behind the scheme.

That socialist Laos has given its blessing to the quintessential capitalist pastime, shows how far the government is prepared to go to bring in tourist dollars. That could take a while. Laos, a mountainous, sparsely populated country has more in common with Tibet or Bhutan than Monte Carlo or Macau, but the backers of Dansavanh say it could become the Las Vegas of Indochina.

The US$200 million lakeside resort will eventually boast hang gliding, powerboat cruises, a duty free shop, a disco and karaoke lounge, and perhaps a few imported kangaroos.

"It’s billed as an eco-tourism pro-ject," Sivadragasam explained, with a perfect poker face. "It’s a resort where we will allow people to get away from the city to relax in comfort, not getting malaria."

Best known for its Buddhist temples and dazzling traditional textiles, Laos discouraged tourism until the early 1990s. Last year, nearly 400,000 foreigners visited Laos, which hopes for even more in 1999, "Visit Laos Year". How many of them make it to the casino remains to be seen. On a Saturday afternoon here just a handful of gamblers were to be found – with most of the tables filled with young Lao hard at work perfecting their card shuffling technique. "We don’t have any high rollers yet," explained Milton Barroquillo, a Filipino pit boss.

The casino has been open 24 hours a day since it started ope-rating last October with 27 gaming tables offering roulette, blackjack, Sic Bo (Tai Sai) and 70 slot machines, most of which lie idle. All wagers are in Thai baht as the Lao kip is a non-convertible currency whose value on the black market has plunged 70 per cent in the past 18 months.

Most of the 100 local staff are college graduates earning about US$50 a month – about five times the average salary of a civil servant. Permission to interview them was denied for "security reasons" by the casino owners.

Yet there are no metal detectors of muscle bound guards with ear-phones, and overall security is the responsibility of the defense mini-stry, the local partner in the project. The ministry also ensures that "undesirable elements" like prosti-tution and racketeering don’t take root. "It is entirely different from other casinos. There is no night-club, only healthy massage," said Yan Kock Yuan, the Malaysian Chinese managing director of Lao-Syuen on behalf of Malaysian con-glomerate Syuen Yan Corp.

The casino resort is 80 kilometers from Vientiane, and the last 12 are a horrowing rollercoaster ride re-cently cut through the mountain ending at Nam Ngum Lake, breathtakingly beautiful and un-spoiled save for the concrete mon-strosity housing the casino and adjoining hotel.

About 70 per cent of the gamblers come from Thailand, bussed in from the bridge across the Mekong River from Nong Khai, with a charter ser-vice schedule that ensures most people stay all night. The remaining visitors are Chinese, Malaysians and expatriates living in Vientiane.

THAILAND

CAMPAIGN : BOYCOTT HOLLYWOOD’S ‘THE BEACH’!

(BP; TN; IRN; II] - ON 15 January, 20th Century Fox began filming ‘The Beach’ at Phi Phi Island’s Maya Bay, while local protests continued against environmental damage to the protected area and an international campaign was launched, which includes a proposal to boycott the Hollywood movie, starring Leonardo diCaprio.

A group of 37 law professors from various universities in Thailand found that the film production team committed several illegal acts in Phi Phi Island National Park’: The digging up of sand dunes, the uprooting of plants, the levelling of sand dunes, the cutting of plant roots, the digging of holes to plant 100 coconut trees, the digging and laying of fresh-water pipes, the building of a pier and other construction in the area of Maya Bay and other places on Phi Phi Ley Island, as well as the closing off of the bay to tourists, are acts forbidden under Thailand’s National Park Act (see also new frontiers 4[6]).

On 11 January, the Civil Court accepted a lawsuit filed by 19 residents and two elected assemblies from Krabi province against Fox, its local coordinator Santa International and Thai government officials who had granted permission to the film-makers to make prohibited changes within the borders of a national park. Initially, the hearing on the case was scheduled to take place on 26 March when the filming would be long over and the Hollywood film crew had left Thailand. On 15 January, however, the Civil Court also accepted the plaintiffs’ demands to impose an emergency ban on the filming unless the Fox studio provided an acceptable defense and a 100 million baht (US$2.8 million) bond.

"Leo, stop breaking our laws and our hearts"

Protest banner displayed in front of the hotel in Phuket, where Leo DiCaprio stayed during filming at Maya Beach

The accused government officials – Agriculture Minister Pongpol Adireksarn and director-general of the Royal Forestry Department, Plodprasop Suraswadee, denied any wrongdoings, maintaining they allowed the landscape changes on Phi Phi island with the "best intention" to promote tourism and Fox had promised to put the beach back in its original state after filming was completed. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai also stepped in, saying shooting ‘The Beach’ in Thailand would do the country more good than harm. "Filming here will create more jobs and enhance our image, which is what every country wants," he argued.

Meanwhile, film-producer Andrew McDonald admitted in an interview aired on the Thai television channel ITV that the image of his project "is terrible".

DiCaprio, who arrived in Thailand in the midst of the battle, got to feel the heat as well. An AFP report said: "A huge environmental row over the movie is threatening to sink Thailand’s love affair with the ‘Titanic’ star." After having been pampered on a first-class flight to Phuket and put up in a luxury hotel with a breath-taking view over the Andaman Sea, DiCaprio was not allowed to move without an army of bodyguards on his side. Despite the tight security measures, some 30 environmentalists and a group of Thai and foreign journalists from several provinces in southern Thailand staged a rally on board of two boats moored in front of the hotel, where the mega-star was staying, to voice their opposition to the shooting of ‘The Beach’. They waved banners reading: "Leo, stop breaking our laws and our hearts", "Leo, stop killing national parks" and "Don’t rape our beach".

LEO IN RESPONSE OF THE PROTESTS: "IT IS BEYOND ME"

Excerpts of a statement issued by LeonardoDiCaprio on 5.2.1999, after the filming of ‘The Beach’ was completed on Maya Beach

I am acting here in Thailand, in a film called ‘The Beach’. It is about backpackers who look for utopia on a Thai island. The location in the book where the story’s utopia is set is in a national park, so we have remained true to the book. Phi Phi Ley Island seems the most perfect location that the book’s author, Alex Garland, could have imagined. A small island encompassing a wall of rock, with an idyllic world inside.

In the film, the interesting thing about my character, Richard, is he is a backpacker in the true sense of the word. A rugged individualist. He is not looking for luxury. He is truly looking for adventure. The great thing about real backpackers, who come to foreign countries, is they go to more isolated places, and improve the commerce of the people who live there.

I think the release of a film like this will encourage young people to see the beauty of Thailand, and encourage more young backpackers to come here. This film will also encourage more people to explore the countryside of Thailand, and some of the isolated villages that wouldn’t normally earn money from tourism… I told a lot of my friends I was coming here, and they were very interested too.

I also want to say a few things about what is going on, concerning the environmental issues of our shooting in Thailand, and would like to tell my side of the story, and put the record straight. For example, I would never, by any means, intentionally go forth with a project that I believed would damage the environment of any country, or the image of Thailand. I just want to say two points: I know that the (Fox) company took three tons of garbage off the island, and I believe that whenever we leave the island, it is going to be better off than it was before.

From what I see with my own eyes, everything is okay. I have seen nothing that had been destroyed or damaged in any way. I cannot tell you the reasons why people have been saying the opposite. It is beyond me… Thank you very much for your time.

A few days later, the press reported that Fox wanted DiCaprio to promote Thai tourism, and promptly ‘The Beach’ star came up with two public statements, paying tribute to Thailand as a "magnificent" tourist destination and defending the shooting of the film (see box). But he failed to impress the critics. "The fact of the matter is that DiCaprio is starring in a film that is destroying the environment," said Manit Sriwanichpoom, one of the protest leaders. "He is part of the problem because he is allowing himself to be used by ‘The Beach’ and the Thai government in their mutual attempt to desecrate our National Park Protection Act…"

After relentless efforts by the anti-‘The Beach’ campaigners in overcoming forces of big money and power, the legal process also proved difficult, and repeated appeals to block the filming on Phi Phi island in time were fruitless because the defendants successfully applied delaying tactics to undermine the emergency ban. But the protesters vowed to fight on.

On 29 January, representatives of 20 civic and environmental groups rallied in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok, thus taking the case right to 20th Century Fox’s doorstep at home. Hoping that the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) would help to bring about justice, they handed a petition over to a FBI official, seeking a ruling by the US Department of Justice on allegations that Fox bribed Thai government officials to sabotage national park law for the permission to change the landscape in a protected area.

In the meantime, news of another conflict broke as more scenes of ‘The Beach’ were planned to be shot from 8-10 February at a waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, some 250 km northeast of Bangkok. The Khao Yai Protection Forum – an alliance of several local environmental groups - presented an open letter to the provincial governor of Nakorn Ratchasima, calling on the authorities to disclose the contract signed with the Fox company and to inform the public on the activities the film-makers were allowed to conduct in the national park. After their demand remained unheeded, they produced a video, which documented that the production team of ‘The Beach’ actually cut down tree branches, disrupted the ecological system by using pumps to boost the flow of water, and caused other environmental damage at Khao Yai’s Haew Suwat Waterfall. Subsequently, several protest groups filed a complaint with the police against the film-makers for violating the 1961 National Park Act and the 1992 Environment Act. Thirasak Chikhunthod of the Law Society of Thailand commented there were enough witnesses and evidence to file criminal and civil suits against the production team of ‘The Beach’ for changing the environment and discharging paints and chemicals into the waters in Khao Yai National Park.

Fox’s activities in Phi Phi Island and Khao Yai National Park and the government’s eagerness to support the controversial filming of ‘The Beach’ in return for a petty sum of money have made a mockery of Thailand’s legal system. The Nation concluded in an editorial: "The whole scenario concerning ‘The Beach’ shows that there has been a total breakdown in the system, and as a consequence those who have been mandated the power to protect our rights and interests have failed us… In the end, Fox will simply move on to its next project and give Phi Phi and Khao Yai parks – and the upheaval and the mess they have caused – not a second’s thought. The Hollywood ‘big shot’ syndrome and the power of money reign supreme in their world, not the dignity of a Third World country. And when the bickering and din die down, the bureaucrats will be left with the money, the people with empty promises and the country with a reputation for being an easily trampled upon banana republic."

It is also utterly clear that this entire issue goes far beyond any tourism benefits - the government’s main argument to defend the filming - because public interests and the sanctity of law are at stake. However, this sordid ‘The Beach’ affair serves as an excellent case study on how persistent state officials are in conveying the message to the public that: If it is for the tourist dollars – and that’s what we want – anything goes, and there is nothing you can do about it.

In this situation, it is important that concerned citizens in Thailand and elsewhere demonstrate that they can make a difference. The controversy surrounding ‘The Beach’ has already received much attention from the international media, and the California-based International Rivers Network (IRN) has launched a worldwide campaign to raise public awareness on this case and to encourage people to address letters to Andrew McDonald, producer of ‘The Beach’, telling him they may boycott the film.

For more information on IRN’s international campaign, contact:

International Rivers Network

 Attn. Aviva Imhof, South-East Asia Campaigns

The film-producer’s address is:

Andrew Mc Donald

  • C/o Carol Sewell

    10201 W. Pico Blvd. Building 89, Room 224

    Los Angeles, CA 90035, USA.

For updates on ‘The Beach’ also check out web sites: http://www.nationmultimedia.com and http://www.wildrockies.org

MON COMMUNITY UNDER ‘AMAZING THAILAND’ SIEGE

[BP: 13.1.99] – AS a result of the ‘Amazing Thailand’ pro-motion, the ethnic Mon community of Koh Kret – a small island in the Chao Phaya River outside of Bangkok – returned to their tradition to make earthen-ware products. The switch to tourism business has proved successful in economic terms – but it is also destroying the social fabric of the local community.

The Mon community in Nonthaburi province has been famed for its pottery since it arrived on the island during the 18th century when King Rama I gave them the territory after they fled unrest in Burma. Over the centuries, the Mon people have integrated in Thai society in many ways, while at the same time fiercely preserving their own customs and traditions. Their Songkran (New Year) celebrations, ordination ceremo-nies and cremations are still performed the ancient way, and the Mon language is still spoken and written in the community. Agriculture flourishes on Koh Kret, but the Mons there are most renowned for their exper-tise in crafting earthenware items such as water jars, large bowls and pitchers etched with distinctive Mon designs.

When the Amazing Thailand tourism campaign was announced for 1998 and 1999, the authorities of Nonthaburi province responded immediately. Public relations efforts were made to attract visitors to Koh Kret, and the production of earthenware handicrafts was boosted in the hope tourists would buy them as souvenirs and income would be generated.

The PR campaign was a success. Koh Kret was close enough to Bangkok to be a day trip. Getting there was inexpensive and easy – visitors could park at the river banks and take a ferry for only two baht. As a result, tourists flocked there at weekends, and Koh Kret experienced a boom in 1998. Every week, new shops appeared, and customers kept coming to spend at them.

Then the problems started. At the pier across the island, freelance boat operators set themselves up and demanded much higher fares to the island. There were stories of unscrupulous boatmen taking tourists to other destinations before finally dropping them at Koh Kret pier.

Earthenware vendors also did not coordinate their prices. Some buyers got bargains, while others paid more for similar products. Some merchants allegedly brought in earthenware pieces from other provinces and sold them at a profit while touting them as local produce.

Phisan Boonphuk, a conservationist who owns a pottery museum on the island, said he had observed all this with dismay. "I have been a leader among Koh Kret residents in suggesting ways the community can develop itself in a unified way," he said. "An effort of this kind can only succeed if everyone helps each other, and works with honesty and sincerity. This has to be done quickly because tourists are coming in great numbers, and changes are occurring very fast."

"We have to conserve our identity as a Mon commu-nity with a simple lifestyle," he further explained. "We should live in a friendly and informal way and not become obseesed with doing business and making profits. We don’t have to buttonhole customers and yank them into our shops."

Phisan also expressed concern about tourists being cheated by greedy boat operators. "We are on the island, and there’s nothing we can do about what happens on the other side of the water," he explained. "We’d like the cheating to stop, and we’ve complained to Pak Kret municipality. They called a meeting of village headmen and community leaders from every tambon (sub-district) to ask for their views. [But] no one of Koh Kret was invited, and the people who did attend didn’t want to stop the freelance boat services, which they apparently said were of benefit to them."

Warin Mapan, who sells earthenware handicrafts to tourists on Koh Kret, said the current pricing situation worried him. "Some visitors pay a high price for something, and then discover they can buy it cheaper at another shop," he said. "That leaves a bad impres-sion. They feel they’ve been tricked or taken advantage of."

Dr Anuchat Poungsamlee of Mahidol University’s Faculty of Environment and Resource Studies sees a troubled future for the Mon community given the rapid tourism development there. "Koh Kret is like other communities that lack balance in terms of insiders and outsiders," he said. This procession of outsiders is the handiwork of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and one thing that makes a community forget the feeling of love they have for their place is the sudden advent of high income earned from tourism. Making money is an end in itself, and the sanctity of the community is forgotten."

"The Mons have to define a way of relating to people outside – a way that allows them to maintain their internal balance," Anuchat concluded. "They must maintain the solid basis of their community. They can’t let the situation arise that everything is viewed in cash terms."

VIETNAM

TOURISM ON THE GROUND

[BP: 27.12.98; 12.1.99] – AT the Sixth ASEAN Summit held in Hanoi last December, much attention was paid to the subjects of how the member countries could best cooperate to overcome the current economic crisis and to increase transborder business and tourism. But in Vietnam, the host nation of the regional gathering and a country where foreign business and tourism are floundering, many citizens were unsure if promises made at the summit will actually help ordinary Vietnamese weather their problems.

Mr Cu, owner of a restaurant catering to tourists, put little credence in Vietnam’s ability to improve its links with neighbours and to draw more tourists. "Tourism is sharply off since the initial high times when the country opened up to foreign travel… In the past year, my restaurant is hardly full any more, and when it is, it is full of backpackers swapping stories about different places in Vietnam where they got ripped off. My family, like other Vietnamese, who welcomed the opening by going into the tourist trade, are left out now and have little income."

Many other entrepreneurs and workers in the tourism sector in Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities confirm Cu’s sentiments. Vu Tat Thanh, a restaurateur in Hanoi, said that "you can see on the street in Hanoi that there are far fewer tourists. People came once to Vietnam, but will not come back. And other people are scared off by many of the negative things they have heard about our country. I cannot see the ASEAN summit doing much for my restaurant or trickling down to help anyone in the travel trade here, really."

Sources at business journals estimate that tourism has dropped more than 40 per cent year-on-year in 1998. According to Tran Thien Nghi of the Vietnam General Administration of Tourism, the main reason for this spectacular slump is the economic crisis in the region. The number of visitors from South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, which account for the bulk of foreign tourists, experienced the sharpest falls.

The downturn in Vietnam’s tourism industry has taken a heavy toll on hotels, many of which have been forced to close in the past year. International hotels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, whose occupancy levels are only about 30 per cent at present, are offering discounts of up to 75 per cent in a desperate attempt to fill empty rooms. "Nobody is making any money. We are just earning enough to cover costs," said David Thornton, sales and marketing director at the Hanoi Horizon Hotel, managed by Swissotel.

Joshua Levine of the Vietnam Business Journal pointed out Vietnam’s official dual-pricing policy as a major obstacle to develop international tourism. "The Vietnamese government tells citizens to charge foreig-ners more for everything – it’s a quick buck kind of strategy," he said. "Look at Vietnam Airlines – even they have the dual-pricing policy. So tourists’ feeling in Vietnam is always coloured by feeling like they are getting advantage of everywhere…"

Another business journalist commented: "I believe the Vietnamese government gives foreign-owned hotels no support, has no long-term plan for attracting foreign visitors and gives local merchants the impression they should gouge tourists… All of this leads to a lack of quality in Vietnam’s service industry, to bad feelings on the part of the tourists and foreign investors in Vietnamese tourism, and eventually to just more poverty for the local Vietnamese."

Indeed, walking around in the larger cities, one can observe how Vietnam’s tourism decline has starved some citizens who left other jobs to work in the service industry. In Hanoi, for example, college-age men and women, who opened up tourist cafes have reverted to attempting to peddle cheap postcards on the streets. In Hue, staff at several smaller hotels, who had given up previous employment and now face lay-offs complained that "we have been duped by the government promises of rich tourists."

SOURCES USED IN THIS ISSUE:

BP=Bangkok Post; ENN=Ecotourism Network Newsletter (in Thai); II=Insider Information; IRN=International Rivers Network; PPP=Phnom Penh Post; TN=The Nation.

new frontiers is designed to foster informed discussion and action on tourism, development and environment issues in the Mekong subregion. The information can be reproduced freely, although acknowledgement to the publisher would be appreciated as well as the sending of cuttings of articles based on this document.

 Published by: Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), with support from the

Third World Network (TWN), Penang/Malaysia

Contact address: t.i.m.-team, P.O. Box 51 Chorakhebua, Bangkok 10230, Thailand, Fax: 66-2-519.2821 

 

 

 


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