new frontiers

Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues

in the Mekong Subregion

Vol. 5, No.3 May-June 1999




[TN: 23.5.99] – CULTURAL tourism is one of Asia’s fastest growing area of leisure travel, with millions of visitors to ancient monuments and historic landscapes helping chalk up billions of dollars in sales each year. However, Richard Englehardt, Asia-Pacific culture adviser for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), warned the more countries seek to earn money from cultural tourism, the more they risk de-stroying historic sites.

"Certainly I think it is a very real possibility," he said. "Everywhere, departments of archaeology or conserva-tion have had budgets slashed, so they have less money to spend on maintenance of sites, yet at the same time, they are being told to promote tourism."

Travel industry research reveals sights of culture and heritage are the top priority for Asian tourists, having overtaken shopping, which led at the start of this decade. Developers are boggled by the potential and are looking to build more mid-market and budget-class hotels to cater to the millions they expect to tour underdeveloped hinterlands.

UNESCO officials are worried as many cultural and historic sites are being plagued with litter and vandals etch griffiti into walls of sacred monuments, while the sheer number of visitors destroys these places faster than they can be restored.

In addition, rice terraces cultivated by traditional methods for 3,000 years in the Philippines and remote villages all over Southeast Asia, China and India are being promoted as new tourist products.

"The ecological balance is so fragile that even a bit of an increase in tourism can create a huge downward spiral," Englehardt said. "The demand of tourists for vegetables has made many farmers stop growing rice and replant vegetables, but the old way of growing rice maintained the terraces people want to see. Now the terraces are being removed to accommodate new crops," he added.

In response, UNESCO has launched Impact, a series of in-depth studies to promote responsible tourism. Each report will feature one heritage site and focus on ways to develop its tourist potential while preserving its integrity.


[BP: 16.5.99; 21.5.99] – BORDER crossings from Thailand into Laos, Cambodia and Burma are being reviewed after complaints that the main function of them is to facilitate the movement of gamblers and criminals to Thai-owned casino resorts across frontiers. The move came after a subcommittee of the Thai Parliament visited a crossing in Chiang Rai province to investigate whether it could worsen gambling, smuggling, drug trafficking and other crime in the area.

The casino in question is part of the Golden Triangle and Paradise Resort located on the Burmese side of the border opposite to Chiang Saen district. The resort project, including a hotel and nightclubs, was initiated during the administration of Thailand’s late prime minister Chatchai Choonhavan in 1990 aimed to promote tourism.

Provincial MP Samphan Lertnuwat of the New Aspi-ration Party argued Interior Minister Sanan Kachorn-prasart should order the closure of the border checkpoint at Chiang Saen, which has been open since last October, because only gamblers and not local people would benefit from the casino.

Pol Gen Charn Rattanatham, the House committee’s adviser, also pointed out that gamblers use a border pass in Trat province to visit the casino of the Koh Kong International Resort Club in Cambodia, draining millions of dollars out of Thailand annually, while the pass was used very little for trade.




From 19 to 30 April 1999, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) made an effort to develop an international work programme on sustainable tourism development on request of the General Assembly for the review and appraisal of the implementation of Agenda 21, the action plan for sustainable development launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. However, this 7th Session of the CSD with a focus on sustainable tourism received little attention in this region. In fact, t.i.m.-team could not find any report in Thailand’s press media on the event. This is very unfortunate, given that Thailand is one of the most advanced tourism economies in the world and has been struggling with the whole range of tourism-induced problems for years. Surely, Thailand and its neighbouring countries, which have recently thrown open their doors to international tourism, could learn some lessons from the discussions at the CSD.

The Tourism Dialogue, held from 19 to 21 April, involved discussions between government delegates and representatives of industry, trade unions, local authorities and NGOs. Lead organizations included the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the International Hotel and Restaurant Association (IH&RA), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) and the CSD NGO Steering Committee. The major themes discussed were (a) industry initiatives for sustainable tourism, (b) influencing tourism behaviour, (c) promoting broad-based sustainable development while safeguarding the integrity of local cultures and protecting the environment, and (d) coastal impact of tourism.

Of particular interest for Third World tourist destinations were the proposals to tackle adverse impacts at the local level. For example, several groups agreed to establish a multi-stakeholder group to work in collaboration with relevant UN agencies, which would consider issues such as:

  • financial leakages and how to maximize benefits for local communities;
  • preparing a joint initiative to improve information availability and capacity building for participation thus enabling communities to manage social and environmental change;
  • developing a plan to ensure indigenous people’s and other local communities’ land, water and other natural resource rights.

There was general agreement that local authorities and local communities must play a key role in determining their "carrying capacity" for tourism development. Especially local government representatives stressed that the tourism industry should be subjected to stricter regulation and be made pay a fair share to maintain the natural and cultural assets in destinations.

Some participants expressed considerable concern about the negative effects of globalization and pointed out the significant differences in the objectives of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Agenda 21. A statement presented by the NGO tourism caucus (26.4.99) said: "International trade and investment agreements increasingly undermine the autonomy and participation of local authorities and communities and threaten the capacity of local industries, in particular small-scale tourism enterprises… We suggest… that the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) be amended to take account of the general and special needs of local communities and regions in the liberalization process. GATS and other WTO/OMC agreements should not undermine the self-determination of local people in the development course and support sustainable tourism rather than unsustainable practices."

The WTTC, which primarily represents transnational tourism corporations and aggressively promotes tourism globalization and self-regulation of the industry, lobbied strongly to get approval for its own "Agenda 21 for Travel and Tourism" and its "Green Globe" environmental initiative during the CSD tourism dialogue. However, such voluntary initiatives launched by industry were considered by participants as "being complementary to national and local regulatory efforts." It was also agreed that existing voluntary measures need to be further developed with multi-stakeholder participation under an appropriate monitoring and assessment system.

Based on the outcome of the dialogue sessions and the progress made so far by major groups working towards sustainable tourism development (STD), the CSD in its Draft Decision (of 29.4.99) invites all parties participating in the process "to promote sustainable tourism development in order to increase the benefits from the tourism resources for the population in the host communities and maintain the cultural and environmental integrity of the host community…"

In particular, it urges governments "to advance STD, inter alia through development and implementation of policies and national strategies or master plans for STD based on Agenda 21…", and calls upon the tourism industry "to develop environmentally, socially and culturally compatible forms of tourism and to continue the development and implementation of voluntary initiatives in support of STD, bearing in mind that such forms of tourism and initiatives should meet, or preferably exceed, relevant local, national, regional or international standards."

Many groups concerned with tourism consider it as a great achievement that the CSD has put tourism on its agenda. But so far, the results of the effort to establish a more stringent international framework for the tourism industry are insufficient and vague. This is not surprising because of the greatly divergent interests and motives of the various parties involved, and consensus-building at the global level is naturally a difficult affair. Some critics would argue that the CSD tourism initiative is still a non-starter, and at best gives the opportunity to raise awareness and further debates outside the UN system at the local, national and regional levels.

Annette Groth, until recently the executive secretary of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism (ECTWT), criticized the lack of expertise on tourism issues of many participants at the CSD session. But there also seemed to be a lack of will to properly present and assess the hard facts and problems. Some government delegates, for example, indulged in the customary speech-making to promote their countries as attractive tourism destinations, rather than focussing on the real situation and seeking to contribute to the search for problem solutions. Understandably, delegations from the South were unhappy that Northern delegates, particularly from European Union states, rebuked them for not doing enough against sex tourism, child exploitation, poor working conditions for tourism employees, etc., while tending to omit that tourism companies in their own countries directly or indirectly support such deplorable practices in Third World destinations.

In a special public relations stunt, WTTC president Geoffrey Lipman brought a giant doll of "Dodo" – the cartoon star of the WTTC’s Green Globe environmental education campaign – to one of the plenary sessions and placed it next to him in a "seat of honor". Without any questioning, dialogue participants agreed to support the Dodo project and to favour the development of similar initiatives.

While parts of the Northern NGO community tended to uncritically endorse the WTTC agenda, many Southern NGO representatives, having experienced first hand the overwhelming effects of tourism globalization and liberalization in their countries, rigorously opposed an industry-led and self-regulated scenario and strongly lobbied for local communities’ and indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, including the right to say no to tourism.

Nina Rao, a board member of the NGO Equations in India and the newly elected Southern co-coordinator of the NGO tourism caucus, noted the CSD process reflects the predominance of the Northern interests and the perspectives of industry and government, rather than the real developmental needs of people and communities. Indeed, there are justifiable concerns that the "democratic" multi-stakeholder process at the CSD may end up with - what an official delegate from Zimbabwe recently said about the WTO process - "the powerful having their way, and the weak having their say."

In any event, it is hoped that the international work programme on sustainable tourism development adopted by the CSD can be defined and improved in cooperation with concerned UN agencies, the Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and other relevant bodies. The next CBD meeting in Montreal in June presents another important opportunity for a comprehensive and public assessment of the CSD’s work on tourism so far.



[TI: May 1999] – IN an interview with Reuters, State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Foreign Minister Win Aung seemed to indicate that the Burmese regime has effectively given up on tourism as a means of moder-nizing the economy. He also blamed Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) for the failure of the SPDC’s campaign to cash in on tourism.

"We had a vision that we could start our economy moving with tourism, so we put in a lot of effort and money preparing for that," he said. "Then they had a campaign not to visit Myanmar (Burma)."

With tourism earning far less hard currency than originally anticipated, the regime is turning increasingly to agriculture, which accounts for 45 per cent of Burma’s Gross Domestic Product, to keep the country afloat. Meanwhile, to make up for the fallout from tourism, the regime has increased the tax burden on foreign-owned hotels.


[BP: 30.4.99; 7.5.99; 9.5.99; TN: 15.5.99] – THE Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic insurgent group opposing the Rangoon regime, issued a warning to the Malaysian Royal Perak Motor Club, which organized a 20-day overland trip for 30 tourists from Ipoh in Malaysia to Rangoon in May. The convoy was scheduled to pass through Myawaddy, Kawkareik, Pa-an, Thaton, Kyaitho and Pago in Burma.

KNU officials said the caravan would be travelling through a "war zone" and could be attacked by armed forces on their way to Rangoon. The KNU, which has been fighting for autonomy from the central government for five decades, said it doubted the Burmese army could provide effective security.

In an attempt to carve out new overland tourism routes to Burma, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Thailand-based tour operators such as Diethelm Travel have already initiated several motor caravans and rallys, but only few of them actually took place due to a myriad problems (see new frontiers 4[6]).

In response to a recently announced off-road motor rally from Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province to Mar-taban town in Burma, a displaced person from Mergui-Tavoy district in Burma said in a protest letter to the Bangkok Post: "Both the railroad works and road expansion (in Burma) have caused the indigenous peoples’ displacement and loss of property and money. There also have been lives lost through forcible labour on the (Ye-Tavoy) railroad. The planned rally from Ban I Tong to Kalainaung to Martaban town on the other side of Moulmein will be a further slap in the face of Burmese people. People inside Burma long for peace and justice, and do not want to see Thai honeymooners benefiting from the pain caused them by the military junta" (see also Background, p.4).


[BP: 8.4.99; 12.4.99; 2.6.99] – REJECTING the warnings of United Nations officials that an AIDS epidemic could explode in military-run Burma, the Rangoon regime issued a statement in April, claiming Burma had no "sex industry" and AIDS was under control. It further said the government had taken great steps to control the epidemic since 1985 and denied that Burma was spreading AIDS to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and India.

Peter Piot, executive director of the UN AIDS pro-gramme, had earlier stated at a conference that HIV/ AIDS was exploding in Burma, and the regime was largely ignoring it. He added his programme was focusing on Burma, with an estimated 440,000 people infected with HIV/AIDS, as one of the major danger zones in the region. "We need to concentrate our efforts on Burma, convince the government this is a matter not only involving people but of national security," he said.

Beginning of June, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) unveiled a US$8.2-million action plan to contain the spread of AIDS in and among Mekong neighbouring countries. The surge of HIV/AIDS could jeopardize plans to foster economic growth in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) through the building of infrastructure links, warned an ADB official.

"The suspicion of HIV/AIDS is enough to destroy regional cooperation," the bank’s senior programmes officer Myo Thant said. "We say ‘let’s build roads’, but they must not become conduits for HIV/AIDS. It can be prevented, but the time to think about it is now, before the corridors are built."



Most development experts and international organizations maintain that well-planned development of roads and other infrastructure is an essential part of economic progress as it boosts tourism and trade. However, when the Burmese military regime builds roads, it naturally has its own interests at heart, writes Emily Zeamer.

(Edited from an article in Burma Issues, March 1999).

The official daily The New Light of Myanmar, 13 June 1997, reported: "The Secretary-1 said that (between 1989 and May 1997) 2,039 miles of dirt roads, 831 miles and one furlong of gravel roads and 110 miles and six furlongs of asphalt roads were paved and 6,804 miles of roads were repaired. Thirty-one large and 653 small bridges and six sus-pension bridges (were) built on these roads during this period."

To maintain power, the Burmese government needs to maintain strict control over the activities of its citi-zens, while somehow allowing them enough space to make the money that it needs to keep military and bureacracy together. It is a delicate balance, and roads are tricky pro-jects in that regard. Compared to other types of development – tourism hotels or coffee plantations – the benefits of a road can in theory be fairly democratic, accru-ing to everyone who uses it. Free-dom for many means freedom to travel. It is hard to lock up a road to keep out the undesirables. By using regulations, tariffs, trade agree-ments, and military force, however, the junta does its best.

In the late 1980s, Burma’s government shifted from total eco-nomic isolation to limited engage-ment with its neighbours. It began a new phase of infrastructure deve-lopment, opened new border trade routes, and in 1989 threw the diplomatic and trade doors wide open to China. But roads can be traveled in both directions, and Burmese goods and currency have tended to flow out of the country on the same routes at a faster rate than imports have been brought in. Indeed, the government’s continual challenge has been to direct traffic on its roads – to control what tra-vels, and to whose benefits.

Strategic and military routes require a different kind of traffic control. As the Burma Army moves in to "pacify" an area, it builds roads. In many remote areas, an increasing number of rural roads crisscross former insurgent held zones. Free travel on these roads is a right restricted to the Burmese military. When local people travel, they must typically pay for ‘passes’ and take their chances.

Where government forces leave off, the forces of capitalism and local corruption take over, making travel difficult if not impossible for Burma’s poor. In border areas, armed groups of every variety set up ‘toll’ checkpoints where they charge travelling taxes for the right to pass. In other areas, government officials or even private development compa-nies may collect fees for the use of a road.

Even if many poor and less powerful citizens are effectively barred from using new roads, their construction and presence is likely to impact people’s lives in nume-rous ways. Road construction and repair remain one of the most common uses of local forced labour. Once built, the government uses new roads to help establish various means of control, such as military and administrative offices.

A new rural route in Burma is also likely to shift the economic climate against the poorest and least powerful, by opening areas to exploitation by wealthy speculators. Roads improve access to forests or farmland, and at the same time significantly increase the value of adjacent land. Land grabbing and speculation along roadsides, both by government officials and by wealthy businessmen is reported to be widespread in Burma.

In Burma’s current climate, even development projects as ordinary roads may bring as many risks to the poor as they do opportunities to the rich. If increasing injustice is to be avoided, potential development projects need to consider not only the physical and economic needs of individual communities affected, but they must also take into account the local and national power structures that may affect people’s ability to take advantage of these projects.



Isolated for many years, tiny, landlocked Laos today faces numerous challenges, some of which will be brought by tourism and cross border links with neighbouring countries. The following report is excerpted from a feature article by Joshua Kurlantzick [BP:11.4.99]

Significant changes lie just on the near horizon for Laos. For one, the country is expanding its road and air links with its regional neighbours.

At the recent (Singapore) ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF), delegates discussed ways to improve air links to Vientiane and Luang Prabang and to generate more traffic through these towns.

Pitak Intrawithiyanunt, the minister in charge of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, believes a new airline which focuses on the Mekong region – highlighting Luang Prabang and other destinations under-served by other carriers – will be launched this year. This Mekong Airline would also boost air links to Laos.

On the ground, the Chiang Rai-Kunming Road Improvement Project, which runs through Laos, is progressing on schedule. A new bridge over the Mekong River connecting Mukdahan, Thailand, with Savannah-khet, Laos, is being planned; construction is set to begin next year. The road over this bridge will be part of the planned East-West Transport Corridor Project linking Thailand, Laos and the port of Danang in Vietnam. Internal roads such as Laos Route 13 are also upgraded, with the help of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

These projects will be supported by a number of recently drafted agreements between Laos and its neighbours enshrining the freer flow of goods and people. At the ASEAN Summit (in Hanoi) in December 1998, leaders signed the Framework Agreement on the Facilitation of Goods in Transit, which will open the way for vehicles carrying goods to move more easily through ASEAN states.

Regarding the movement of people, at the February 1999 ATF, Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Lee Yock Suan said that "officials agreed to accelerate liberalization among ASEAN states in the tourism industry… with the view to removing all obstacles to the free flow of tourism." This liberalization probably will include tax exemptions for foreign companies investing in tourism-related construction in an ASEAN state, quicker intra-regional customs clearance, an easing of intra-ASEAN visa regulations, and the production of more coordinated intra-regional tourism promotions.

Already, Laos and the other countries in the Mekong subregion have produced Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) press kits, maps, and marketing strategies to promote the subregion as a tourist destination. Besides improving transit links with its neighbours and taking part in liberalization of trade and tourism, Laos itself has initiated several plans to boost its numbers of tourist arrivals. These plans are not directly part of the coordinated Mekong subregion promotions, although they do tangentially concern Laos’ neighbours.

For one, Laos has designated 1999-2000 as "Visit Laos Year" and has set a goal for this time period of hosting one million visitors and earning US$128 million in tourist dollars. At the ATF in Singapore, Sannya Abhay, deputy director of the Laos National Tourism Authority, remarked that for Visit Laos Year, Laotians are trying to make the country much easier to visit by reducing visa-on-arrival fees to US$30 from US$50, spending considerably more funds promoting Laos to tourists, offering special visas for short-term cross-border travellers, and opening more border checkpoints.

Laos also recently allowed a sizeable Thailand-based tour operator to open the first "luxury boat" service from Huay Sai and Luang Prabang, one of the most beautiful stretches of the Mekong – a stretch which in the future could draw thousands more visitors.

On a larger scale, the Lao government gave its bles-sing to the construction of a large casino at Dansavanh Nam Ngum resort, financed by Malaysians. In an interview with AFP, Mr Sivadragasam, director of the joint venture behind the casino, said that "the gaming centre is a catalyst to bring people, and a resort can put Laos on the map."

Imagining Laos as a bigger tourist destination and a more important trading nation is not impossible. Clearly, no one expects Laos to remain underdeveloped and isolated forever – why would one wish this fate on any country. But aspects of Laos’ modernization, which is picking up steam, may cause environmental and socio-economic problems in the country.

The Asian economic crisis has hurt Laos too: the country’s trade deficit has risen, the kip (Laos’ currency) has become less stable, and the country’s (financial) reserves have dwindled. Given these pro-blems, Laos’ leaders may look to tourism as a foreign exchange earning saviour and may allow the country during Visit Laos Year to host many more visitors than the tiny state’s infrastructure can handle.

According to one veteran Laos analyst, leading (Communist) Party officials including Prime Minister Sisavath Keobounphanh have fought about the extent to which Laos should open its borders to visitors and about the degree to which it should move away from ties with Thailand towards trade links with other nations. Mark Heather, director of (the Bangkok) Mahidol University’s Travel Industry programme, believes that because of these internal struggles "Laos is constantly stuck in a start-stop process, which confuses countries around them… and makes them mad if Laos stops. (The Laotians) want to preserve the past while developing their future…"

(However,) as a late starter, Laos has the benefit of hindsight. Mr Heather says that "obviously, there are a lot of things that Thailand has done regarding tourism that no one would want to repeat." He cites the destruction of beaches and overcrowding of tourist sites as examples of mismanagement not to be copied. Hopefully, Laos can draw lessons from this.



[BP: 18.4.99; 9.5.99] – FOR more than a decade, Khao Sarn Road in the Bang Lampoo district of Bangkok has been well-known in backpacker circles as the centre in Southeast Asia to meet other travellers, to stay and eat cheaply, and to have budget-level fun. But along these legal attractions, illegal drugs are a part of the lure of this tourist area.

The anecdotal evidence of narcotics law violations in the Bang Lampoo area is overwhelming. Guesthouse owners estimate that at least half of the European, American and Japanese budget tourists who stay there smoke marijuana at least once.

Travellers themselves report similarly high estimates of the amount of drug use. Many of them apparently believe that trying marijuana, amphetamines, heroin, or other drugs adds to the fun and "exoticism" of Thailand. The cheap price of drugs and the easiness to get and consume them without having to worry too much about the police are other reasons why tourists buy narcotics in Bang Lampoo.

Guesthouses in and around Khao Sarn Road some-times compete for tourists by providing access to drugs. Last year, Pol Maj.-Gen Komkrit Patpongpanich (now commissioner of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau) explained that "some guesthouses resort to selling drugs and open their places for guests to consume drugs… to survive the economic hardship." But not only Thais, also tourists have been found trading in drugs, including marijuana, hallucinogens and heroin.

The local police claims they are trying hard to suppress drug trafficking in Bang Lampoo. But there does not seem to be great will or desire to crack down on the trade because, to some extent, the availability of drugs draws tourists to Khao Sarn Road and to Bangkok in general, and a major police action against drug abusers would hurt all sorts of legal and illegal businesses and involve considerable financial losses.

Meanwhile, the menace of drug tourism is spreading to the provinces, particularly in the North. Saengdeun Chaiyasri, head of the Trekking Tour Association of northern Thailand said that from 1997 to 1998, the association had surveyed foreign tourists on trekking tours in Chiang Mai and found that out of 3,000 respondents, 45 per cent said that drugs were offered during their treks. The survey also revealed that trek-king guides often urged tourists to try the drugs, particularly opium and marijuana. About 15 per cent of respondents said they would go on a trek again and buy illegal drugs. The survey findings were reported to the prime minister with an appeal that both state and private organizations take the problem seriously and implement preventive and suppressive measures.

One root cause of the problem is the free trade system that has contributed to an uncontrolled proliferation of trekking tour agencies in the northern provinces. In Chiang Mai alone, more than 260 tour operators are registered at present, and competition grows tougher every day. One result of fierce competition is com-petitive pricing, which has forced tour operators to increase profits in other ways, including selling drugs to trekkers. "…we are not surprised if the guides think of selling drugs to the tourists who want them," said Saengdeun explaining that many agencies have to cut the price for tours to an extent that guides can hardly make a living from their job.

The tourists mostly consume narcotics along trekking routes that are beyond the control of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and other government agencies. "The drugs are sold to tourists while they trek in the forest or stay at remote hilltribe villages," said Pol Maj Sunthorn Chitaroon of the Tourist Police Unit in Chiang Mai.

Police investigation confirmed that some guides are drug addicts themselves. According to one guide, some become addicted by repeatedly taking foreign visitors to smoke opium in village huts. The guides must first demonstrate to tourists how to smoke the drug pro-perly. "In such small rooms, the guides inevitably inhale the fumes. Doing this many times, it is inevitable that they become addicted to the drugs," the guide said.

Also, many foreign drug addicts arrive as tourists in Bangkok and directly contact illegal guides for drug tours in the North. An officer of the Tourist Police, who has been investigating connections between tour ope-rators in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, reported: "We found that some of the guides come from Koh Samui and Koh Phang-ngan in the South, where drug tours have been suppressed. They came north and tried to open new trekking routes for the drug-addicted tourists. There is cooperation between guides in Bangkok, tour agencies, and some village leaders."

Police sources further revealed that a tour agency in Bangkok runs regular drug tours directly to villages in Chiang Mai. Northbound tour buses, which are not officially registered, pick up tourists in Khao Sarn Road, bypass Chiang Mai city and rendezvous at a point where illegal guides and local villagers wait to bring them on trekking routes which are not designated for tourism. The tourists stay in hilltribe villages and are offered a choice of hallucinogenic and illegal sub-stances. Last year, the police was able to arrest the drivers and staff of more than 10 such buses. But the officers in charge admitted it is extremely difficult to catch the culprits red-handed.

Pol Col Vuthi Lippatapallop, deputy commander of the Tourist Police Division, pointed out the connection between drug tours and sex tours. He stressed if such illegal activities continue they "will bring lots of problems, and (harmless) tourists will go to other countries."

Meanwhile, however, novels such as The Beach by Alex Garland, which has also been the base for the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Leo DiCaprio, immortalize the drug tourism culture. Confronted with the concern that Thailand’s reputation could be damaged if it is represented as a country of ‘pot’ fields, government officials seemed to be puzzled. Apparently, they had neither read the book or the film script, before they allowed the movie The Beach to be shot in Thailand.


[TN: 7.4.99; BP: 10.4.99; TVS-REST brochure] THE Amazing Thailand campaign has brought with it a big push for eco-tourism. For instance, a comprehensive community development programme, initiated by His Majesty the King in the midst of economic woes, aims to develop eco-tourism - along with other economic activities such as farm produce processing, medicinal herb planting and traditional Thai medicine – in 15,223 villages, involving more than 300,000 families and a population of more than 700,000! But as more and more communities embrace visitors, there are in-creasing worries about the long-term impact the tourist industry will have on rural and natural areas.

Khiriwong in Nakhorn Sri Thammarat in the South of the country is one of the villages that has become a popular eco-tourism site. The Responsible Ecological Social Tours (REST) programme run by the NGO Thai Volunteers Service (TVS), for example, invites tourists to learn about the way of life of people and to enjoy the natural beauty at Khiriwong. "Experience the local wisdom and self-reliance walking around integrated farming. Trek through the rain forest at Kha-Luang National Park… As an alternative, we can offer you various activities such as bird watching, bicycle riding or making your own colourful tie-dying cloth," reads its recently published brochure.

Khiriwong is an especially interesting and unique community because its residents have established a system for governing themselves that has made them relatively self-sufficient and prosperous. In 1988, it suffered a terrible natural catastrophe when, after many days of heavy rain, a huge mudslide from the surrounding mountains devastated the entire village. By cooperation, however, local residents restored their village, and quality of life improved quickly. Prajuab Thammawichit, the kamnan (sub-district chief) of Khiriwong explained: "We are a vigorous and firmly united community, and that is because we have a long common history. Since we live in a valley, our society is a closed one, with everyone related to each other… We learned to work together even harder through the lesson of the disaster that struck us 10 years ago. This eco-tourism came about as a direct result of people finding out about us in connection with that event."

But Prajuab expressed concern about the increasing tourism-induced effects on community life. "Even though we supervise what happens here, there are bound to be certain changes when a lot of people come in," he said. "Some villagers opened guesthouses because they had seen accommodations of this kind outside."

Tourists are also often in the way when villagers have to do their agricultural work. "The time of the year when most of the tourists come is from June until August when we are harvesting our fruit. We don’t really have time to offer a full welcome to our visitors…," Prajuab said. "Then there is the problem of the garbage. We produce enough refuse on our own, we don’t want there to be any more."

"Finally, there are difficulties taking visitors up Khao Luang, our tallest mountain," he continued. "This is one of the activities offered as part of the eco-tourism package. We had to put up a rest area and toilets for them half way up. All of this might have a negative impact on the vegetation growing there."

Community workers and academics have warned about the dangers of putting too much faith in tourism as a permanent source of income. Nithi Eawsriwong, professor of humanities at Chiang Mai University commented: "Once a small community opens its door to tourism, money soon flows in, followed by outside investors. Soon the work being done by local people consists mostly of wiping tables in restaurants. When things reach this stage, a community should know it’s time to retreat and close down their tourism activities. Since they can be started, they can also be shut down."

Srisakra Vallibhotama, a conservationist and retired professor at Silpakorn University in Bangkok, said: "I worry about the fact the Khiriwong community numbers 3,000, but all its leaders are from the younger generation. Will they look after the local people’s need when a lot of money comes in?"

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sees no cause of concern and has even awarded a prize to Khiriwong village for its eco-tourism work this year and produced a map showing travellers exactly how to get there.

"But this is just the kind of thing that will put the tourism trade into high gear," concluded Suthon Sukphisit from The Nation, who investigated this case. "More and more people will hear about Khiriwong and come flocking to gawk at the local people. They’ll get their eyeful of the natural environment before retiring to the comfort of their air-conditioned guesthouses. After taking a hot shower, it will be the time to sit down and dine after some local has wiped off the table and set down a nice fresh tablecloth."



[VET: April 1999] WHILE government leaders con-template spending millions on huge marketing schemes to attract visitors to Vietnam, which has only minimal facilities for tourists, smart tour operators are pointing out that the country already has plenty of attractions - ones which, they say, require almost no investment. Want an adventure? Vietnam is where to find it.

The existing market is sharply divided between the very wealthy who come to stay in luxury resorts, and backpackers who do not mind roughing it in their quest to experience the country’s natural assets. But travel experts say there is a third possibility that has not so far been tried. Well-heeled tourists would be happy to pay good money for adventurous trips organized to professional levels of comfort and safety – trekking in the mountains, exploring the back roads by mountain bike, kayaking around the quiet backwaters of Halong Bay, nature tours with expert guides.

Justifiably concerned about its declining share of the tourist dollar, Vietnam has decided to get its act together. A National Steering Committee on Tourism Development headed by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Manh Cam was set up in February this year. The Politbureau has declared tourism a key economic sec-tor, which should produce the benefits it yields in some other Asian countries as a major source of foreign exchange and generator of jobs. The tourism industry is also under pressure as foreign investment in Vietnam declines drastically, and economists believe it will be a good few years before the situation improves.

The opening salvo in the battle to attract more tourists will be a promotion campaign with the opti-mistic title ‘Vietnam: Destination for the Next Mille-nium’, to compete with the ‘Amazing Thailand’ promo-tion. The campaign, expected to cost US$28 million for a two-year period, was scheduled to be launched on 19 May, and its bold aim is to welcome two million international visitors by next year.

While Vietnamese leaders are determined to be optimistic about their ambitious goals, people with industry experience – both local and foreign – have their doubts. After the glory days of 1997, when there were 1.7 visitors according to official statistics, numbers fell by 12 per cent last year and are likely to decline further this year.

In 1998, with the exception of half a million Chinese visitors, just 200,000 people came to Vietnam on package tours, whereas 800,000 were individual travellers and backpackers. So many tour operators believe adventure tourism is a good option to cure the country’s ailing tourism industry. "This is the coming trend, wealthy tourists who love adventure and are willing to pay for it. This is something that Vietnam can offer very easily," said Le Dinh Chien of Buffalo Tours, which specializes on nature-based kayak tours.

Judi Vargha-Toth, a Canadian tourism consultant, shared a similar opinion, saying: "An advertising cam-paign which focused on adventure would be very strong, very appealing and quite unique."


[BP: 24.4.99; TN: 25.5.99; 12.6.99; 14.6.99] SEX tourism is on the rise in Vietnam, and foreign paedophile rings are starting to tout the country as the next destination, warned Christine Beddoe, tourism programme director of the international NGO End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking (ECPAT), based in Aus-tralia.

Beddoe is running a 12-week Australian government-funded project to educate and alert grassroots tourism workers in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand to the dangers of child prostitution. She said there is a surprising and deeply disturbing trend that foreign child sex tourists become active in Vietnam. "There is really strong anecdotal evidence coming from Hoi An where it appears foreign females are abusing underage boys," she said. According to her research, 75 per cent of all cases that came to the attention of tour leaders from kids indicated they had been abused by foreign women.

Hoi An is a former trading port 30 kilometres south of Danang, which has become a premier tourist desti-nation. While women abusing minors seems largely confined to Hoi An, sexual exploitation of children by foreign men is rampant in some parts of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Also the northern mountain resort of Sapa has been repeatedly mentioned by different sources who remark on child sex abuse mostly with young girls from the Hmong ethnic minority, Beddoe said.

Prostitution has boomed in Vietnam as the country has introduced reforms to allow the creation of a market style economy. Particularly in HCMC, sex is available in many bars, restaurants, massage parlours, hotels, karaoke spots, on pavements or from women cruising the streets on motorcycles. Recently, the local newspaper Saigon Giai Phong reported that sex-related services were on the menue of more than 75 per cent of restaurants in the city.

HCMC has also the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the country, followed by the southern pro-vinces of Khanh Hoa, An Giang, Dong Hai and the northern provinces of Quang Nunh, Hai Phong and Hanoi. The number of people infected with HIV nationwide is estimated to exceed 129,000 by the end of this year. But figures on HIV/AIDS are not really reliable as most cases go undetected, health workers say.

Nguyen Thi Hue, who heads campaigns to eradicate social ills, said the police had files on some 185,000 prostitutes nationwide, and that some 30 per cent of all sex workers were thought to be under the age of 16.

"There is recognition that if nothing is done, [sex and child sex tourism] will become a problem in Vietnam," said Christine Beddoe. To reverse this trend, her project aims to produce educational materials and raise awareness among staff working for travel firms and hotels, and others involved in end delivery of tourism-related services.



BI=Burma Issues; BP=Bangkok Post; Papers on the 7th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD); TI=The Irrawaddy; TN=The Nation; VET=Vietnam Economic Times.

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