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new frontiers

Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues

in the Mekong Subregion

Vol. 5, No. 4 July-August 1999


 

THE REGION

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES CALL FOR EQUAL CIVIL RIGHTS

[BP: 9.7.99; 22.7.99; TN: 14.7.99; 1.8.99; TIT: June/July 1999; KTT: 12.2.99] - ETHNIC people in the Mekong sub-region are increasingly put on display in model tourist villages, trucked to cities to perform at cultural shows, and gleefully used in advertisements by tourism agencies, despite indigenous peoples’ organizations and advocacy groups battling the proliferation of touristic "human zoos" and the persistent discrimination of minority peoples by national authorities.

Hill peoples in the region have effectively been portrayed by bureaucracies as villains and forest-destroyers who practise slash-and-burn agriculture. Being powerless, they have been used as major scape-goats for governments’ failure in development policy, including the failure to conserve forests and watershed areas. It seems, the only positive image of indigenous peoples is when national and international tourism bodies promote their "exotic" culture to lure foreign tourists and their money.

Meeju Morlaekoo, a 31-year-old Akha woman from northern Thailand, said she and other women from her home village were taken to Bangkok some months ago to perform at a cultural festival organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Shortly later, in April, Meeju joined thousands of tribal villagers outside Chiang Mai city hall to protest against the eviction of people from their homes and land by forestry officials and to demand equal citizenship. "It was so confusing," she said. "One month, the TAT is telling me I should feel proud of being Akha and inviting me to show off our customs and traditions. The next month, another government body is saying my relatives must move out for the same reason – for being Akha."

Following weeks of peaceful demonstration in Chiang Mai, more than 1,000 police and forestry officials were sent in at night to disperse 3,000 ethnic people who had camped in front of the provincial hall. The violent crackdown raised fundamental questions about the treatment of marginalized highlanders and the extent to which civil society – a core principle in the new Constitution – is being practiced in Thailand. Meeju said that after the incident, she called the TAT officials who had contacted her earlier about the festival to promote Thailand’s ethnic diversity as an attraction. "I told them about the situation we are facing here. They said they are sorry but that they couldn’t do anything because it involved a different government body."

Beginning of July, Meeju then joined a group of Thai academics, NGOs and tribal representatives attending the Seventh International Conference on Thai Studies in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to talk about the human rights abuses faced by ethnic groups, which had led to the historic April-May tribal protests. She described the situation of hill peoples in Thailand as "no different from keeping animals in zoo cages."

Only 300,000 out of almost one million highlanders have obtained Thai citizenship, while the majority have alien status and hold special blue identity cards, which prohibit them from travelling outside their home district without a special pass from the authorities. All others are considered non-existent or stand accused of illegal immigration. "All we ask is equal rights with Thai citizens. We have long suffered discrimination because we lack citizenship," Meeju told 100 foreign experts on Thailand.

Without Thai citizenship, ethnic people are not eli-gible to vote and cannot get school-leaving certificates and hence proper employment. They also easily become victims of local officials’ harassment and extortion. "Often, after a long day of work, officials take away our money," Meeju explained. "If there is 100 baht, they take it. If there is 1,000 baht, they take it. If there is more, that person is likely to be branded a drug pusher and put into jail." Further, due to the government policy to expand the conservation area, more and more hill people are denied access to their forest and water sources, which means they have to abandon their traditional livelihoods. This policy, which involves large-scale resettlement of communities to the lowlands, has increasingly forced ethnic people into contact with outsiders. "We are forced to learn and accept two cultures, our own and the city’s. We are forced into contact with another society. That’s why there is an increasing need for us to have Thai citizenship," said Meeju.

Meanwhile, official and business-led tourism agencies hardly recognize that efforts to involve ethnic people in the tourism industry in a meaningful way will remain futile unless their civil rights situation considerably improves. For instance, a recently released study by the environment committee of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), called ‘Guidelines for Inter-action between the Tourism Industry and Northern Thailand’s Mountain Peoples’, acknowledges that not all is well with hill tribe tourism. But rather than looking at the fundamental problems of ethnic communities, the number one consideration of the PATA study is to ensure convenience, pleasure and adventure for the tourists. To rearrange hill tribe tourism in a way that it not only attracts unpretentious backpackers but also fulfills the demands of up-market consumers, it suggests that ethnic people have to adjust. They have to understand, for example, that most foreigners do not like local-style toilets and a bowl of rice soup for breakfast, or get upset when they see garbage dumped around. Mr. Tabuteau, the chairman of PATA’s envi-ronment committee admitted however that it was difficult to find ethnic communities in northern Thailand that could improve standards to properly deal with a mass market.

Whether PATA and the TAT will provide the right assistance to better manage tourism in ethnic areas is doubtful anyway in view of tales like the following. "Recently in the north, PATA (in cooperation with the TAT) held a conference on eco-tourism," said Sheary Beary, who operates an eco-lodge in Tha Ton, Chiang Mai province. "They packed delegates into seven large coaches that rushed in great speed through outlying villages, scattering the locals, sending dogs for cover, frightening children and shattering the tranquility they came to experience. They disembarked at a so-called ‘elephant nature park’ to watch these beautiful beasts, the country’s national symbol, stand on their heads, kick footballs and play tunes on mouth organs."

Jutima Suncharoen, a journalist of the Thai-language newspaper Krung Thep Turakid strongly criticized the same tour organized as part of PATA’s 1999 Adventure and Eco-tourism Conference in Chiang Mai, saying the organizers made women of various ethnic groups dress up and pose for a touristic "fake" show at the elephant camp, while the real life and culture of the hill peoples were blurred. She cited the example of a group of young girls from the Dara-ang village Pang Daeng who were brought in to show off their beautiful faces and traditional costumes at the performance. They had to smile for the tourists, even though they felt very miserable because all men in their village had been arrested shortly before by state officials for alleged encroachment and destruction of a nearby forest.

"One must not talk about the protection of human rights, if tourism culture prescribes that the locals are nothing but commodities and servants to fulfill the desires of consumers, [knowing well] they have to un-conditionally accept their fate because of their poverty, ignorance and powerlessness," Jutima argued.

Indeed, there cannot be any progress in creating a more beneficial and sustainable tourism without a holistic and serious examination of the discriminating attitudes and policies affecting indigenous peoples and a solid action plan to make them equal citizens – in Thailand, the Mekong subregion, and elsewhere.

ACADEMIC PROJECT ON TOURISM, GENDER AND PLACE

[SS: 12[2], 1999] GREG Ringer, an assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s International Studies programme, recently outlined an eco-tourism research project in Vietnam and Laos, which is planned to be expanded into Cambodia and northeastern Thailand. The critical role that tourism plays in establishing the social value and place of women and ethnic minorities in the Mekong subregion, and consequent challenges to prevailing social philosophies and institutions, are the focus of the research underway in collaboration with faculty of Champasak College in Laos and Van Lang University in Vietnam.

The research is led by the idea that conventional tourism programmes and policies are too often focused on attractions and visitor management, rather than the interrelationship between human history, cultural identity and attachments to place in a region where migration, displacement and social change are in-creasingly the norm.

The major tasks of the project are to (1) acknowledge the cultural diversity of the Mekong sub-region, (2) document patterns of spatial movement and behaviour among rural women as they relocate to urban centers for tourism-related employment, the economic contri-bution of their labour to local and national economies, and the changing status and expectations; and (3) suggest approaches by which the creation of tourism and other small business activities might be redirected so that the "social capital" of women is perceived and realized locally, rather than commodified for "export".

Ringer suggested the project might reveal relevant information about the behavioral landscapes of visitors and residents of "gateway" communities in Champasak Province in Laos and the Central Highlands in Vietnam. Both areas are involved in transboundary disputes precipitated by concerns over natural resources and share a history of conflict and the forcible eviction and "modernization" of indigenous groups once noted for their strong gender and cultural identities. The communities to be studied are also affected by increasing migration and "export" of rural women to work in the booming tourism sector and sex industries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The researchers hope that by helping to articulate local attitudes towards tourism, development and con-servation, tourism planning in the region can be put on a more sustainable path.

BURMA

SPDC’S BUILDING BINGE AT THE COST OF THE WEAK AND POOR

[TN: 8.7.99; 12.7.99] – USING the media and billboards along city roads, Burma’s military regime is still ex-tolling its achievements: the completion of a new bridge, the inauguration of a dam and a hospital, the opening of a new highway, the renovation of its most famous pagoda, and so on. Meanwhile, it continues to castrate the opposition movement and the country slides further into poverty.

Observers say the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has in fact become more repressive, harassing, arresting and jailing opposition leaders and supporters. Still a pariah state as far as the interna-tional community is concerned, the military regime now appears to focus its efforts elsewhere.

It has gone on a construction binge, inviting foreign investors to put up hotels, build roads and bridges and has even spent a fortune to refurbish the Shwedagon pagoda, Rangoon’s prime tourist attraction. Reporting about the junta’s launch of an intensive restoration of ancient pagodas and temples across the country, Burmese journalist Aung Saw recently asked in an Irrawaddy article: "The generals pay daily visits to sacred shrines; but what is the reason behind all this? Do the generals really believe they can atone for their past in this way, or are they simply trying to whitewash their sins?"

Visitors to Rangoon find that most of the new hotels are empty, and tourists are few and far between. Nobel Peace laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi belittles these signs of "progress".

"Yes, there are more hotels, but they are empty. Yes, there are more cars and more people who are living in bigger and better houses, but these are people who are connected to this regime," she recently told a group of visiting women journalists and activists from ASEAN countries. "The general public has not benefited from the advent of all this," she added, citing that ordinary people still have to fight their way into overcrowded buses, while the poor have become poorer.

She also pointed out that a lot of infrastructure projects the military has been bragging about were in fact built with forced labour. A few weeks ago, for example, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) released a statement exposing a new case of forced removal of villagers and slave labour to build an airport road in Mandalay. "Villagers in Ze-gyo have been evicted because the Mandalay international airport road cuts through their village….(In addition,) forced labour is causing untold hardship," said the statement.

Further commenting on the regime’s obsession with construction projects, Suu Kyi said: "Bridges and houses and even showy roads are not essential to true development and certainly not traffic jams. What is essential is there should be better standards of living, which means better education and better nutrition and better health care… In fact, we can say there has been a recession, that we have in fact gone backwards and not forward in development."

NOT AMUSED BY ‘FUNNY MONEY’

[BP: 19.8.99] – BURMA, hungry for foreign exchange, prizes US$300 out of every visitor to the country and in return issues them with its own, unique brand of currency. But neither the foreign tourists nor local people find Burma’s funny money amusing at all.

The paper trail starts at the airport, where tourists are obliged to swap their hard currency for foreign exchange certificates (FEC). The government keeps the real money, and the FECs, denominated in US dollars, begin their unloved journey through the country’s crippled economy.

"We don’t refuse to take them, but we prefer dollars where possible," said one hotelier in Rangoon. "This is simply because [dollars] are acceptable throughout the world, but the FECs’ domain is strictly within Burma. Another thing, although one FEC is officially pegged at one US dollar, it is not worth as much as the dollar when it is exchanged for kyats."

This also makes FECs a headache for tourists, who not only find it difficult to exchange FECs at what they consider a fair rate, but also cannot convert them back to hard currency on departure. Friendless, FECs quickly erode in value as soon as they are put to use. Restaurants, department stores, jewellers and other retailers are all loth to give the prevailing exchange rate. Beginning of August, one FEC bought 345 kyats, while the dollar itself fetched 352.

The Myanma News Agency, controlled by the military junta, reported in May that only 477,362 tourists visited the country in the past year. The generals in Rangoon are unhappy, but do not see FECs as the culprit. "National traitor destructive elements are spreading fabricated news on Burma in collaboration with some foreign broadcasting stations and so tourism has not developed as it should be due to their plot to belittle the dignity of the state," the agency quoted Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, the powerful Secretary One of the SPDC, as saying.

CAMBODIA

POLITICAL INSTABILITY STILL HAMPERING THE TOURISM INDUSTRY

[BP: 7.7.99; 27.7.99; 17.8.99; TN: 24.7.99] – A YEAR ago, the prospects for peace and stability in Cambodia seemed far away, at best. The country was still reeling from a power-grab by strongman Hun Sen. Election day was marred by a Khmer Rouge ambush and as polling results trickled in, it became clear that the opposition would reject the outcome.

Yet, just after the disputed 26 July elections, Cambodia is in many ways a different place. For the first time in 30 years, the country has no civil war. And the new coalition Hun Sen leads as prime minister, comprising his Cambodian People’s Party and its long-time rival, the royalist Funcinpec, is so far holding together.

Even the capital Phnom Penh is more inviting, thanks to a US$500,000 beautification campaign. A popular view these days is that now Hun Sen has almost full control, there can only be stability because no one is strong enough to oppose him. Yet, most of the same experts agree that the budding peace is still fragile. Accordingly, the tourism industry remains in the doldrums.

At present, there are a handful of luxury hotels and guesthouses in Phnom Penh. They are able to provide around 1,900 rooms to visitors. All are now experiencing losses said Supachai Verapuchong, a Thai investor in the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel since 1991. "We decided on investment in the hotel then because Cambodia had just opened following decades of civil war," he explained. "We never expected the spate of conflict and political violence to follow. Such incidents have discouraged foreign arrivals."

Tourism officials hope that the number of visitors will increase from 186,333 in 1998 to 210,000 this year, but industry insiders acknowledge that most travellers to Cambodia come for business, not for holidays.

Falling tourist numbers have also left businesses in Siem Reap, many of them part of a Thai-led investment boom, bewildered and struggling for survival. The fabled Angkor temples have always meant big bucks for business in Siem Reap, and it is surprising to some analysts that Angkor, given its international reputation, could attract just 10,000 foreign visitors last year, all flying into Siem Reap before making the 20-km journey by road to the temples.

After the high season from November to mid-April, tourist arrivals usually begin to fall and gradually rise again in July. The fluctuating tourist traffic during low season additionally hurts businesses, particularly those with high operation costs. Many of the large hotels roster their staff on a two week notice basis or recruit temporary staff just for the high season.

Restaurants and shops catering to tourists are burdened by high rental fees. Living costs are also high since Cambodia is lagging behind in industrial deve-lopment and needs to import all kinds of consumer products. The Thai owner of a restaurant in Siem Reap said that last year she only earned US$30 to 50 US$ a day, and in recent months the revenue from her business was US$80 to 100 a day. "It is just one-third of what it should be. Some days, I did not get any customers," she said.

However, the business community remains hopeful that Cambodia’s tourism industry will recover as the government has moved to improve conditions to attract more foreign investment in tourism. "We welcome whoever is interested in the tourist industry. That’s our priority," recently proclaimed the chief of the state Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) investment board, Suon Sitthy. He further stated that, although Cambodia has heritage like Angkor to draw tourists, an improvement of the industry depends on upgrading poor infrastructure. However, the country is utterly lacking capital and technology to implement major projects to service the tourists.

NAGA CASINO OPERATOR ACCUSED OF BRIBERY

[PPP: 9-22.7.99] – IN January 1995, the Ariston company, led by Malaysian tycoon Chen Lip Kong, signed a contract with the government to operate a floating casino on the Tonle Sap River, promising an inflow of tourists and money into the Cambodian capital. At the same time, Ariston won a license to establish a huge mega-tourism-complex - including hotels, casinos, golf courses, and marinas – on islands off the southern coast in Sihanoukville.

While the Sihanoukville resort project mysteriously disappeared from the government agenda, the Naga Casino has been hit by scandal. Bribes of US$1 million along with vacations for high level officials were behind the recent flipflop on the government’s long-touted casino closure policy, alleged SRP MP Son Chhay.

Just days before the official closure date on 30 June for Phnom Penh’s two legal casinos – Naga Casino and Holiday Casino – Sok An, Minister of the Council of Ministers, suspended Naga Casino’s shutdown order. The suspension was in response to a complaint by Ariston, filed with the Phnom Penh municipal court. The company charged that the shutdown order violated a 21-year contract signed with the government four years ago.

Critics commented this bizarre twist in the government’s anti-casino crusade flies in the face of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s December 1998 directive that all casinos within a 200-km radius of Phnom Penh be closed. Several government officials have demonized the casinos for months, blaming them for many of the rob-beries, murders and suicides occurring in the capital.

The government’s decision raised eyebrows further by excluding Holiday Casino from the closure suspension, inspite of the fact that Holiday had also inked a multi-year contract with the government. Chhay claimed the government’s sudden policy reversal and its discri-minatory favoring of Naga Casino is the result of "special treatment" provided to Minister Sok An by Ariston president Lip Kong. "We believe that Sok An and his family have been paid (off) by Datu Chen Lip Kong," said Chhay. "I’ve been told by two reliable sources that Sok An and his family had been taken to Sabah (Malaysia) last month, all expenses paid (by Lip Kong)."

In addition, Chhay alleged that as much as US$1 million was paid to other government and judicial offi-cials to secure the closure suspension order for Naga. "I’ve been told this by people at the highest level of the government," he said.

Dismissing Chhay’s charges, General Khieu Sopheak of the Ministry of Interior commented the allegations might have arisen from a post-court "victory dinner" held by Ariston to which Sopheak and other officials were invited. "We only received a small dinner from Naga, so this is not a moral issue," he said.

THAILAND

MASS (ECO-)TOURISM CONTINUES TO RAVAGE COASTAL AREAS

[TN: 10.7.99; 16.7.99; 19.7.99; BP: 22.7.99; 28.7.99] – RECENTLY, an editorial in The Nation noted – with con-siderable regret - that not one of Thailand’s famed islands made it on the list of Conde Nast Traveler’s "The 20 Most Beautiful Islands" in the world this year.

"For Thailand, Phuket was mentioned as a paradise (in Conde Nast Traveler’s) some 15 years ago," it stated. "Phi Phi Island in Krabi was also cited as one of the top 10 most beautiful islands in the world. Samui and its adjacent islands were widely regarded as the place to go for escapists. Thailand’s islands then claimed fame because they were relatively undiscovered by mass tourism."

"But greed from local as well as foreign businesses have killed the chances of these Thai islands to sustain their environment and scenery," the editorial further explained. "The Tourism Authority of Thailand at the time was determined to promote the Thai islands targeting the growth in the number of visitors as the main indicator of success… Just about everyone ignored the warnings of environmentalists who foresaw the coming of a permanent destruction through land speculation, unchecked commercial developments and the lack of vision in pursuing long-term future of these islands."

Today, even reputable eco-tourism ventures such as the Phuket-based Sea Canoe company, which won a slew of international environmental awards, are expe-riencing a fall-out resulting from the commercialization of tourism.

Sea Canoe was meant to be a model of eco-tourism for Asia: reverential kayak journeys into the limestone sea caves in Phang-Nga Bay. But presently, as many as 1000 kayakers enter the caves every day. Boats jam the narrow passages, tourists snap off stalactites, and their bellowing scares away gibbons, hornbills and other wildlife.

John Gray, the American founder of the eco-tourism company, said in a recent interview with Associated Press he is not only deeply disillusioned, but has also become the target of death threats, allegedly due to business conflicts. Sea Canoe has spawned 19 com-petitors, most of them showing little, if any, respect for the ecologically fragile caves, while armed collectors of high-prized edible bird’s nests have muscled in on the tourist operators. Sea Canoe’s operations manager, Panwong Hirunchai, was shot in October 1998, after John Gray had refused to follow the demands of bird’s nest concessionaires who pressured the tour operators to pay fees to enter the caves. The collectors, whose harvests end up as expensive Chinese soup, argued the kayakers were eating into their income by disturbing the birds. Critics, however, argued the collectors had no right to charge fees since the caves were within a natio-nal park, a public domain.

When "Caveman" John Gray came to Phuket in 1989, he was intent to "plant a seed of environmentalism in Asia" by setting up Sea Canoe – a showpiece to prove that tourism activities could be managed sustainably. He actually enforced strict rules when he started his kayaking tours from Phuket to Phang-Nga Bay. Until today, Sea Canoe has kept its self-imposed limit of no more than 50 daily visitors and has not lowered its high-end price of US$80 per day trip despite cut-rate competitors, who are branded by Gray as money-grabbing "copycats". Believing the "key to eco-tourism is local opportunity", its staff get relatively good pay and are well trained. Before each journey, Sea Canoe guides are supposed to brief customers: no smoking, drinking, talking above whisper or collecting items along the way.

Yet, having experienced the takeover of mass tourism in Phang-Nga Bay, Gray now admits, "Looking back on it, I don’t know if we did the right thing by commer-cializing the caves." Consequently, Gray said, he’s now largely turning his back on Thailand, planning to spend more time at his other ventures in Vietnam, the Philippines and Fiji and hoping that governments there can exercise more effective controls on tourism.

In a separate development, the Forestry Department has found that Koh Tapoo or "James Bond" island, also located in Phang-Nga Bay, is so threatened by erosion as a result of mass tourism that emergency plans are being prepared to move the 55 tourism businesses off the island within the next six months. The base of the tiny island, which was a setting in 1974 for the James Bond thriller ‘The Man with a Golden Gun’, has been eroded by 50cm, mainly from boat wash. It is feared the nail-shaped outcrop could collapse without protection.

Local residents in neighbouring Krabi province and environmentalists countrywide have expressed justi-fiable concerns that Phi Phi Islands – a venue for shooting the movie ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio - may be ruined by the same kind of popularity James Bond has brought to Koh Tapoo in Phang-Nga.

So far, Krabi was mostly a destination for back-packers and eco-tourists looking for a quiet spot for a holiday idyll. But now as ‘The Beach’ film crew has left, more and more visitors are flocking in to discover Krabi’s coastline and islands. The opening of Krabi air-port in July has ushered in a mini-boom in luxury resort construction. The TAT, Thai Airways Interna-tional and tourism business associations have teamed up to promote package tours and "circular routes", using Krabi as a hub to nearby coastal provinces such as Phuket, Phang-Nga, Trang and Satun, including boat journeys in the Andaman Sea. However, tourism authorities and the industry appear to be far away from learning any lessons, and there is little or no evidence that decisive steps are being taken to protect the newly targeted coastal areas from commercial over-exploitation and environmental destruction.

UPHILL STRUGGLES FOR A BETTER IMAGE

[NW: 12.7.99; BP; TN] - "AS long as nothing disturbs the illusion, both Thai and foreign visitors are happy. But when Thailand’s image is ruffled, the screaming never stops," said one of the many letters to the Bangkok Post, commenting on the controversial "sex and golf" Newsweek story, which used as a gimmick a quote from an unnamed Western diplomat in Bangkok that "Thailand has two comparative advantages: Sex and golf courses".

In the Newsweek issue of 12 July, the magazine illustrated on its cover the image of a golden stupa with the message, "Thailand: If only its Economy Looked as Good As Its Temples." The article inside under the somewhat misleading headline "Beyond sex and golf" actually presented a critical but solid analysis of the present state of Thailand’s ailing economy. It was mostly the words "sex" and "golf" that provoked the anger of the Thai government and sparked a heated public debate over several weeks.

Perceiving the advent as another unfriendly act of the foreign media, government spokesman Akapol Sorasu-chart announced he would write a letter to the publication "that the criticism had been based on exaggerated facts and thus has caused a lot of damage to the country’s reputation." Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan referred to the magazine as "news-weak", saying the information in the magazine was slanted against Thailand. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai said sex and golf courses "are only the worse things" in Thailand. Many voices agreed and insisted the country has many other nice things to offer, citing delicious food for example.

Other commentators expressed their amazement. Is there any doubt Thailand has a huge and vibrant sex industry and lots of golf courses, both of which are major tourism products? What is the purpose of trying to hide what has been long recognized, that Thailand is world-famous for the four S’s – sun, sea, sand and sex? And after all, golf is heavily promoted as part of the Amazing Thailand campaign, isn’t it?

OPINION

ACCEPT REALITY OF TOURISM AND FIX IT !

An editorial in The Nation (18.8.99) in response to the recent "Image" debate, spelled out some of the fundamental problems of Third World tourism development (excerpts).

THE World Tourism Organization, which presents the tourism ministries of 125 countries worldwide, once had this as their slogan: "Tourism brings people from different worlds together." A more accurate message, however, is this: "Tourism brings the rich and poor worlds together." Indeed, it is the rich who get to travel and the poor who get to serve them. Such is the harsh reality of our world.

Not surprisingly, Third World countries, including Thailand, which are blessed with natural beauty, have vied with each other to woo tourists to their shores. The reason is simple: tourism brings in hard cash. As a result, many nations fall over themselves to exploit their "comparative advantage", exotic spots for some, exotic women for others.

It has been said that tourism helps promote international understanding. This could not be further from the truth. Today’s tourists, unlike the intrepid explorers of the past, are not in search of education. Indeed, most have little time for culture and history. They are instead seeking escape from the stress of industrial society, and their interests do not go beyond sun, sea, sand and sex.

Mass tourism has led to excessive development and polluted beaches. Inflationary pressure generated by the tourists has hit locals in the form of increased costs of living. In addition, facilities such as casinos and night clubs have mushroomed around the tourists spots. Often accompanying these are brothels, many of which are foreign-owned and have links with international criminal syndicates such as the Yakuza and the mafia.

It is poverty which has led countries to sell themselves as tourist destinations, and it is poverty that spurs women to sell themselves as prostitutes…. We should accept the reality of our sex industry. That, however, does not mean we should not do anything about it… more should be done to improve the conditions of our sex workers.

In the short term, the authorities should draft a bill to decriminalize prostitution. The exploitation of sex workers by their pimps and the prevalence of child prostitution must end. The tourism industry should also rethink its marketing strategy and decide at what point we sacrifice the beauty of the Kingdom and our pristine environment in favour of tourist dollars and at what point we accept social ills as a price for hard currency.

In the long term, the wide gulf between the rich and the poor must be bridged so that women are given choices other than the sex industry, and perhaps, too, we should take a long, hard look at a Western society which has the propensity to dispatch armies of stressed-out and alienated tourists to foreign lands and whether it would be wise for Thailand to travel down the same path.

Pan Yue Ming, the editor of the Siam Informer opined in The Nation, "Don’t forget that both sex and golf in Thailand are mostly created for the Western market" and raised the issue of uncritically embracing global culture, which has fueled the economic and social breakdown of the country. "Yes and sure, it is high time for us to have a thorough diagnosis of the whole body of our motherland after the ruin of our Golden millet dream," Ming said.

Only a few weeks after the furore caused by News-week, it showed that undesirable tourism-related issues can not be simply talked away, when a British maga-zine, Esquire, published a six-page story, describing Pattaya as a "Disneyland" for adult sex entertainment. Pointing out that since the devaluation of the Thai currency, British tourists have become number one patrons of Pattaya with 170,000 arrivals in 1998, the article stated: "Young British men go to Thailand in their thousands to get what they can’t at home – endless sex with as many beautiful women as they can manage, but at what cost?" The British Consul in Pattaya, Barry Kenyon, was quoted as saying, "They’re addicted to the make believe, the easy sex, the easy power. The minute they go home they’re saving and scheming to get back again."

This time, it was particularly the new minister overseeing the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Paveena Hongsakul, who was baying for blood. She called for the author of the Esquire story to be "blacklisted". She insisted, "Sex is just a small issue", and that she had found no evidence of "a flourishing sex industry" in Pattaya.

When Paveena was appointed as PM’s office minister in charge of tourism in July, she proudly announced, "I will get rid of all child labour and child prostitution." and vowed to rigorously counter Thailand’s image as a sex tourism destination. Her methods however have been disputed because she enlisted her elder sister Apsara Hongsakul, Miss Universe in 1964, and other beauty queens to form a team of "tourism ambassadors" to sell Thailand as a wonderful holiday destination.

"They will act as representatives of the country to publicize its image as a cultural destination to the world, welcome the country’s guests, or join both the local and international meetings on my behalf," Paveena said, adding that the "ambassadors" would also help to showcase the talents of Thai women and reduce unhelpful stereotyping.

But public voices argued her attempt to protect the country’s reputation using beauty queens was quite inappropriate because of the issues relating to women and the sex industry. "… it was a brilliant initiative indeed, for by promoting the charming and beautiful ladies of this land, Minister Paveena has really gone out of her way to give weight to that Newsweek article," mocked Bangkok Post columnist ‘Maew Mong’.

Probably, the new minister, who is known to have little experience in the field of tourism, is not aware that she may achieve exactly the opposite of what she has intended, that by recruiting the smiling services of Miss Thailands, the stereotyping of women and the country’s image as a Land of Sex are likely to be reinforced. Moreover, Paveena’s ill-conceived reaction to the Esquire article on Pattaya has tarnished her own image as there appears to be growing awareness that the country can hardly afford a tourism minister who is unwilling to face the truth. As an editorial in the Bangkok Post stated: "If (Paveena’s) intention was to portray Pattaya as something other than it is, it failed miserably. If the authorities are serious in their desire to avoid publicity that they consider to be damaging to the country’s international reputation, they would do better look at the cause rather than the effect. To state glibly that the sex industry in Pattaya is not flourishing is to ignore a reality that is well known here and on the international tourist circuit."

In conclusion, for the government image preservation is always the primary consideration when bad news arise, while other public interest groups accept them as wake-up calls and as a challenge to come up with deeper analyses and proposals to effectively tackle the root causes of the problems addressed (see also Opinion).

VIETNAM

SPENDING US$3.3 MILLION ON RAISING ITS TOURISM PROFILE

(VNN: 18.8.99] - AN estimated 46 billion dong (more than US$3.3 million) will be spent on the Vietnam: Destination for 2000 promotion to encourage tourists to visit the country, announced the National Steering Committee for Tourism. The money will be spent on a variety of events to raise the country's international profile ahead of the likely tourism bonanza caused by the new millennium.

Sixteen provinces and cities across the country will participate in the campaign to promote Vietnam abroad. A meeting to examine the campaign chaired by Deputy Prime Minister-Foreign Minister and Steering Commit-tee head Nguyen Manh Cam drew up a six-point plan of action which included the improvement of several of the country's top tourist resorts. The action plan also emphasizes Vietnam's traditional culture as a tourist attraction.

Vietnam Tourism Administration Director Vo Thi Thang told the meeting that a plan had already been submitted to the Government for approval. It included the opening of a tourism information office in Paris and the production of promotional materials such as brochures, video tapes and CDs in Chinese, English, French, Japanese and Vietnamese.

MILITARY HAMPERS TOURIST DRIVE ON BEAUTIFUL ISLAND

[SCMP: 18.8.99; VNA: 10.8.99] - Heavily militarized zones are normally not tourist destinations, especially in communist-ruled Vietnam. So while the estimated 10,000 troops on the 600-sqkm southern island of Phu Quoc are kept tucked away in no-go areas, the army's presence and an overt security network weigh heavily on aspirations for the island to become a major holiday getaway.

Sun-seekers sometimes spot soldiers walking through the main town of Duong Dong, polishing tanks or skipping through exercises with artillery pieces. But some of those visitors, and the islanders who cater to their needs, say Phu Quoc, which lies 15km from Cambodia, has to make up its mind. Does it want the tourist dollar or does it want to stay on alert against a possible threat from Cambodia?

"Don't go anywhere in the north of the island," said a tour guide as he pointed to a map prominently displaying the words 'no visit'. "If you do you could be arrested." The island, with a population of about 70,000, has solitude, jungle, and sun-drenched sand and sea. But much of the island and some of the best beaches appear to be off-limits.

Le Minh Dung, vice-chairman of Phu Quoc district people's committee, disagrees. "When tourists come to this island they are basically free to travel, but there are one or two places where there are military zones where tourists should not trespass," he said.

Small numbers of foreign tourists and a trickle of expatriates from Ho Chi Minh City now arrive to stay at a handful of beach compounds. Another factor ham-pering development of the tourism trade is Phu Quoc's links to the mainland. There are six flights a week to Ho Chi Minh City, but boats are the only way for many people. Rusting ferries take eight hours to cover the 120km to Rach Gia, the provincial capital, while to reach the nearest town, Ha Tien, 47km away, people have to chance small, wooden fishing boats which are bounced and tossed when winds whip up the sea. "If you want to experience hell, pay 35,000 dong and take the boat," said one passenger as he disembarked after the six-hour trip to Ha Tien. "Now I know what the boat people felt like when they fled this country."

Other coastal provinces in Vietnam are also eager to develop island tourism. The central province of Khanh Hoa has opened up tourist routes to more than 10 islands such as Tri Ngyuen, Hon Tam, Hon Mun, Bai Tru, Hon Heo and Hon Lao.

The Nha Trang Shipping and Tourism Company has invested more than US$360,000 building the Hon Tam tourist site. The Khatoco enterprise poured more than US$700,000in upgrading tourist facilities on Hon Lao and Hon Tre islands. The Khanh Hoa Tourism company also built an aquarium on Tri Nguyen island at a cost of US$720,000. As a result, the province is now receiving more than 50,000 visitors every month.

SOURCES USED IN THIS ISSUE:

BP=Bangkok Post; KTT=Krung Thep Turakid (in Thai); NW=Newsweek; PPP=Phnom Penh Post; SCMP=South China Morning Post; SS=SEASPAN; TIT=Thailand-Indochina Traveller; TN=The Nation; VNA=Vietnam News Agency; VNN=Viet Nam News.

YUNNAN/CHINA

SPECIAL REPORT

LIJIANG – ANCIENT CITY UNDER SIEGE

Lijiang is experiencing a tourist invasion since Beijing decided in 1989, Yunnan should exploit its tourism potential, writes dpa-correspondent Peter Janssen (excerpts from his article in TN 7.8.99)

When Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes invaded Yunnan in the 13th cen-tury, they gave the remote Naxi kingdom in Lijiang, Yunnan, a complete miss. Lijiang’s Naxi lea-ders had wisely offered their sub-mission to the invaders in advance, demonstrating a political savvy that has helped to keep the Naxi home-land in the Jade Dragon Mountain valley a rare sanctuary of relative peace and prosperity during centu-ries of turbulent Chinese history.

Largely by-passed by wars and economic progress due to its re-moteness, Lijiang has won the dis-tinction of being one of the best pre-served ancient cities in China. The city, said to be 1300 years old, is a unique combination of classic archi-tecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties style, whose occupants belong to the Naxi minority group, with a distinctly non-Han culture of their own.

Its narrow cobblestone streets have kept Lijiang traffic-free while an ingenious channelling of Jade Dragon River offshoots throughout the old city, allowing fresh streams to pass the doorsteps of almost eve-ry household, has assured a level of hygiene unusual in China.

The ancient section of Lijiang, covering 3.8sqkm and comprising about 6,000 households, essentially remained unchanged under com-munism, which was embraced by the local Naxi population. Mao Xe Dong and his comrades are said to have passed through the town on the Long March in 1935, and Lijiang’s elderly women folk – the chief means of transporting goods in the town – still proudly sport Mao caps along with their traditional garb.

During the post-liberation period, construction of new buildings and a massive statue of Mao Xe Dong arose in the adjacent "new town" of Lijiang, partly because of the sheer inconvenience of working in the ancient city with its confining cobbled footpaths.

Up until 1988, Lijiang was "bu kai fang, or "not open" to foreign visitors. That changed in 1989, when Beijing decided Yunnan should exploit its tourism potential. Foreign tourists started to pour into Lijiang after opening of an airport near the city in 1994, and a newly built highway to Kunming means the city can be reached by overnight bus in 11 hours.

On December 4, 1997, Lijiang was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, despite a devastating earthquake in 1996 that caused considerable damage to both the new and old towns. The ancient city’s wood framed houses held up considerably better than the newer structures of the new town, UNESCO experts note with a certain amount of satisfaction.

However, less than two years after winning its World Heritage Site status, UNESCO is worried that tourism is now undermining Lijiang’s Naxi community in ways the Mongols, the Han Chinese, communism and earthquakes failed to do.

"What is happening now, that is of concern to a lot of the Naxi themselves, is that many of the local people have decided to rent out their homes to outsiders to turn into shops," said Heather Peters, a UNESCO consultant, who helped Lijiang prepare for its World Heritage Site status. She added, "The problem is that it’s turning into a town which is no longer necessarily a Naxi town."

Among the worrisome symptoms has been the proliferation of junky souvenir shops and restaurants run by out-of-towners. Local residents complain that the non-Naxi restaurants dump garbage in the city’s ubiquitous waterways, adding to an already growing pollution problem.

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, Email: tim-team@access.inet.co.th

 

 


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