Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues
in the Mekong Subregion
INCREASED EFFORTS TO SELL THE MEKONG REGION
[Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism Activities (AMTA) Newsletter: July 2000; The Nation: 10.7.00; 1.8.00; Bangkok Post: 1.8.00] - THE Agency for Coordinating Mekong Tourism (AMTA) is to become a regional marketing agency, rather than just providing administrative support for Mekong tourism campaigns, according to AMTA's newsletter. Set up in January 1997, AMTA has so far primarily acted as a secretariat for the activities of the Mekong Tourism Working Group under the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) development scheme led by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Apart from the ADB and the national tourism organizations (NTOs) of the six Mekong countries - Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam -, the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the World Tourism Organization have been playing a vital role in AMTA.
The newsletter further notes that the strongest proponent of AMTA's new role is the ADB, which has supported several marketing-related tourism studies and projects, provided consultancy services and funded major infrastructure projects for tourism development. At the 11th Working Group meeting in Phnom Penh last April, ADB representative Emma Yang noted: "We believe it is useful to recognize that the common desire to establish the Mekong region as a tourist destination is a fundamental reason for cooperation in tourism, and because of this, AMTA could become more strongly oriented to joint destination marketing."
At the Phnom Penh meeting it was also agreed that GMS NTOs should share the funding of AMTA's marketing activities, and private sponsorship should replace ADB's funding of the Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF), the region's annual trade show. Nonetheless, the ADB, PATA and ESCAP were urged to continue their support for the Working Group and the MTF.
In addition the Working Group has appointed a consulting firm to design and operate the new official GMS website, which is to provide tourists, the media and tourism-related organizations with information about travel and tourism in the region.
Lots of fanfare surrounded the launch of the "Great Wonders of Suwannaphumi" tourism campaign late last year. Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan has spearheaded this promotional project as part of Thailand's foreign policy to engage its neighbours more actively. Suwannaphumi, or "Golden Peninsula", is an ancient term to describe the civilizations that once prospered in Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Vietnam, which is historically not a part of the "Golden Peninsula", has been included in the tourism campaign as well. Each of the countries is supposed to highlight one historically and culturally significant attraction and help create a synergic five-destination package. The proposed itinerary will link Pagan and Mandalay in Burma, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Luang Prabang in Laos, Bangkok's Grand Palace in Thailand and Hue in Vietnam. Heads of NTOs of the respective countries are to meet in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in October to discuss further details of the Suwannaphumi campaign.
However, tourism officials have pointed out that most of the countries participating in the campaign do not have adequate resources to make this project a success. Moreover, tour operators have proposed to change the campaign's title because "Suwannaphumi" is a difficult term to pronounce, it means nothing to foreign tourists unfamiliar with the region, and Vietnam is not even part of it.
Thailand and Cambodia have recently reached an agreement to jointly run a "Two Kingdoms, One Destination" project, which is seen as the first step towards the implementation of the "Great Wonders of Suwannaphumi" campaign. The agreement includes development of promotion and public relations plans, tourist police training, road links, formulation of a master plan for tourism development in Cambodia, and a relaxation of immigration formalities.
It is expected that air and land linkages between the two countries will create an enormous tourist volume for Cambodia. Bangkok-Phnom Penh, Bangkok-Siem Reap, Pattaya-Phnom Penh, Phuket-Siem Reap and Sukhthai-Siem Reap are itineraries under the plan.
Cambodia's tourism minister, Veng Sereyvuth, welcomed the agreement with Thailand with great enthusiasm. "Thailand is going to see 10 million tourists continue their trip to Cambodia…," he said.
TOURISM LIBERALIZATION MONITOR
It is now widely accepted that the ongoing drive towards globalization is set to crush small and medium size travel and tourism enterprises worldwide and poses a particular threat to Third World countries that rely on tourism development for economic growth. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to carefully monitor the negotiations on liberalization programmes for the service sector in regional and global forums. The following report about the state of affairs is edited from contributions by Imtiaz Muqbil on the discussions at the ASEAN level [Bangkok Post: 19.6.00], and by Chakravarthi Raghavan on related happenings at the World Trade Organization (WTO-OMC)
[South-North Development Monitor (SUNS): 19.7.00].
AT THE ASEAN LEVEL - A task force of ASEAN national tourism organizations (NTO) on trade negotiations in tourism met in Bangkok on 8 and 9 June. A month earlier, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had briefed aviation officials on air-transport clauses in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).
Air travel and tourism are lumped into the category of trade in services. Over the next 20-30 years, broader free-trade rules are intended to allow investors from anywhere to invest anywhere, reduce and eliminate restrictions and protectionism, and allow people to move anywhere in search of jobs. As with trade in products, changing the rules of trade in services involves dismantling old ways of doing things and threatens the status quo. Naturally, there are worries, and wagons are being drawn to protect the locals against the globals.
The process of liberalizing ASEAN travel and tourism began with the signing of the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Services (AFAS) in 1995, calling for the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) to come to full fruition by 2020. Since 1995, ASEAN has undertaken two rounds of negotiations covering seven priority services sectors, including tourism. In 1999, leaders approved a third round of negotiations to cover all sectors and modes of supply for the period of 1999-2001. NTOs have until July 2001 to finalize all schedules of liberalization commitments. ASEAN economic ministers are scheduled to approve the plan in October 2001.
This third round of negotiations is now under way. At the Bangkok meeting, the ASEAN Secretariat reported on the status of the liberalization of tourism sectors, and urged members to consider it as part of the preparations for the Visit ASEAN campaign due to start in 2001. However, a comparative analysis of various countries' liberalization commitments showed little of substance beyond what is already included in national laws. Thus, there is wide disparity between the commitments made by countries such as Singapore and Laos.
In those ASEAN countries in hock to the IMF and World Bank, some liberalization is already under way under the terms of borrowings from those groups. On ticklish issues such as labour flows, visas and exit taxes, tourism representatives cannot make decisions as they fall under the purview of other government agencies. Thus, the task force that met in Bangkok did little beyond identifying hotel lodging services as a common sub-sector on which further liberalization commitments could proceed. Other issues related to liberalization of facilitation (visa-free facilities, exit taxes), modes of supply and movement of people have been deferred until each tourism organization clarifies its position with other government authorities.
The task force delegates also agreed to consult with their relevant agencies on the possibility of considering food and beverage for on-premises consumption as a sub-sector common to all members. Tentative schedules of commitments for the agreed common sub-sectors are to be submitted by 10 August to Thailand, which chairs the task force. It will meet again in Bangkok in September.
ASEAN members have also been briefed on a World Tourism Organization (WTO-OMT) presentation made to the World Trade Organization's (WTO-OMC) General Council for Trade in Services, so that they know what is being done at that level.
In the aviation sector, the situation is just as dicey. GATS has an annex on air transport, which says that only three services - aircraft repair and maintenance, sales and marketing, and computer reservation systems - can be included in free-trade talks. Now, pressure is building to review this annex to include that vital component of air transport services, negotiations of air-traffic rights, along with that other critical problem, restrictions on ownership of national airlines.
The interesting thing about all this is that at the GATS level, more global commitments for liberalization have been made in tourism sector than any other sector - 125, as against 102 in finance and 100 in business.
AT THE GATS/WTO-OMC LEVEL - The GATS architecture, providing for successive rounds of liberalization talks (Art. XIX), requires before each such round the setting of negotiating guidelines and procedures. And, for establishing guidelines, the Council for Trade in Services (CTS) is also required to carry out an assessment of the trade in services in overall terms and on a sectoral basis with reference to the objectives of the Agreement.
The assessment part, now figuring on the agenda of the Special Sessions for every meeting (at the insistence of the developing world), however, seems unlikely to have any factual foundation through data on services transactions and directions of trade, according to the GATS classifications and modes. Those involved in the statistical exercise (UN, UNCTAD, OECD, IMF, World Bank and the WTO-OMT) are proceeding at their own pace - and at this pace it is doubtful whether any data would be available even by the next decade. The negotiators, and more so the service industries of the North and their home governments, meanwhile, are pushing countries to commit themselves to more ‘liberalization’, without knowing the full effects or assessing what benefits they would get or are now getting. Some trade experts have said that even if developing countries are unable to block further negotiations in services, without a time-bound programme and progress on collection and collation of services data, they should not allow themselves to be carried away by the talk of ‘progressive liberalization’, and refrain from making further market opening commitments, or binding their autonomous actions in schedules at the GATS/WTO-OMC. They should first undertake national assessments of the costs and benefits of the liberalization they have already committed themselves to.
While in the run-up to the Seattle Ministerial, and at Seattle itself, an informal draft text on negotiating guidelines emerged. The Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Honduras, in their proposal for the Seattle preparatory process, suggested an annex on tourism to GATS (similar to the annexes on financial and basic telecommunication services).
The joint proposal of the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Honduras, was related to the fact that the liberalization of tourism, as a service sector, has not brought any real benefits to the developing countries which are tourist destinations because of the anti-competitive way the related services are organized and run - the travel reservation services, air and other transportation services and the travel-related financial services. The proposal of the three argued that under the GATS approach it was not possible to deal with the specific and heterogenous nature of tourism as a cluster, monitor its progressive liberalization or the compliance with commitments under ‘tourism and travel-related services’. The request-offer approach also does not tackle the barriers to tourism services trade, particularly in related transportation services and travel distribution systems - including tour whole-salers, tour operators, global distribution systems, computer reservation systems and travel agents.
The three were looking for an effective and transparent degree of trade liberalization in tourism services and wanted a separate annex on tourism. Their proposal listed as a cluster the ‘tourism characteristic services’ - and sought a common regulatory approach to promote competition: preventing anti-competitive practices; safeguards against competitive exclusion through discriminatory use of information networks; abuse of dominance through exclusivity clauses; protection of consumer rights; access to and use of information; non-discriminatory provision of ancillary services to air transport and security.
The WTO-OMT has also been advocating a tourism annex. In its the view the present GATS approach does not address the issue of promoting tourism services.
In many developing countries—with their cultural and architectural heritages, ‘sun, sand and sea’ beaches or natural habitats of flora and fauna—the tourism sector is being promoted as a sector to boost employment and earn revenues through tourist dollars. However, while there are plenty of statistics (from IMF balance of payments data etc) about gross foreign exchange brought in, there have been very few studies about the ‘leakages’ and the actual net-value retained in a country. As a recent publication of the WTO-OMT has brought out, added revenues from tourism undergo leakages. Revenues may leak out of the local economy in the form of imports or moneys saved without re-investment, the publication says in a chapter on ‘contribution of tourism to economic development’. Import payments, it notes, could take several forms - such as repatriation of profits to foreign corporations, salaries to non-local managers, payments for imported goods, promotion and advertising by companies based outside the destination of the tourist. Clustering and bundling of services (and service provision through corporate investments) could result in tourism-related commodities and services being imported rather than being purchased within the tourist destination.
There are other developing countries who look askance at this ‘cluster approach’ too and feel that the difficulties of the developing world need to be dealt with in focused negotiations and agreements in terms of the GATS Art. IV - about building capacity, access to technology and to marketing, distribution and information networks. Without a horizontal attack on the transnational corporate practices, backed by home governments, a cluster approach may result in ‘bundling’ of services - from inputs to end-use - by the service corporations of the developed world. Corporations of the industrialized world could bundle the ‘cluster service’ with other mixes - and take over the markets of the developing world, in effect deciding on the service and goods production within countries or their exports. The outcome would be a mixture of the English Navigation Acts of the 18th century mercantalist era, and the colonial-era European trading companies—all advancing the cause of ‘globalization’.
OPPOSITION TO BURMA TOURISM HOTS UP IN UK
[Reuters: 16.6.00; The Observer (UK): 4.6.00; The Irawaddy: June 2000] - LAST June, UK foreign office minister John Battle urged British tourists to stay away from Burma, saying every visitor helped fill the coffers of its military rulers. Battle, citing what he called Burma's "appalling record" on human rights and lack of democracy, said tourism was an important source of revenue to a country which Britain has repeatedly sought to isolate. "Individuals can make a difference too. Burmese democratic leaders have made clear that they want tourists to stay away from Burma," Battle said in a speech at Leeds University.
Battle's call came shortly after UK-based action groups opposing Burma tourism had launched a boycott campaign against Lonely Planet (LP) publications to pressure the company to withdraw its controversial Burma guidebook from the market (see new frontiers 6). They pointed out that the guide misrepresented the extent of human rights abuses in Burma; among other things, the latest edition claimed that "forced labour appears to be on the wane" in the country.
LP, which boasts its image as "alternative" guide for backpackers and budget travellers, has staunchly defended its position. "We are extremely clear about human rights atrocities, and we say that if you do go and stay in big hotels (in Burma) then people are supporting an oppressive regime," a company spokesperson said.
In anticipation of the boycott campaign launch outside LP's London office on 26 May, the company displayed copies of a letter written by a humanitarian organization called the Thailand-based Burma Relief Centre (BRC) on the outside of the building. The letter thanked LP for a recent donation. LP's press pack also carried copies of this letter and press articles made reference to it. In response, the BRC director, Pippa Curwen, sent a letter to LP to question the company's motives in donating to her organization and to announce her decision to return LP's money immediately.
LP has rapidly expanded into a multi-million-dollar business, selling about 12,000 guidebooks a year worldwide. Under the headline "Lonely Planet Set to Get Lonelier", The Irrawaddy commented on the recent controversy: "Lonely Planet… may be about to get a taste of the isolation that Burma's military regime has been living with for more than a decade…"
UNESCO BLASTED FOR INVOLVEMENT IN TOURISM CONFERENCE
[The Nation: 14.6.00; Agence France Presse: 20.6.00] - A CONFERENCE called "Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage and the Role of the tourism Industry in Burma", which took place in Rangoon in June under the auspices of UNESCO and co-sponsored by the Burmese Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Hotels and Tourism", was met with strong protest. Human rights activists blasted UNESCO for cooperating with the country's ruling junta in its drive to attract foreign tourists. "It's outrageous for a UN agency to be assisting Burma's military regime in promoting tourism to the country at this time," said Yvette Mahon of Burma Campaign UK.
"We wonder if it is a case of the right hand not knowing what the
left is doing. UNESCO should consult its colleagues in the ILO who have
accused Burma of 'crimes against humanity' for its exploitation of 'the
practice of forced labour - nothing but a contemporary form of slavery
- on the people of Burma'," said Lara Marsh of the UK-based NGO Tourism
Concern. Marsh said her organization has also urged tour operators, travellers
and guidebook publishers to respect the wishes of Burma's pro-democracy
leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, "not to travel, encourage or
facilitate tourism to Burma while that country remains under brutal military
"The main objective of the seminar is to seek further ways and means to safeguard Myanmar's (Burma's) rich cultural heritage and promote cultural tourism," an organizing official said. The country's tourism industry has been in a poor condition, with just 120,000 foreign visitors arriving in 1999. The "Visit Myanmar Year" campaign of 1996-97 was an abject failure, and the situation worsened in mid-1997 when the Asian financial crisis hit. The five-star hotels built by developers from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan remain virtually empty as the tourism boom they were supposed to cater for failed to eventuate.
However, a tourism ministry official, while admitting arrival numbers in 2000 were expected to slip from last year, said an up-tick was expected. "The situation is getting better, and we are hoping for bigger numbers in the near future," he said. One reason for the optimism is the recent official announcement of the formation of a 35-member tourism promotion board, in which the private sector has been given a free hand. The Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board, made up of ministry officials and stakeholders from the hospitality and travel industries, is to advise the ruling generals on how to remove the red tape that is hampering tourism promotion.
HACKERS ATTACK BURMA'S OFFICIAL WEBSITE
[The Nation: 5.8.00] - ACCORDING to the Burmese government, hackers recently managed to shut down www.myanmar.com, the country's official website that mainly caters to foreign tourists and investors. The webmaster said hackers had changed the password to the site and then shut it down completely after making alterations. "Burma activists have committed computer crime on the Internet," he said. A government spokesperson confirmed that the site had been attacked by "unsavoury elements".
In the past two years, battles between the Burmese pro-democracy movement in exile and the military junta have moved into cyberspace. Activists campaigning against the regime and opposing tourism and investment in the country share information over the Internet and say they try to overload Burmese leaders' private accounts by assailing them with e-mails.
Internet access in Burma is still restricted to certain locations, including luxury hotels and businesses approved by the ruling junta. Myanmar.com is now operating again.
RESIDENTS EVICTED FOR CASINO PROJECTS
[The Nation: 25.6.00; Bangkok Post: 5.7.00] - AT least 1,500 Cambodians living near the border town Poipet protested in June after being told their homes would be torn down to make room for a casino complex. The Thai-Cambodian border checkpoint at Aranyaprathet was shut down for "safety" reasons, in an attempt to prevent the Thai media to cross over to cover the protest. Soldiers fired shots to disperse the crowd and arrested at least six protesters.
The site of the casino project is about one kilometre into Cambodian territory. Cambodian military authorities have forced hundreds of poor squatters from Poipet to move into heavily mined areas to clear the land for casinos and other development projects, according to evicted villagers and a United Nations official. The affected people were terrified, especially after hearing that a man was killed by a mine explosion in the area that military police were forcibly moving about 900 families. "But what choice do I have? The soldiers won't let me stay here," one evictee said.
Military police moved in and razed the squatter village. Then, soldiers armed with AK-47s patrolled the squalid remains, allowing people to gather building materials from their former homes before driving them out to the relocation site.
Kazutoshi Nagasaki, an official with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that the government's relocation area, 20 kms north of Poipet is "seriously mined" and said he is worried there might be more deaths. "This is a quite serious development. The Poipet situation is getting really bad," he added.
The Poipet eviction is not the first time the military has forced landless poor from their makeshift homes into mined areas, Nagasaka said. The same thing happened to squatters in another border town, O'Smach, so that the land they were living on could be used for a new market and another casino. Several of the evicted squatters from O'Smach were injured by mines on the new land, and one farmer had both his legs blown off. The government has since then promised to start demining the area.
However, the Poipet eviction started so quickly that there was no time to clear the relocation site. Norwegian People's Aid, a humanitarian organization, had been in negotiation with the government to help gradually and voluntarily move the squatters, but the recent eviction happened without warning. "We weren't consulted," said project manager Privan Limpanboon. "I guess they were eager to have the land."
Meanwhile, there are at least six casino resorts operating on the Cambodian side of the border, all of which cater to Thai and foreign gambling tourists.
TERRORISTS TARGET LAO TOURISM, SUGGESTS PM
[Bangkok Post: 10.7.00; The Nation: 2.8.00] - THE spate of bombings in Laos, which has raised grave concerns among local residents and expatriates since the end of March, is a terrorist attempt to sabotage tourism, Lao Prime Minister Sisavath Keobounphanh told Kyodo news agency during his visit in Japan last June. He conceded the attacks may be an effort to cause domestic political instability, but were more likely meant to derail the 1999-2000 "Visit Laos Year" campaign.
The Lao government has been reticent about the blasts, and it is hard to figure out who is behind the bombings. The incidents have put a serious question mark over the security capability of the secretive government, which has played down the attacks as it tries to drum up tourism in the impoverished country with a costly promotional campaign.
On 1 August, security sources in Vientiane said that another explosive device had been found at a Vietnamese social club opposite the Vietnamese embassy in the Lao capital. This bomb was of the same type as another bomb discovered at Vientiane's domestic airport on the same day, but both were defused. Yet another bomb blasted at Vientiane's central post office, which wounded at least seven people.
Shortly before, pamphlets faxed to state-run hotels by a group called Liberal Democratic Party of Laos had warned that hotels, banks and other public places could be the next targets of bombings. Diplomats and foreign residents said the attack against a Vietnamese facility was the clearest sign the bombings were politically motivated.
Embassies have sharpened their travel warnings for Laos. Hotel bookings in the country are down, and official missions have started to cancel trips to Vientiane (see also 'Background').
DARK CLOUDS OVER LAOS
This report is edited from a longer article by Moe Gyo and Aung Zaw (The Irrawaddy: June 2000)
Since the end of March, a series of bombings in Vientiane and one in the southern town of Pakse are signs of growing dissatisfaction with and perhaps within the Lao government. Analysts agree that recent economic turmoil and social flux has had a detrimental effect on Lao people, especially those in Vientiane. The impact of the regional economic crisis of 1997 spread to Laos and triggered triple digit inflation. This economic collapse occurred in conjunction with an increase in social ills, largely attributed to the exposure of Lao society to outside influence such as amphetamine abuse. The drugs are available in nightclubs with a street price of 10,000 kip (or US$1.25) in Vientiane. Many of the Lao elite are concerned, as their children are consumers of the drug.
Corruption among Lao officials has also disenchanted many with the government. The perks of many officials have become an affront to many people as they suffer from the economic demise.
Tremors of discontent were first felt in October last year, when the first internal challenge to the government took place in the form of a small anti-government protest by members of the disgruntled intelligentsia. The protesters and their family members were quickly rounded up by the police. "This is the first time a group of people came out with a political objective," says one leading ethnic Lao dissident in exile. "The movement comes out of desperation. It came as a signal to all the country that you are not alone," he added.
However, since last October, the political dissension appears to come in a more violent form - bombings. The dissident suggests that the intention of the bombings is to discredit the central government and show that there is dissatisfaction with the government's economic policy. Other analysts agree that the goal is to disrupt the government's "Visit Laos Year" tourism campaign. But the bombings are not restricted to Vientiane. In early June, a bomb exploded in the Champa Royal Hotel lobby in the southern province of Champasak.
A growing group of younger Lao are suspected to be behind the bombing. According to the dissident, the movement comes from the "teachers, students combined with some of the government officials who don't agree with the government's policy."
In the past, hooligans were to blame, but during Sisavath Keobounphanh's June trip to Tokyo, he told the press that Hmong were behind it. Analysts believe that this change in attribution signifies an increased concern and an admission that officials cannot ignore the problem. In response to the bombings, the government has increased security in Vientiane and arrested two people - one Hmong and one Lao - for the bombing of the Morning Market. However, Laos-watchers and diplomats agree that it is unlikely that the Hmong are behind the bombings.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic has several critics and opponents. Its most longstanding adversary has been among the ethnic Hmong who were led by Gen Vang Pao during the Indo-Chinese War. After the Communist victory, many Hmong fled to the US, France and Australia. Based in the US, Gen Vang Pao denied any involvement in the bombings. In the absence of a united Laos-based reform movement, dissidents abroad have had the loudest voice in advocating change in Laos. However, they do not retain support within the country.
While the government faces increased dissension in Vientiane, long running ethnic Hmong unrest continues in pockets of rural areas. Whether called bandits or insurgents, the Hmong have regularly resisted attempts by the state to incorporate them for decades. Today, at least two Hmong-led groups oppose the Lao government. According to analysts, one group has ties to Vang Pao, while the other, stronger group, the chao fa, is led by Major Pa Kao Her, a former member of Vang Pao's army.
Recent government resettlement policies have aggravated the Hmong, bolstering the resistance's ranks and military capability. Rather than move down the mountains, many Hmong joined the chao fa. Analysts estimate their strength from the hundreds up to one thousand guerillas.
In response, the Lao government has turned to their comrades in ideology and arms, the Vietnamese, to help quell the Hmong. According to one diplomat (whose report was recently confirmed by an AFP correspondent, )Vietnamese troops were in Xieng Khouang province to help. However, both Vietnamese and Lao government officials deny any intervention of Vietnamese troops in Laos.
[USA Today: 26.6.00] - The throngs of Western travellers arrive in Vang Vieng as many as 300 a night, dread-locked and shirtless, bearded and barefoot. Professing to travel on shoestring budgets, they still are much more affluent than the locals, who might earn less than US$1,000 each year. These tourists are following whispers about this latest Shangri-La, a hamlet of 3,000 people where saw-tooth mountains protect an end-of-the-earth simplicity - and enough opium dens to recall days of yore. Or at least the drug-drenched '70s.
If not for opium, American Peter Wu would likely never have come to Vang Vieng. "I was hoping for a place with a bunch of old-timers laid out on mats, puffing away - the kind of place where you'd spend a few days," says Wu, 32, who travels Southeast Asia when he's not writing advertising copy in Los Angeles. "But instead, and because of the influx of tourist dollars, it has less of a traditional feel and more of a drive-through service."
Westerners have long headed to the Far East in search of drug highs. Now, the newest darling of that scene - poor, landlocked Laos - is grappling with the changes these thousands of travellers will bring. The Lao government is ecstatic that more people are coming. It has heralded 2000 as "Visit Laos Year." Tourism has increased from 100,000 visitors in 1993 to 700,000 last year. However, the opium seekers are causing alarm, not least because Laos recently agreed with the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) to eliminate the crop by 2006.
"Tourists come to Laos for some kind of raw and wild environment, something close to nature. Part of that is opium," says Sunai Phasuk, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. "The Lao government tries to deny that, but this is the reality, and they have to find some way to solve the problem."
With a population 5.4 million, Laos is the world's 3rd-largest opium producer after Afghanistan and Burma. Though the illicit drug trade is not nearly as organized as in the other two nations, opium production in Laos more than tripled from the mid-80s through the mid-90s.
The new tourism does not account for all of the increased production, but it does account for profound cultural changes in the country. Children in Vang Vieng used to run away in fright at the sight of white skin. Now, they sidle up to ask for a spare coin or two. "The social fabric has changed dramatically," says Andrew Willis, a Canadian who has lived in Vang Vieng for two years as a volunteer for the development organization CUSO. What once was an early-to-bed town now stays awake for its guests. Teenagers peddle "ganja" (marijuana) or coax wanderers into the ubiquitous dens, which usually are behind shop fronts owned by Vietnamese businessmen.
In just two years, Willis has watched the number of motel-like guesthouses shoot from three to about 30. Likewise, the number of restaurants has more than doubled. The whole town has been wired for electricity, which inevitably meant the arrival of an Internet cafe. A similar phenomenon is afoot in Muang Sing, a town near the Chinese border where backpackers also flock to hit the bamboo pipe. These social changes might ultimately be the biggest concern. Locals lament that teenagers are falling prey to the big money and loose morals that Western travellers represent.
Young foreigners are having a "clear negative impact" on the very culture they come to see and enjoy, according to Halvor Kolshus, the top UNDCP official in Laos. "They are often young people with liberal attitudes and ideas, concerned about the environment and social issues," he says. "Yet, they (send) a signal to otherwise non-opium-using Lao youth who may think it is OK." He estimates that Laos now has 63,000 opium addicts.
Though not citing specific figures, Kolshus says arrests of foreign smokers are on the rise in an effort to control the problem. That's not the word in Vang Vieng, where sporadic arrests have deterred neither den owners nor their clients. "They have been reasonably reluctant to arrest foreigners. They don't think that's going to help their image," Feingold says. "Vang Vieng is treated sort of like this Club Med. It's not treated as part of real life."
FIGHT AGAINST PARK ENCROACHERS APPEARS LOST
[Bangkok Post: 8.11.97; 20.7.00] - THE Royal Forestry Department's (RFD) proposal to lease out national park lands to illegal tourism businesses has elicited controversy over the last years. When the plan was made public in 1997, environmentalists insisted that a more systematic approach was needed to solve the encroachment problems. Then secretary of the Wildlife Fund Thailand, Pisit na Patalung, argued: "People who break the law in Thailand are too often rewarded, rather than published. It seems to be the people, who follow the law, who loose out."
While environmental officials and NGOs all condemn the illegal developments in protected areas and, to some extent, the RFD's failure to enforce the national park laws, they now appear resigned to the way, forestry officials are giving in to encroachers. In July, the RFD completed draft contracts for the leasing of resorts on land in Koh Samet National Park, marking a breakthrough in efforts to end decades of conflict between the department and illegal tourism developers. The contracts are expected to last 10-20 years. Upon expiry, the resort owners are supposed to return their illegally acquired properties to the RFD. This agreement also includes those taken to court earlier by the agency, forestry chief Plodprasop Suraswadi said.
"This is going to be our management model for other parks suffering from the same problem," he said. The parks include Nai Yang beach in Phuket, Chao Mai beach in Trang, Nopparat Thara beach in Krabi and Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai, all of which have been affected by encroachers.
Under the new agreement, operators will only continue their existing businesses and are not permitted to open any new service, add new buildings or facilities. Plodprasop also said the disposal of untreated waste water would end. "This issue is at the heart of the contract. They must treat the waste before discharging it. "Rental charges would be determined on a case-by-case basis. Distance of the resorts from the beach and their sizes would form the criteria in determining the rental fee, which has not been set yet as the two parties are still in disagreement.
The conflict between encroaching tourism developers and the RFD intensified in recent years, with the department suing 43 operators for encroachment. The court ruled in favour of the RFD and ordered the properties dismantled, but none of the defendants have complied. So Plodprasop believes his "if you cannot beat them, join them" approach is the best solution to end forest encroachment. "These people have been using the resources for free for generations without paying anything. The contracts will finally benefit society, now that everything is under control," he claimed.
The drafts will be tabled for a second approval by the National Forest Committee next month, to ensure the plan is not ill-intentioned. "Some people have accused me of selling the forest, so a second approval will prove them wrong," Plodprasop said.
Nevertheless, given the longstanding experiences with the mismanagement of national parks and the current obsession to develop eco-tourism, fears that this move to legalize illegal developers will encourage further encroachment are justified.
TROUBLING 'THE BEACH' STORY NOT COMING TO AN END
[The Nation: 5.7.00; Bangkok Post: 15.6.00] - AT the last court hearing beginning of July, Panom Eiamprayoon, a former dean of Thammasat University's law faculty, explained the illegalities of the agreement between the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) and 20th Century Fox to make sweeping changes to Maya Beach on Phi Pih Leh Island. He appeared at the Civil Court as an expert witness in the case filed by the Krabi Provincial Administration and Krabi residents against the RFD, its director-general Plodprasop Suraswadi, then agriculture minister Pongpol Adireksarn, Fox and its local representative Santa Film Productions for unlawfully damaging part of a national park in the process of making the film 'The Beach', starring Leonardo Di Caprio.
Panom noted that even though Article 19 of the National Park Act permitted forestry officials to effect certain changes to parks, Fox's film crew had had no legal right to alter the natural scenery of Maya Beach. "The forestry department even claimed the film crew was authorized to assist local forestry officials, but the Act does not allow to dig and alter sand dunes," he said. "It is quite clear that the permission granted by the department was unlawful."
Replying to the claim of the defendants' lawyer that Panom was only an expert in public law and not competent on environmental issues, Panom told the court that he had decided to stand as a witness in this case because he believed the RFD had "abused its power" for the benefit of "someone".
The case will be a landmark one for Thailand's environmental standards and legal practices, regardless of whether the plaintiff wins or not, said Warin Tiemchamras, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs. "Some may laugh at us because the film is finished and the movie has already been screened, but the important thing is to build a legal standard for the country," Warin added. The next court hearing is due on 16 September.
Meanwhile, there is no law enforced, when the monthly full moon parties take place at Haad Rin Beach on Koh Phangan, and revellers get high on drugs, alcohol and the hypnotic sounds of techno music. In an odd twist, publicity surrounding Alex Garland's novel and Fox's movie 'The Beach' is pulling in the biggest crowds yet, even though Koh Phangan and the backpacker culture it epitomizes are described in 'The Beach' as "cancers, parasites".
Over recent months, the full moon parties have drawn tens of thousands of young people - mostly from Western countries. On 19 April (Thai New Year) alone, 20,000 to 30,000 revellers invaded Koh Phangan. For many, the parties, which are advertised by word of mouth and flyers at budget hotels in Bangkok, are the only reason to come to Thailand. Now, even websites provide upcoming dates and photos of past bacchanals.
At Haad Rin, the old huts are gone, and local people have given up fishing. More than before, the island's economy now depends on outsiders who come to drink and consume drugs. The village is full of cheap guesthouses and restaurants. Internet cafes sit next to shops hawking psychadelic mushrooms and other drugs. Tourists abuse whatever substances they have brought or picked up from local dealers. They do not seem to care that marijuana and ecstasy are illegal in Thailand and sentences to the country's prisons are tough.
After spending the full moon nights on Koh Phangan, a number of partygoers move on to Koh Tao, an island they say is the closest they can find to the idyllic seclusion that Di Caprio longed for in 'The Beach'. "It's a crappy book and a crappy film, but because of it, there's a lot of attention on Thailand," said a barman at an off-beach pub in Koh Phangan. And there's a lot of trouble, for the locals, too, one may add.
WORLD BANK LOAN FOR 'MILITARY TOURISM' PROMOTION
[The Nation: 29.7.00] - THE Twenty-first Infantry Regiment Queen's Guard Compound, Nawanintrajinee Army Camp in Chonburi Province, recently received funding from World Bank and Japanese Miyazawa loans to develop the place for "military tourism". Col Prayuth Chantaocha said the camp is growing in popularity among tourists, as it is conveniently located to Pattaya and other attractions in the east of Thailand.
The new mission began in 1997 with the "Amazing Thailand" tourism campaign, when Gen Chettha Thanajaro, then Commander in Chief of the Army, persuaded the military to open its camp to visitors. Among the major military areas meanwhile open to tourists are the Chulachomklao Military Academy (CRMA) in Nakhorn Nayok Province and the Thai Military Special Force Unit in Lopburi Province.
Military tourism includes many of the same outdoor sports offered by adventure tourism, such as white-water rafting and rock climbing. And it builds on the trend by offering adrenaline-pumping adventures hard to find elsewhere, like firing weapons at a pistol range, flying on a zip-line cable, and touring military history facilities. Jungle adventure tours organized by the military include rock and cliff climbing, weapons instruction, white-water rafting and navigation techniques. Visitors can also learn about jungle survival skills such as finding and cooking food in the forest.
Particularly popular is the tower jump: For a few minutes, participants experience the exhilaration of streaming over the countryside several metres above the ground on a zip-line cable. Upon completion of the tower jump at the CRMA base, each participants is awarded a medal and certificate from the Thai military.
At the Nawamintrajinee camp in Cholburi, the pistol range is a favourite. Visitors can learn pistol shooting in courses taught at the camp for all experience levels. There is also a place for those interested in archery. In addition, sports clubs in the camp area offer horse-riding, scuba-diving, Taekwondo and Thai-boxing.
The military has been quite successful in creating a new image catering to adventure tourists. "Tourists can come for a half-day, one-day or one-night tour of the military camp," said Col Prayuth who oversees the Nawamintrjinee camp. "Mostly, we have visitors during the weekend. Some weekends we have a very big group of tourists come to us."