Briefing on Tourism, Development and Environment Issues
in the Mekong Subregion
Vol. 6, No. 1 January-February 2000
GMS PROJECTS SET TO ROLL AGAIN
[The Nation: 15.1.00; M2 Communications: 11.1.00] - A FURTHER opening up of borders and a new emphasis on poverty reduction were on top of the agenda at the 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Programme, held at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) headquarters in Manila on 13 January.
Due to the Asian financial crisis, only a handful of more than 100 GMS projects, including road, airport and hydro-power plant projects, have been implemented since the group's inception in 1992. In order to spur trade and investment in transport and communications, tourism and energy, the ADB and ministers from the six Mekong countries pressed for further cross-border liberalization. They also discussed progress on building "economic corridors" along major highway projects.
The GMS scheme includes a policy that all 60 million highlanders be resettled and integrated into the market economy via modern transport and communication systems. The ADB believes the many ethnic groups in the region should give up their traditional agricultural activities, considered as the root cause for poverty and deforestation, and turn to eco-tourism as a source of income.
Warren Evans, manager of the ADB's Environment Division, argued, "We need to persuade communities that it's in their best interest to conserve rather than exploit natural resources by encouraging community participation in ventures such as eco-tourism. They can discourage poachers and illegal loggers and operate ecologically sound tourist facilities."
TOURISM CHIEFS PLOT 'SEAMLESS' ASEAN TRAVEL
[Bangkok Post: 29.12.99; 13.1.00; 26.1.00; The Nation: 22.1.00; 24.1.00] - IN January, the week-long ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Bangkok kicked off with a two-day meeting of ASEAN National Tourism Organizations (NTOs) focussing on 'Visit ASEAN Year 2002' and ways to encourage ASEAN travel and promote the region as a single destination. The meeting themed "Towards Seamless Intra-ASEAN Travel" was proposed by host Thailand in a bid to further regional cooperation in the field of travel and tourism.
Besides laying the foundation for facilitating regional tourism, the meeting was also to gauge the reactions of NTOs towards liberalized tourism policies, especially the relaxation or removal of restrictive aviation and visa policies , which are seen as an obstacle to tourism growth. This concerns Burma and the three Indochinese countries in particular, as they continue to impose relative expensive visa fees for travellers.
The ATF - this year featuring all 10 ASEAN nations as full participants for the first time - is the biggest tourism event in the region, attracting top decision-makers from both the public and private sectors. ASEAN countries hope to attract more than 36 million foreign visitors in 2000, bringing US$31 billion in revenue.
The Visit ASEAN Year 2002 campaign will be officially launched during the next ATF in Brunei next year. The 10 ASEAN NTOs agreed to map out the programme and strategy during a meeting in Singapore this February.
CULTURE FOR SALE
[The Irrawaddy: Jan. 2000]- FOLLOWING the recent restoration of the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon and excavation of many old palaces by the military regime, Burmese historian Dr. Than Tun complained in an interview with the BBC: "(This) is no business for soldiers. They have no knowledge about antiques. They want just publicity." Than was very angry with the generals because they excavated and restored many historic and religious sites when the junta announced 'Visit Myanmar (Burma) Year 1996'.
Nowadays, the military leaders face criticism for smuggling antiques found in the restoration projects. Smuggling artifacts has become big business across the Burmese-Thai border. Objects coming from Burma include Buddha statues, brass gongs, brass bells, malleable gold sheets, songkong (a traditional guitar) and palin (a traditional chair, which was used by King Thi Baw). Mostly, the smugglers use jungle paths, but if they have large objects, the smugglers use the official routes and pay 'tea-money' to border officials.
Antique smuggling occurs not only in Burma but also in other Mekong countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. However, while other countries have lists of their lost antiques, the Burmese junta keeps no such records and remains quiet about the issue of stealing and smuggling of their cultural heritage.
Ko Sai, an antiques trader in Mae Sai, explained that his business is largely based in Mandalay for collection of objects in upper Burma. Later, the goods are taken to Taunggyi by truck and to Tachilek on the Thai border by plane. He reported that it is an easy avenue for transport, and he can pay off the pilots and custom officials. Often, goods are also sent to Tachilek by Burmese army convoys, and soldiers provide many objects. "If they return from Kachin State, they come with jade, from Mineshue with gems, and from the frontline with statues of Buddha and many antiques. It is so cheap and much better quality than ordinary. Sometimes, the magazines of their guns hold jade, no more bulelet," said Ko Sai. When asked whether he was not afraid of going to hell for trading religious artifacts, Ko Sai replied: "Why can we not take things? Everyone is stealing in this country. How can we control our ethics?"
It is believed that General Ne Win took the best diamond from Shwedagon in the 1970s. Recently Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, who chairs the committee for the Shwedagon restoration, was accused of taking jewels from the temple during repair works.
BURMA'S AIRLINE POLICY BACKFIRES
[Bangkok Post: 31.1.00; The Irrawaddy: Jan. 2000] - BURMA'S state-owned airline, Myanmar Airways Intrernational (MAI), was given a competitive edge late last year when the Burmese junta demanded that the much larger Thai Airways International cut down its weekly seating capacity on Bangkok-Rangoon flights by 1000.
However, the move has effectively scuttled this year's tourism earnings during peak season. Hoteliers in Rangoon and othes in the industry have reported cancellations from foreign tour operators, doubtful about MAI's capacity to deliver safe and reliable service. Two luxury hotels in Rangoon claimed they had each lost 100 to 120 bookings alone, and other hoteliers said the European market was down by 12 per cent since the Rangoon government stepped in to save the poorly performing MAI from financial hemorrhaging.
State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Secretary One Lt Gen Khin Nyunt was apparently in no mood to admit the misgivings about the move and simply ignored the matter when he spoke at the Management Committee for Tourism Development in Rangoon on 12 January. Noting that tourism at the beginning of the year was "good", he said it would be much better without "destructive elements" in the country opposing travel in Burma.
NEW BORDER CASINO LINKED TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS
[Bangkok Post: 12.2.00; 20.2.00; The Nation: 19.2.00] - A NEW casino opened on the Burmese border on 18 February and immediately attracted gamblers flocking in from Thailand. The Casino Club operates under the flagship of the Myawaddy Riverside Resort. Htoo Than Kyaw, 50, a close aide of former drug baron Khun Sa, is the casino's major shareholder with the co-investors being Thai and Taiwanese businessmen. The US$52- million resort project is only a stone's throw north of the Thai-Burmese Friendship Bridge and consists of a casino, hotel, restaurants, shopping plaza and golf courses.
Casino resorts have been mushrooming along the Burmese and Cambodian border over recent years. The opening of the new club at Myawaddy flies in the face of a statement by Thai National Security Council chief Kachadpai Burusphat last month that authorities would try to dissuade people from leaving the country to gamble. He admitted they could not stop people exercising their right to cross the border legitimately, but urged officials to enforce currency regulations. Thais are allowed to take a maximum of 500,000 baht (about US$13,000) over the border. Moreover, border officials have been instructed by a deputy finance minister to keep a close watch on Thais making regular visits to casinos in Myawaddy.
Associated Press reported that one of the Burmese investors in the casino was from the Wa ethnic minority. The Wa are heavily involved in drug production and trafficking in eastern Shan state which lies further to the north.
Following a request from concerned Thai authorities to improve the monitoring of people and goods across the border, Burma's Myawaddy authorities closed seven piers along the Moei river, leaving the Thai-Burmese Friendship Bridge as the only crossing point.
RAINSY FIGHTS HARMFUL TOURISM, ORGANIZED CRIME AND LAND GRABS
[The Nation: 23.12.999; 2.2.00] - THE return of Macau to China will boost Cambodia's role as a major regional haven for money laundering, opposition leader and former finance minister warned in a recent policy presentation on the country's economy. He also said the historic temples of Angkor Wat were in danger if ambitious government plans for large-scale tourism development are allowed to go ahead.
"Organized crime has moved from Hong Kong and Macau to Cambodia for its money laundering," Rainsy told reporters, adding, "There are 50 banks in Cambodia, but when you see their branches, they have no customers: they are just a screen to perform transfers to prevent the tracing of money. Accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of also allowing Burma's military regime to launder money here, he said Cambodia's economy risked being built up on a foundation of prostitution, gambling, drugs and cheap unskilled labour.
Rainsy also strongly attacked the government's "open skies" policy, saying that as a result, the crumbling temples of Angkor Wat were now faced with total destruction at the hands of tourists. "Hun Sen is crazy, and he should do some studies," he said. "Jets create massive vibrations, and Angkor Wat is very fragile." (See also 'Angkor in Focus' below).
More recently, Rainsy led a farmers march from the national stadium to parliament in Phnom Penh, protesting against alleged land theft by corrupt government and military officials. Social workers and human rights investigators agree that there has been a rash of land grabs in the country over the last year, with powerful people confiscating land to sell to companies for the construction of factories, casinos and hotels.
"We have to stop this exploitation, and we appeal to the international community to press for land reform," Rainsy said during the march. "No one has the right to confiscate people's land. It is illegal and is killing Cambodian farmers and Cambodia's development."
ANGKOR IN FOCUS
[Agence France Presse: 6.1.00; Bangkok Post: 24.1.00; The Nation: 5.2.00] - HOTELIERS around the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat have been rubbing their hands in anticipation. Hun Sen's new "open skies" and tourism policies are aimed at reversing the image of Cambodia as a dangerous backwater dogged by crime and kidnappings, and tapping the perceived riches brought by foreigners to neighbouring Thailand.
"What we are doing now is securing the future of Cambodia's tourism industry," explained Secretary of State for Tourism Thong Khon at flagship millennium festivities amid the 9th-11th century temple complex. "We hope 2000 will be the year when tourists will really flood into Cambodia."
The policy comes despite warnings of threats to the fragile Angkor Wat complex. The government's plan to "upgrade" the temples over the coming months includes the compulsory use of electric golf-style buggies for visitors and the opening of fast food restaurants. Karaoke bars and massage parlours will never be too far away.
Jets from regional carriers also look set to change the temples' jungle serenity, with flights from Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand tipped to open routes to Siem Reap, the once-sleepy town neighbouring the temples. Tourism officials hope the airport could come to host major international carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa, with the temples becoming part of an international "must-see" itinerary.
In a bid to create the image of a Cambodian package tour, the government spent half a million dollars on the "Angkor 2000" party, and besides a few minor technical glitches it went smoothly. Dismissing criticism that the event was poorly organized and tacky, Prime Minister Hun Sen said any change from Cambodia's grim past is a change for the better. "The cry of our hearts will be a song which enlivens our culture of peace," Hun Sen said in his speech at the temples to welcome the new millennium.
Among many other tourism-related projects around Angkor, international hotel operator Accor is to complete a deluxe Sofitel hotel in late this year. The scheme is currently developed by Thai Nakorn Patana Co Ltd, a company prominent in the pharmaceutical industry in Thailand.
TOURISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS
[Bangkok Post: 3.1.00] - THE year 2000 poses many challenges for Laos after it opened its doors to the outside world in 1999. The Communist government initially experienced increased tourism as travellers thronged to this new and adventurous destination. But the big spending tourist found beautiful scenery and friendly people did not compensate for little infrastructure, low class facilities, disappointing government policy and few comforts.
Tourism now has dropped off although backpackers continue to trickle through on their shoestring budgets. The much vaunted Malaysian-owned casino on the scenic Nam Ngum Dam has probably suffered most from the tourism decline. Much of its foreign management team has left and the project has been scaled down. The government's 'Visit Laos 2000' campaign, which was to be Visit Laos 1999 but was late in starting, promised to generate millions and pull the country out of the economic mire in, but it is facing a grim 12 months.
For the last decade, Laos has relied on foreign aid. Japan, Australia, the United States and some European countries have been injecting millions into infrastructure. But now aid providers are becoming despondent with the lack of government direction and the worsening red tape and corruption. Germany, a major aid provider, has just pulled out of a large-scale project after the government would not allow a co-operative to be set up by individual handicraft makers to market their wares. The politburo decreed that it was to be the only structured organization in Laos, relaying its fears a co-operative could suddenly turn political and demand rights.
And it is over human rights that the politburo is now finding itself in international trouble. When it was closed to the world, it could do as it wished, but things have changed now the world is looking in. At a festival on 26 October, a group of students and lecturers calling itself the Lao Students Movement for Democracy tried to stage a rare anti-government protest. Radio Free Asia claims that as many as 200 people were questioned and detained after the abortive demonstration in Vientiane to seek democracy and economic reform. The Communist regime denies that any protest took place and said onlookers were misconstruing what they saw. The government's line is that police were just rounding up a group of drunks. The reputable Amnesty International says five protesters are still being held, without charges, more than two months after the event.
TOURISM LOBBY IN DEFENSE OF 'THE BEACH'
[The Nation: 30.1.00; International Herald Tribune: 8.2.00] - THAILAND'S tourism industry is hoping for a shot in the arm from Leonardo DiCaprio's new movie 'The Beach'. Despite a court battle against the film company, 20th Century Fox, over charges of violating national park laws for the shooting and a global campaign to boycott the movie, Thai authorities are running a promotional campaign in cooperation with Fox in the hope scenes of turquoise seas and heavenly beaches will spark a new tourism boom.
During the filming last year, DiCaprio declared: "I think the release of a film like ('The Beach') will encourage young people to see the beauty of Thailand, and encourage more young backpackers to come here."
Pradech Phayakvichien, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) agreed in a recent interview with Associated Press. Referring to the environmental protests associated with 'The Beach' shooting, he said, "Viewers won't know the details about the way of making pictures" and quickly added, "You get a good impression from the film, the locations in Thailand, not only the beach but the cities."
Meanwhile Joe Cummings, travel writer and author of Lonely Planet publications on Thailand, has become very active in defense of the film-makers. In his article 'Travel Through Fact and Fiction To a Beach Utopia in Thailand', published in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) and posted on DiCaprio's website and The Beach site of thaistudents.com, Cummings cited the removal of rubbish on Maya Beach by the 'The Beach' producers and claimed that "Bangkok protesters offered no hard evidence to support their claims of devastation" and, "Experts who visited the bay both before and after filming agreed that Ao Maya looked better than ever." Penang-based Third World Network (TWN) and t.i.m.-team clarified Cummings' comments in a joint letter to the IHT editor.
"While refering to 'Bangkok protesters' only, Cummings ignores the fact that elected local government bodies and residents from Krabi are fighting a legal battle in a civil court against Fox and the Thai officials who allowed the filming, for the violation of Thailand's environmental and national park laws," said the letter.
TWN and t.i.m.-team also criticized Cummings' denial of the environmental destruction of Maya Bay, saying, "large parts of Thai civil society - local citizens groups, environmental organizations, academics and investigative journalists - have closely monitored and documented the developments since Fox descended on Ao Maya, and presented very different findings to the court and the public."
The letter further stated, "Whereas Cummings seems to laud Fox for the collection of rubbish - most of which was actually natural debris -, he omits the fact that the filmmakers destroyed the beach's natural barriers against erosion by bulldozing the sand dunes and removing native plants. Subsequently, the beach's dunes were washed away during the last monsoon season, just as predicted by critics from the very beginning. Also, the "rubbish" came back to the beach with the strong seasonal tides."
Finally, the groups asked, "Why does Cummings omit all these facts that are essential to understand this controversy?" and pointed out that Fox had engaged Lonely Planet, with which Cummings is associated, as a consultant on how to travel and film in Asia.
Notably, Cummings also sparked controversy when he fiercely campaigned against an international boycott of 'Visit Myanmar (Burma) Year 1996', which was aimed to support the pro-democracy struggle against the Burmese military regime.
GREENPEACE SUPPORTS LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNS
[Bangkok Post: 23.1.00; Insider Information] - GREENPEACE'S flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, was recently in Thailand as part of its "Toxic-Free Asia Tour" campaign against pollution. Its first stop was the port of Phuket. On 2O January, NGOs from Southern Thailand arranged exhibitions about local environmental problems on the vessel - including a photo exhibition of the destruction of Maya Bay by 'The Beach' film crew -, when a large number of curious Phuket residents visited the famous ship.
Greenpeace, Wildlife Fund Thailand, Confederation of Southern Inshore Fishermen and the Phuket Environment Protection (PEP) Association also chose crowded Patong Beach in Phuket as the site for their campaign. About 80 activists holding banners written in Thai and English marched along the beach in front of Coral Beach Hotel, and handed out leaflets to tourists and locals. The demonstration drew wide attention from foreigners and Thai vendors at the beach, where protests are not a common sight.
In addition to raising awareness of the hazards of toxic and chemical substances caused by garbage incineration, the campaign also featured tourism impacts and the conservation of sea turtles. Greenpeace and the local groups released a joint statement, pointing out that, prior tourism development in Phuket since the 1980s, thousands of sea turtles nested on the beaches each year. But during this year's nesting season, only eight nests of Leatherback turtles have been found on Phuket's Mai Khao Beach in Sininart National Park. Therefore, the statement said, it was necessary to ban further tourism development on the remaining nesting beaches, forbid the use of light on the beaches at night and ban trawlers without turtle excluding devices (TED) and long-line fishing in the nesting season.
RALLY GREETS BIZARRE JAPANESE 'PRO-NUKE' HILLTRIBE TOUR
[Aleternative Energy Project for Sustainability (AEPS): Jan. 2000; The Nation: 18.1.00; Bangkok Post: 6.2.00; 13.2.00; Insider Information] - A GROUP of 30 Japanese tourists on a pro-nuclear power campaign tour were met by anti-nuclear power protesters on their arrival at Chiang Rai airport on 11 February. The 50 protesters comprised of Akha people, Thai activists and anti-nuclear power Japanese students. The demonstration was held after it was revealed the tour was proposed by the mayor of the Japanese municipality of Kumihama - a small coastal town in Kyoto prefecture, earmarked for a nuclear power plant. Core residents were picked for a visit to Akha villages in Chiang Rai Province to let them see the hardship of tribal people living without electricity.
Opponents' banners, in both Thai and Japanese, read: "Don't use tribesmen as a tool to push for a nuclear plant." Athu Pochae, 30, a member of the Association for the Study and Conservation of Akha Culture, explained a leak of nuclear radioactive material at the Tokaimura plant in Hibaraki province had caused major opposition to the plan. In the hope of persuading the residents to agree to the project, the Kumihama municipality organized the tour to promote nuclear power at home. Mr Athu said such a tour is unacceptable, and local ethnic people and NGOs in Thailand oppose nuclear power.
The Japan-based No Nukes Asia Forum (NNAF) had informed Thai NGOs about the tour in advance, and the Bangkok-based Alternative Energy Project for Sustainability (AEPS) and 13 other Thai NGOs sent a protest statement over the planned visit to the municipality of Kumihama in Japan. Because of the pressure and publicity surrounding the trip, the original programme to visit five hill tribe villages was reduced in scope. Subsequently, the tour group visited only two villages along the conventional tourist route and spent the nights in a comfortable resort in Chiang Rai, not in hilltribe homes as initially planned.
However, opponents expressed concern that the trip was conducted like a regular 'hilltribe museum' tour, and the organizing travel agency was reputed to have no scruples to maximize their profits. "Apparently, 40 to 60 per cent of their business is Japanese," said one activist. "Sex tours from Japan are a specialty, and they are known to herd people through their regular hilltribe stops without an understanding of local language or culture."
The protesters managed to submit a letter to Mr Kawananishi, the deputy mayor of Kumihama, at Chiang Rai airport before the Japanese visitors were whisked away in three vans.
FORCED EVICTION OF AKHA VILLAGE
[Bangkok Post: 16.1.00; The Nation: 1.2.00; Akha Heritage Foundation: Jan. 2000] - INDIGENOUS peoples and human rights groups have circulated an action alert via the Internet to prevent the forced eviction of an Akha village in Northern Thailand and called on the international community to take action. "Please contact your closest Thai Embassy and ask that the eviction of this village be reconsidered. Don't be confrontative, be polite," says the statement.
Huay Mak (or Huuh Mah Akha), located Mae Faluang District in Chiang Rai Province, at about 1000 feet, is one of the oldest Akha villages in Thailand. The 78-year old village is remarkable in that it has been an independently developed sustainable agricultural system of self-sufficiency. A few weeks ago, however, reports surfaced that the Thai military wanted to relocate all 180-plus residents under a security and reafforestation project.
Lt-Col Suwit Wangyao, head of the project in the Mae Faluang-Mae Chan area, said the new site had been prepared for the ethnic villagers in Mae Yuek Village, which is located some seven kilometers away from Huay Mak. He acknowledged that house construction was financially supported by the Taiwanese government. However, he refused to elaborate why and to what extent the Taiwanese were involved. He also denied that the project involved the forced eviction of the Akha. "We never remove the villagers against their will. The ethnic villagers have chosen to join our relocation programme because they know they will have a better livelihood," he claimed.
However, Julia McDonald from Australia said in a letter to The Nation that she witnessed all male members of the village sign by thumbprint a historic document stating they were against being forcibly relocated, and that such a move would lead to the annihilation of their culture. After visiting the "new village", she said: "It comprises 31 concrete boxes with iron barred windows on a sharply excavated potential landslide, intersected by a new road, electricity poles, and framed by a monumental Chinese style concrete gateway. Without exaggeration, this new site resembles nothing short of (a) concentration camp and is a huge misappropriation of funds."
Originally, military officials told the Akha villagers they had to move because they polluted local water sources and cut down trees in a watershed area. But critics say, the allegations that the Akha are endangering the local water supply are untrue, as the water from the valley, where the village is situated, drains into the Haen Taek area only a kilometres away, where pollutants are dumped into the water by a multitude of others sources. They also question the accusation of deforestation, arguing the Akha are actually improving the environment: The area land farmed by the villagers features sustainably managed rice-terraces, lychee, papaya, tea and coffee plantations, in addition to vegetable fields.
A representative of the Akha Heritage Foundation, Mathew McDaniel, said the Akha were determined to resist the military's relocation project. Moreover, he linked the resettlement scheme with a huge reafforestation project in the area, conducted by the state-owned Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT). A PTT source, however, promptly denied the allegation, saying the agency had nothing to do with the relocation.
AKHA PLAGUED BY TOURISM
Excerpted from a report by Mathew McDaniel of the Chiang Rai-based Akha Heritage Foundation (Jan. 2000)
WHEN will the Akha quit being treated as a moveable, displaceable labor force and tourist destinations and be given the right to recognition as a distinct race, different from Thais, with different traditions, and the right to increasingly administer their own affairs? This would include that if they are on the menu for tourism, that they manage the tourism themselves, and also get the dollars for each time people come to gawk at them like so many caged monkeys.
It really is quite disgusting. All these western tourists coming up to see these striking people while in fact the Akha have not hardly a right, and certainly not much the right to raise their voice. The concept of nation states and no one else like small peoples having much of a voice is western engineered nonsense and western people should stand up and see some of this reversed.
The Akha are a people without a country. In Burma they are poor and get pushed around by every drug laden two bit army that comes along. The Akha are not home in Thailand, are not home all that much in Burma. When there is some Akha land to take, someone takes it. Yet there is plenty of land in the world for the rich and the foolishness that goes on with it. Resorts. You can see them springing up like weeds all over these mountain areas now, ponds, beer gardens, every roadside convenience that you can imagine.
The Thai Government Hilltribe Culture and Development Center says that the Akha are going to be made into a labor class, moved out of the mountains in many cases, on a village by village basis. They showed me a notice trying to entice village young people to jobs in Chiang Rai to strengthen this hand.
On the one hand, MP Paveena's Tourism Authority of Thailand makes a small fortune for Thailand off selling the exotic fare that these Akha present in North Thailand, the reality for the Akha, who see just about none of the
money, is quite different. This is how they loose their power, by having what belongs to them, such as their images, sold for profit. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are full of trekking and tour companies to the hilltribe. When will they cease to be objects, start to be people?
Big roads shoved through their villages that used to have only a trail, now span fifty feet wide, leaving only cliff to hang their remaining huts on. They dare not move, that will come soon enough. Their children and young and old alike must fight for the village square with a host of road traffic.
Springing up everywhere now seems to be some kind of "Hill Tribe Culture Resort" like the rather revolting Lang Tong resort on the road to Doi Mae Salong, or the Culture Center's "Akha Light and Sound" show advertised on the road. The same Hill Tribe Culture and Development Center told me that the Akha had problems because of their "culture", the girls were so promiscuous, they made natural whores. I was somewhat shocked that these same people were hosting this show. Akha Light and Sound. Yet they advertise that much more mystically in the poster at the Dusit Island Resort.
Where ever you are, contact who you may, and plead intervention on the behalf of these people. There is the need for some real people to come over here and look at the snowball in hell chance that these people have, and help have policies changed.
(For further information, contact: Matthew McDaniel, The Akha Heritage Foundation, 386/3 Sailom Joi Rd, Maesai, Chiang Rai 57130, Thailand)
TOURISM AND TRANSNATIONAL CRIME
[The Nation: 12.1.00; Bangkok Post: 23.1.00; 2.2.00] - DECADES ago, Thailand embarked on a giant project to welcome visitors and to boost the country's economy through tourism. Today, it is among the world leaders in tourism, and the number of visitors increases every year. But along the way, cross-border criminals have joined the tourists to enjoy Thai hospitality. Now, a number of leading agencies have started to cooperate on this serious problem.
"There are mafia gangs, drug trafficking gangs and money-laundering gangs based here, mostly in Pattaya and Bangkok," said National Security Council (NSC) deputy-secretary Songkram Chuenpibal. "The problem stems from the tourism policy granting visas on arrival from many countries to attract more tourists."
However, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Pradech Phayakvichien, promptly shrugged of the criticism, saying to blame visa policies for the upsurge of transnational crime was unfair. Far from taking responsibility, he argued this is a normal affair: The more tourists come into the country, the greater the likelihood criminals are among them. "It's simply mathematics. If you have more cars, there are more accidents," Pradech said.
Other state agencies concerned with security issues do not take things that easy. The Office of National Police recently ordered the Centre of Special Prevention, Suppression and Inter-Country Crimes to closely monitor the activities and movements of mafia groups in cooperation of the Immigration Police, Bangkok Metropolitan Police Commission, Police Investigation Commands nationwide, International Police Demand, Special Branch and Interpol.
NSC chief Songkram also called for a comprehensive review of the tourism promotion campaign and visa-granting schemes. He hopes that the review will enable authorities determine whether the policy of relaxation of visas, particularly in relation to the Amazing Thailand promotion, should continue as it is or be changed amid the global increase in transnational crime.
TOURISM ACTION PLAN FOR 2000
[Vietnam News Agency: 17.12.99] - THE national action plan on tourism and related events in Vietnam next year has achieved inspiring results in the promotion of the tourism industry. So said General Director of the Vietnam Tourism Administration (VTA) Vo Thi Thang in a recent interview.
Ms Thang further said that this major plan, approved by the Prime Minister, aims to improve public awareness of the position, role and economic efficiency of tourism and boost Vietnam's image as a tourist attraction in the region and the world. The tourism industry is expected to exceed its target of two million foreign tourists and 11 million local tourists in the year 2000.
The plan under the theme "Vietnam - a destination in the new millennium" focuses on tourism advertisements, combining cultural tours with anniversary celebrations, developing and upgrading tourist resorts, improving the quality of tourist services, and improving state management of tourism.
Regarding preparations for tourism events next year, Ms Thang laid stress on seven events, namely festival tourism and local tourism services; celebrations of the 70th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the 55th National Day, the 25th Liberation Day of South Vietnam and the 110th Birthday of President Ho Chi Minh; the 40th anniversary of Vietnam's Tourism; the organization of the World Tourism Day on Sept. 27, 2000; tourism services and cultural activities; and the welcoming of the Eve of 2000-2001.
HO CHI MINH TRAIL TO BECOME SUPERHIGHWAY
[Agence France Press: 9.2.00] - THE Ho Chi Minh Trail of Vietnam War fame is to be turned into a national highway linking the north and south of the country. Vietnam News said Prime Minister Phan Van Khai recently approved a plan to turn part of the trail into a 1,690-kilometer modern highway crossing the Truong Son mountain range near the Laotian border.
Work is expected to start in the next few months and finish by 2003, the newspaper said, adding the transport ministry has set the cost for the initial phase at US$378 million. The project will be funded by the Vietnamese government and overseas development aid.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was used by North Vietnamese forces to move men and supplies during the Vietnam War. At its height, the route was made up of 16,000 kilometers of jungle trails, canals and tunnels, much of it hidden in dense tropical forest. US forces dropped tons of bombs on the strategic trail during the Vietnam War but never managed to completely sever the supply route.
Vietnam presently has only one north-south highway, Route Number One. It suffers frequent damage from floods and landslides. In 1997, former prime minister Vo Van Kiet proposed turning the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a superhighway but the plan was abandoned after the national assembly criticized the project as being too extravagant.
HCMC'S BACKPACKER CENTRE
[Los Angeles Times: 17.12.99] - PHAM Ngu Lao Street, Southeast Asia's most famous "backpackers' alley" for low-budget travelers, runs for only seven blocks. But among its small hotels, Internet cafes and coffee shops, tourists find a microcosm of the free-market forces that are reshaping Vietnam.
A decade ago, Pham Ngu Lao was a residential street, its quiet broken only in the early morning by buses unloading farmers from the Mekong Delta who came to sell produce in the city's markets. The street's only two hotels, the shabby Hoang Tu and the Vien Dong, offered peasant peddlers the most primitive of overnight accommodations for less than
US$1. Foreigners wanting a room were turned away.
Today those same hotels - renovated and spiffed up - and more than 100 guest houses and "mini-hotels" in the area are in fierce competition, cutting prices and raising standards to attract customers as Vietnam makes an aggressive pitch to join the rest of Southeast Asia as a major tourist destination.
When the government approved general use of the Internet last year, Nguyen Han borrowed US$20,000, bought 12 computers and opened an Internet cafe, one of six on backpackers' alley. She worries, though, that rents will get too high when a new project is completed: Hong Kong investors have cleared a stretch of Pham Ngu Lao's north side for a luxury commercial complex. Some of the shops and cafes that cater to backpackers already have moved to side streets.
If anyone deserves credit for founding Pham Ngu Lao as a backpackers' alley, it is probably An Ngoc Tran, now 53, who spent 18 months in a reeducation camp for having held a low-level U.S. Embassy job during the Vietnam War and survived the latter part of the 1970s selling vegetables and cold water she chilled in an old refrigerator.
When Vietnam moved toward a free-market economy in 1989, she was convinced that the country would become a popular tourist destination and that her neighborhood, located a few blocks from the city's commercial center, would be a perfect refuge for low-budget travellers. She persuaded the Hoang Tu hotel to let her put up a tour desk in its lobby. Ann's Tourist Co. soon became Vietnam's first privately owned tour company to receive a government business license.
For the first tourists in 1989, Vietnam was no French Riviera. They needed special permits to travel anywhere, police officers knocked on hotel doors at night to ensure that tourists were in their rooms, and no Vietnamese dared to casually chat with a foreigner on the street. Vietnam has long since loosened up, and today the government is eyeing the tourist industry as a cornerstone of economic growth. The industry has been bolstered in the last three years by the opening of luxury beach resorts in Da Nang and Nha Trang and a dozen five-star hotels here and in Hanoi. Although Vietnam's tourist figures are inflated because they include large numbers of Chinese traders who cross the border on foot for a day's business, the government says the number of visitors has grown from 250,000 in 1990 to 1.5 million in 1998.