Thailand: debunking the paradise myth
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Dear colleagues and friends,

In this Clearinghouse edition, I would like to share with you a feature story on Thai tourism entitled "Debunking the paradise myth", published a few days ago in the Georgia Straight, a large news and entertainment publication in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. The author, Chris Johnson, used to work as a writer for the Bangkok-based daily The Nation in the last years of the 1980s - at a time when NGO workers, progressive academics and investigative journalists researched and publicized many cases on the negative impacts of tourism on local people and the environment in relation to the "Visit Thailand Year 1987" promotional campaign.

Following the constant rhetoric of sustainable tourism and ecotourism, which suggests that tourism problems can be successfully brought under control through improved planning and management, critical articles on tourism-related issues have become a rarity in Thailand as elsewhere. So it is not surprising that Johnsonís story that confronts readers with the dark side of contemporary Thai tourism has created some anxiety in this country and unleashed a lively debate at the popular Thai-language website

Yours truly,
Anita Pleumarom
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team)

Georgia Straight (Vancouver/Canada), 11-17 December 2003


By Chris Johnson

In 1996, a German couple thought they'd finally found a tropical paradise on Thailand's east coast Chang Islands. But at night in their seaside bungalow, they kept hearing noises right by their ears. At first they tried not to let it spoil their holiday, but they finally asked the Thai staff to check it out. After pulling the coconut-wood panelling off the walls, the workers found the culprits: a nest of baby nguu kiao, or green snakes, coiled around each other.

Kit, a Thai tourist-bungalow manager, once told me she doesn't dare tell guests that she often finds cobras n the huts during the rainy season. Of course, not every tourist in Thailand sleeps beside a snake pit. But every year, some of the 10 million foreign visitors in Thailand, including more than 100,000 Canadians, are victims of snakes, motorcycle and bus accidents, overdoses, malaria, HIV, and murder. Worse, a 10-fold increase of tourists over 15 years, which has fuelled corruption, greed, and sleaze, has distorted local landscapes, food, and culture. But we rarely hear about it, at home or abroad. That's because the travel section is the picnic area of newsrooms. And as Kit said: "We never hear about it [the accidents involving foreigners] because the authorities are afraid it'll scare away the tourists."

Don't scare the tourists. It's the unspoken slogan of the world's largest and fastest-growing industry. With $2.75 trillion in sales worldwide, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel trade is built upon positive thinking and promises of Fantasy Island. Governments, tour operators, and hoteliers have been conniving to convince us it's better in the Bahamas. And we believed it; we needed to believe that tropical countries promise a smile-filled escape from winter and stress.

But some adventurers, academics, and activists wonder if the industry as a whole is a pathological liar, the sum of thousands of touts and brochures.

"Asian tourism critics have denounced for many years the sale of whole countries," wrote Anita Pleumarom in an essay for the Third World Network Online. Pleumarom is the coordinator of the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team, an independent research organization that specializes in the social and ecological effects of tourism and development. In an e-mail to the Georgia Straight, she wrote: "Things have changed a lot here in Thailand since the 1980s, when there was...a considerable grassroots movement protesting controversial projects on the ground, e.g. in Phuket and Chiang Mai."

"Mass tourism is a great evil and destroyer of cultures," Jim Placzek says in a phone interview. Placzek heads the Pacific Rim studies department at Langara College and teaches Thai with his Thai wife, Khun Pontip, founder of Vancouver's Friends of Thailand. "All these resorts recently are the Club Med model, where the goal is precisely to isolate tourists from the locals."

Across the tropics, the result is countries with two faces: one a smiling clown offering relief from winter and worry; the other a smirking demon laughing at locals as well as many of the four million Americans and one million Canadians living abroad, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Statistics Canada. In the view of many expats in Thailand, a more realistic tourism brochure might read like this:

Welcome to Thailand, the Land of Smiles. To make your holiday a pleasant one, we have kicked villagers off prime beaches and taken the spice out of our food. During the recent APEC summit, we rounded up stray dogs and street people, banned activists, and put a massive banner over a slum to make our country look good. Groups such as Human Rights Watch accuse us of harassing foreign and local activists. And the drug war of our Texas-educated, telecom billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has killed more than 2,000 Thais, from midlevel dealers to teens smoking methamphetamines by the village 7-Eleven.

To keep our Kingdom clean, we are turning the backpacker's favourite islands into a theme park for a better class of traveller. Our message is clear: no more farang ki nok (literally, "foreigner bird shit"). Give us your money, but don't question our treatment of locals. You, and your money, are more important than them. You, the tourist, are a commodity. And you seem to like this; official stats say half of all tourist arrivals are repeat visitors.

You won't get the above from travel agents or Lonely Planet. They also won't tell you that paradise is feathered with Canadian snowbirds. According to Thai immigration figures, more than 100,000 Canadians visited Thailand in 2002, double that of 1997. Spending US$76 a day for 16 days on average, we invested $124 million in a major Thai corporation--call it Tourism Inc. That business is worth US$22.3 billion in 2003 and is directly employing 3.1 million Thai employees, according to Bangkok's American Chamber of Commerce. A billion-dollar expenditure by perhaps a million Canadians in Thailand in past decades should give us powerful leverage. Yet few sun worshippers see themselves as walking investment bankers. Canadians spent $4.5 billion outside the country this year, according to the Canada Tourism Commission. But try finding activists who talk about wielding our consumer power or boycotting holidays to Thailand, Indonesia, China, the Caribbean, or Mexico to counter rights abuses. It's easier to let Minnie Driver rail against Cambodian clothing factories.

Tourism, associated with fun and sun, is rarely taken as seriously as fishing or manufacturing. Few neutral researchers study the industry or conduct tourism-impact assessments on projects. Even "Supernatural" British Columbia, where tourism challenges forestry as the province's foremost employer, money earner, and Olympian saviour, has no minister of tourism who can warn us to learn from the lessons of Thailand.

WHEN I FELL IN LOVE with Thailand in 1987, it was known as the planet's most exotic kingdom, never colonized. Only three hours south of Bangkok, villagers around Hua Hin lived in wooden homes on stilts on the breezy west shore of the Gulf of Thailand. The king's "Far From Worry" palace, hilltop monasteries, and a giant Buddha presided over a forested 20-kilometre beach marked only by the footprints of a few outsiders among locals playing soccer or catching abundant silvery fish under a rabbit moon.

But that began to change after the government declared 1987 "Visit Thailand Year". Amid drought, military coups, and border wars, Thai elites pushed tourism as their national stabilizer. But that meant pushing locals off choice land and turning farmers and fishermen into caddies, maids, guards, and body sellers. Declaring national parks and banning logging, decisions that seemed progressive on the surface, instead actually legalized the eviction of uneducated forest folk lacking traditions of documented land ownership. But thanks to a purring public-relations regime, the Happy Kingdom evaded the global outcry against resettlement schemes that took place in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

Though few tourists noticed, some local reporters and activists refused to put their heads in the quicksand. They greeted with protests alleged European "sex tourists" at the airport and accused foreign-owned resorts of tolerating thugs who pushed nationless sea gypsies off beaches in the honeymoon haven of Phuket.

In her essay for Third World Network, Pleumarom cited Thai-Canadian activist Ann Danaiya Usher, sister of Can-rock star David Usher. The thenBangkok-based journalist described the era as "an extravaganza of shameless commercialism which put everything up for sale, from spotless white beaches to luscious jungles, from colorful cultural events to beautiful Thai women".

Some of Vancouver's top academics also witnessed the gentrification of seaside hamlets and farmlands converted to factories and more than 100 golf courses. "Around Rayong and the Gulf of Thailand, they've built resorts, and now local people can't afford to live there anymore," says Daniel Pauly, a renowned UBC fisheries expert, in an interview. "Tourism also raises the price of fish to a level beyond what locals can afford."

"The poor don't get a piece of the action," observes Brian White, the coordinator of Capilano College's tourism management program, in a phone interview. White helped set up Thailand's tourism education system from 1987 to 1995. "It's so corrupt, whenever there's a chance to build something, it will end up as a disgusting sex-trade-dominated dump."

With visas and entry stamps, almighty tourists did what French and British imperialists could not: invade Thailand. From Koh Samui to Phuket to Pattaya, Thais became an unwelcome minority in their own backyard among German bikers, Japanese Yakuza, Russian pimps, French nudists, and European and American ravers. In Hua Hin, which I made my base in 1998, bustling restaurants and beach houses, serving Swiss retirees and noisy Bangkokians, have forced villagers to move farther inland. Last year, the village street became a road under construction, clogged with Benzes and Beemers on weekends. With fewer fish left to catch, many fisherman now spend midnights gambling on English, Italian, and Spanish soccer games broadcast live on sports channels. And they say they have little hope of ever regaining their ancestral lands or of even operating small businesses on the beach, where provincial officials have been trying to remove about 50 small restaurants, shops, and bungalows. Their kids play video games, worship death metal, and eat junk food, not fish.

From Hua Hin all the way to Chonburi, 400 kilometres away on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, only a few stalwart women in sarongs and straw hats still cling to a traditional lifestyle and scraps of beachfront in the shadow of empty or half-constructed condos and resorts that didn't exist a decade ago. "Land speculation became a national past-time, permeating every beautiful village, however remote," wrote Thai filmmaker Ing Kanjanavanit in an essay after observing years of tourism impact. "In the end, we have nothing to show for it but whole graveyards of unsold high-rise condominiums, shop-houses, golf courses, resort developments and housing estates."

TO COUNTER THE hotel glitz and brochure gloss, Thai artists, dozens of English-language dailies and magazines, and foreign novelists now portray the Land of Smiles as the Land of Wiles. The images aren't flattering: traffic toxins, shared needles, an HIV epidemic, and murdered trekkers in Chiang Mai; African smugglers and business scams in Bangkok; overcrowded, capsizing ferries, and mass arrests and overdoses at full-moon parties near Koh Samui; boats' anchors wrecking reefs, the abuse of sea gypsies, and hushed-up tales of gunmen shooting up a tour van near Phuket; and, of course, pedophiles in the popular seaside resort of Pattaya. "Pattaya is an example of how things can go wrong for tourism," White says. "Tourism has soaked up the water from the surrounding area. The buildings have done a lot of environment damage. It's now lost market share and declined."

But amid this orgy of organic anarchy, the aloof islands of Koh Chang, seven hours by bus and three hours by coconut boat from Bangkok, still promised paradise. Burmese exiles rented thatch huts, while displaced Khmers served up spicy shark meat and the odd manta ray. Life was timeless and cheap on empty beaches yawning to the horizon. Bags of marijuana sometimes washed ashore, courtesy of capsized smugglers' boats. Relaxed islanders seemed determined to avoid becoming another Pattaya.

But the tourism sea monster was hungry. In 2001, the government aimed to double the 300,000 tourists, including 60,000 foreigners, to the marine park's 52 islands. It named Plodprasop Suraswadi, who had once suggested building Southeast Asia's first ski resort in Chiang Mai, to head a Special Administrative Zone. He was later named permanent secretary of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, which is, conveniently, in charge of studying tourism impact, which was all too clear: land prices doubled in a year, and the number of resort operators tripled to 84 in three years.

However, Langara College's Placzek, who joined a Thai professor's survey of Koh Chang villages, observed: "Local people complained they were not getting the cushy jobs at big new resorts." Trat province's chamber of commerce, not exactly a bunch of radicals, called on the government to focus instead on border trade with Cambodia, worth four times the tourism trade.

But Plodprasop insisted the plan was full-steam ahead. Trat's governor also confirmed to reporters that Sun City, a casino giant in South Africa, was hoping to gamble in the Koh Chang area. "It's almost like a military operation," wrote the Associated Press's Denis Gray, the dean of Bangkok correspondents, on September 17, 2002. "First come the reconnaissance teams: the backpackers. They're followed by the light infantry: the local tourist operators. Then the last wave storms ashore: the Thai and international resort developers."

At a November 2002 cabinet meeting, Thaksin declared that he wanted Koh Chang to be "a second Phuket", developed for "high yield tourists, not backpackers". That month, the government approved plans for 37 projects, including 19 road-building ops, worth US$7.5 million. Welcoming farang ki nok, bird-shit backpackers, was not in the plan. "Of course, we want money when we deal with tourism," Plodprasop told the BBC World Service on November 21. "And we know very well that these backpackers spend very little...If you want to compare these two groups, actual damage [caused] by millionaires is much less than those who earn less." While backpackers fled Koh Chang to set up their driftwood subculture in Cambodia and Vietnam, older tourists filled their vacated hammocks, bringing their needs for roads, regular ferries, a good massage, and wives-on-demand.

IN THE "FIRST" Phuket, however, the tide of tourism was already going out after the October 12, 2002, Bali bombings that killed 202 people. "If it can happen in Bali, why can't it happen in Phuket?" Peter Semone, vice-president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, told the Bangkok Post from the carnage in Bali eight days after the bombings. To avoid a backlash against hoards of foreigners, he called for a traveller's code of conduct to respect local sensitivities. "Kuta [City, Bali], like Nana Plaza in Thailand, was always the place to do whatever you wanted. But now the whole tourism industry is grappling with how to deal with this."

In 2003, the Year of Travel Advisories, the Thai government reported tourist arrivals dove from 10.8 million to 9.7 million. In May, the International Labour Organization said the region would lose more than 15 percent of tourism jobs. Even Placzek and his wife, Pontip, who run pre-departure training courses for travellers, had to cancel plans for a field school near Ayuttaya. Citing omens that Phuket's gold rush was over, tourism gurus held a brainstorming session in February. A few months later, a local land official was shot dead after a probe revealed that wealthy resort developers had scammed about 100 out of 538 land-title deeds intended for the poor under a land-reform program.

Mai pen rai. Never mind. The tourism drive was still on. The Bangkok Post reported on May 9 that Phuket's chief planner, Ratchathin Sayamanon, claiming to have Thaksin's support, presented a 100-billion-baht plan to dredge Phuket Bay and create two artificial islands for tourists with yachts. According to the Nation newspaper, Plodprasop's chief investigator, Lt.-Gen. Surin Phikulthong, threatened in May to demolish the properties of smaller resort owners in Koh Chang who had trespassed on public lands and cut down trees. Forestry officials said they had to carry weapons and cut through barbed wire to enter occupied land.

Taught by Buddhist monks to avoid confrontation, and after more than 15 years of foreign invasion, many Thais have become uncomfortably numbed to watching jackbooted officials kicking sand in the face of little guys in sandals. "It has become much more difficult for local people, activists, and the media to raise concerns," tourism investigator Pleumarom relayed in her e-mail to the Straight. "At times, it can be even risky for residents to speak out, as we have seen in Koh Chang for example, where the powers-that-be have successfully managed to silence opposition." Brad Adams, the director of Human Rights Watch's Bangkok-based Asia division, also told the Straight in an e-mail that warned of a return to the dark days of military rule: "No tourist boycott will have any impact on this."

IF PROTESTS WON'T work in a dreamocracy, academics hope that enlightened forms of tourism will. Placzek, who taught near Bangkok during the Vietnam War, prefers "cultural tourism" and "homestays", where small groups stay in family homes. "To me, homestay is fabulous. It promotes people-to-people contact. I've been waiting 20 years for this to happen." The U.S.based group Conservation International recognized Thai ecotour operator REST (Responsible Ecological Social Tours) earlier this year for its homestay project in a Muslim hamlet on Koh Yao Noi near Phuket.

White says he prefers the sustainable tourism he's been studying with Capilano students among the Red Dao tribes in North Vietnam as a way of avoiding the uncontrolled growth of places like Pattaya. "Because of communism, village committees have enough control to keep back the rampant speculation and keep the small, localized tourism sustained by lower-budget travellers."

UBC's Pauly says tourists can teach Thais to appreciate their country. "Diving by Thais has been driven by diving by foreigners. If you have resort operators who need fish for divers to see, they have as much claim to the fish as the fishermen."

But there are also signs of a growing xenophobia in Asia. President Thaksin named his political party Thai Rak Thai, meaning "Thais love Thais". And in a recent Japanese government survey, a third of those surveyed said they don't want to see more foreigners, after Japan's police agency reported a record-high 16,212 crimes by foreigners last year.

Peaceful, loveable Thailand is also seeing more crimes by and against foreigners. A bungalow employee received a death sentence for raping and murdering Heather Novak, a 22-year-old film student from Toronto, on Samet Island in January 1998. An unlicensed tour guide allegedly strangled and beat to death David Chan, a 62-year-old retired postal worker from Burnaby, near Chiang Mai in February 2002, according to a June 20, 2002, report in Burnaby Now. Thai police have reported several incidents of jealous Thai males shooting foreign men hanging out with Thai women. Last February in Ratchaburi, not far from Hua Hin, burglars stabbed and shot dead British retiree Arthur Green, 63, in his home and abducted his Thai wife, the British embassy reported.

Still, this winter thousands of Canadians will book honeymoons, golf holidays, and one-way tickets to teach English or retire in the new Florida this winter. But did Thailand ever need to hype the paradise myth? It already has the best food, newspapers, beer halls, outdoor rock clubs, models, indy filmmakers, kickboxing, traditional masseuses, forest monasteries, meditation teachers, and weather. The nam jai, "heart waters", of the average Thai remain a fountain of Buddhist equanimity on a paranoid planet. And like the legendary Thai folk trickster Sri Thanonchai, many Thais still believe in smiling their way out of trouble. In the face of an 11-percent drop in tourism, the Culture Ministry unfurled a campaign in July this year to get Thais to smile more.

"Smiling is a good habit, as well as a welcome gesture to foreign tourists," ministry spokeswoman Poowanida Kunpalin declared. "People who smile three times a day should make it six."


NOTE: The articles introduced in this Clearinghouse do not necessarily represent the views of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team). This article does not represent the views of the web master.

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