I had done my homework. I had learnt to avoid the Chiang Mai area in Northern Thailand, described by leading guidebooks as “considerably over trekked”. Like most travellers to South East Asia, a hill tribe trek was high on my agenda. I wanted to get an insight into villagers’ lives; I wanted to witness – as I wrote on my blog at the time – “lifestyles unchanged in centuries, perhaps even millennia”. However, wanting to travel responsibly, I was worried about how my presence might influence local people’s traditional way of life. I travelled to the remote hamlet of Luang Nam Tha, near the Chinese border in Northern Laos, and signed up for a three-day trek, at a much higher price than if I had paid in Chiang Mai. I chose the local branch of a Laotian ‘eco-tourism agency’, visiting what was promised as a ‘non-touristy area’. The wall was adorned with a pie-chart, informing visitors that up to 45% of the trek fee went directly to villagers, and a further 10% was invested in community projects. I did not mind paying a slightly higher price, if the communities were going to benefit from it.
The first village we stayed at was home to the Khmu tribe, who migrated to Laos centuries ago from what is now Cambodia. It was built on the side of a hill, in the centre of a patch cleared of forest, surrounded by fields on all sides. The air was thick with ash and smoke; this area of Laos, as indeed most of northern South East Asia, still practices slash-and-burn agriculture. Trees are felled and burnt, and the ash is used as fertiliser. My eyes started streaming as soon as we arrived; within a few hours we had all developed sore throats and persistent coughs.
We were housed in a large, solid, tin-roofed hut, built for tourists, a few hundred yards downhill from the rest of the tribe. A long-drop toilet was for us to use. We spent the day wandering around the village, surrounded by muddy-faced children; their joyful chatter, broken by fits of dry cough, accompanied us as we walked around. Women in colourful headscarves were happy to take a break from weaving and dyeing natural fibres to have a chat, and offer us their handicrafts for sale. The men were at work in the fields. We noticed that the villagers had no toilets; they used an uncultivated field above the village for their needs. Their huts were a lot smaller and flimsier than ours, with thatched roofs and leaning walls.
The following day we visited the Lantan people, originally from Yunnan in northern China. The village, built on the bank of a river, was enveloped in cipria-coloured mist, thick with ash. A bamboo gate, strangely streaked with blood, marked the entrance. There were no bedraggled children about. As soon as we arrived, a few women raced out of their huts holding baskets of handicrafts, touting for our custom; their children tiptoed outside, curious to see us. When the ladies realised we were not interested in buying, they retreated inside, dragging their children along. Despite the insistence of our guide, they refused to interact, leaving us no alternative but to leave.
We learnt later that the Lantan were in the middle of a religious festival; the blood on the village gate belonged to a recent sacrificed animal. When I asked the guide why we were taken to that particular village, where we were clearly unwelcome, he replied that tourists usually like the Lantan, because of their colourful traditional clothing. The encounter was so brief I had not even noticed what the women were wearing.
Unable to spend the night in the Lantan village, we walked downriver, looking for somewhere to stay. None of us were concerned; rather, we were disappointed after being taken to a place where we were neither expected nor wanted. At dusk, we arrived at another Khmu settlement, close to the road back to Luang Nam Tha. This village was larger than the first one we stayed at. Huts were sturdier, some of them two-storied, all with a long-drop toilet in the yard. Villagers wore Western clothes, brought by cunning Chinese merchants who visited weekly. The village looked comparably better off; downhill from the burnt fields, the ash had subsided, the air was breathable again.
This village rarely saw visitors. When we wondered why, we were told tourists do not like it, because inhabitants wear Western clothes and have mobile phones. Being close to the road, villagers enjoy the benefits of trade to supplement their own agriculture-based economy. Some tourists labelled the village as not authentic, westernised. Not authentic on the basis of what? Of their own romanticised idea that minority tribespeople live in shacks in the deep forest, running around in colourful garb?
The villagers were happy for us to stay. We ate together, talked about our lives, and spent the night in their houses. I stayed in the chief’s house, which was not particularly larger or wealthier than the others. When it was time to go to bed, the chief’s mother even tucked me in. We were not expected there, tourists rarely visited; the village hospitality was genuine.
Three years on from this trek, I am still struggling to define the experience. Did my presence bring benefits to the communities, or did it interrupt their life? The debate on the topic is raging, on traveller’s forums on the net and in smoky South East Asian bars, and beyond.
The main idea underlying the concept of community-based tourism is that it encourages travellers to discover cultures while supporting local communities, which in turn allows them to preserve their traditions. Widespread tourism, alongside travellers’ penchant for what is ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’, has brought sizeable benefits to people living in isolated villages. Despite ideas of bucolic paradises, the lives of minority tribespeople are often far from being idyllic; a failed harvest means famine, distance from medical assistance may result in death from a minor infection. Tourists can help locals in need of medical supplies; north-by-north-east.com reports that a tourist trekking through the Thai hills gave antibacterial cream to a farmer with an infected hand, potentially saving his life.
Tourism provides local people with an alternative source of income, one that requires minimal initial assets beyond their land and culture. Moreover, a steady stream of travellers ensures these communities do not have to alter their lifestyle, because it is their lifestyle that attracts tourists, after all. Khmu women are able to continue dyeing natural fibres, weave and embroider, and pass these skills onto their children, as long as there are tourists visiting and buying their handicrafts. Tourism allows these people to remain in their ancestral land, instead of moving to cities to find mainstream employment. It brings development, in terms of economy and infrastructure. It is possible that community-based tourism has allowed cultures to thrive, when alternatively they would have survived only in anthropology books.
On the surface, it sounds like a win-win situation, both for villagers and travellers. Reality, however, is seldom that simple. Local-tourists relationships are rarely direct; more often than not they are mediated by one or more ‘middle men’, such as guides, local and international travel agencies. On paper this is essential to provide travellers with the necessary know-how in relating to tribes. However, during my trip to the Laotian hills, we were given little information on how to behave. Incidents could have occurred, bringing about not only short-term animosity but also reinforcing stereotypes of tourists as boorish and disrespectful. Similarly, middle men are supposed to inform locals how to relate to visitors respectfully. The behaviour of Lantan women led me to believe that tourists had been presented to them only as potential customers for handicrafts.
Most tourists are genuinely concerned for their presence to be as beneficial as possible to the local communities, hence choosing – just as I did – operators promising to share their profits with villagers. However, detailed information on how profits are shared is rarely disclosed. Our guide had no idea. And what happens to the extra 10% that, according to the pie-chart in Luang Nam Tha, was to be invested in community projects? Again, he did not know. A pie-chart was all it took to convince me to sign up. However, on the agency website there is now no sign of it, leading me to believe it was only bait for gullible tourists.
On bootsnall.com, JoAnna Haugen argues “community-based tourism walks a very fine line between sharing local traditions and exploiting them“. In order to identify when cultural sharing becomes exploitation, it is necessary to define culture first. If culture was born in the community, it must survive for the community, within the community. This is not to say it should not be shared with visitors; but if it survives only because of tourists, is it still culture, or does it become a mere representation of what life once was? Going back to my experience, I have been wondering whether the Khmu and Lantan women of Northern Laos wore traditional clothes, dyed and wove natural fibres because they wanted to, or whether they did because they were asked to do so by the agency. After all, we were told travellers did not like to see tribespeople in Western clothes; the second Khmu village we stayed at was labelled as ‘unauthentic’. Would it have been more ‘authentic’ if agencies had insisted people wore traditional clothes?
Our visit to the Lantan was a complete disaster; yet, according to our guide, travellers liked visiting them because of their traditional clothing. Does this justify intruding on a community during a time when outsiders are not wanted in the village? On the other hand, in the last, ‘unauthentic’ Khmu village we enjoyed spontaneous hospitality. There were no handicrafts for sale, villagers wore no colourful garb; they were curious about our life, we were curious about theirs, with the aid of our guide we were able to communicate and learn about each other. Three years on, I have come to the conclusion that it happened because the village was not overloaded with tourists; hence, villagers still possessed a genuine desire to share their culture, which had not yet been commodified. Hopefully it never will be.
So, do we exploit communities just by visiting them? Community-based tourism requires little initial assets, and it offers guaranteed returns. Communities are exploited when they do not benefit from such returns. It is very hard to find out how profits are shared with the locals; guides often do not know and information provided by travel agents is vague at best. With the exception of NGO-run community tourism projects, most enterprises operating in the South East Asian region are run on a for-profit basis. This leads me to believe that, in many cases, villagers only see a minimal part of the profits, which have been swallowed up by middle men along the way. The first step towards improving community-based tourism is greater transparency in terms of profit-sharing. Tourists have the right to know where their money is going; more government control should prevent enterprises involved in community-based tourism, regardless of whether they are locally or internationally owned, from promising one thing to the tourists and delivering another to the community, hiding their greed behind meaningless pie-charts.
In what form should profits be returned to the community? Does every household get an equal share? With the introduction of tourism to hill tribes in South East Asia, changes that in the West have occurred over centuries, are taking place within few decades. South East Asian tribes are collectivist communities; the introduction of a cash economy, through which it is possible to get rich faster, may lead some individuals to perceive tourism as a way to make a quick buck for themselves, rather than sharing with the rest of the community. Meanwhile, hierarchical structures within the tribe are usually strong; this may prevent profits being shared equally, causing competition and arguments between villagers, which may end up destroying the harmony of the community.
A sustainable approach to community-based tourism can offer positive development, while minimising internal tensions and disruption to village life. Community projects are sometimes offered in lieu of cash payment, such as a water pump for the village, school supplies for the children, regular doctor visits. Development projects could also be valid alternatives; for example introducing other forms of agriculture alternative to slash-and-burn, detrimental not only to health but also to the soil, which becomes exhausted after only few years of planting, ultimately increasing deforestation. Sharing profits in this way would bring tangible benefits to the community, and allow every villager to enjoy a better quality of life.
It is also important to prevent community-based tourism from becoming the only source of income. A day spent with tourists is not as hard work as a day in the fields; this was not yet the case where we visited, but in some villages near Chiang Mai agriculture has all but been abandoned. What would happen to the village if tourists stopped visiting one day? Community-based tourism should be a way to complement traditional village economy, not replace it. An alternative could lie in small tourist numbers, and some villagers already recognise the benefits of this. On the Huffington Post, Duya Luke reported that her guide, a Karen tribesman from a village north of Chiang Mai, ran only a couple of tours a month, in order to promote cultural sharing and empower young generations to continue practicing sustainable tourism; generating income for the village, but without disrupting daily life.
As stated on tookish.org, community-based tourism is “neither unequivocally positive, nor unequivocally negative“. The real challenge is maximising positive aspects. The first and foremost step is mutual respect. Tourists should remember that locals are not there to provide entertainment; villages are their homes. If locals feel their experience of community-based tourism is beneficial, they will be motivated to protect their land and allow access to tourists; otherwise they may become unwelcome and resentful, ultimately driving travellers away.
Avoiding contact with tribespeople accomplishes nothing, unless this is what the tribe chooses; at the same time, flooding villages with tourists can be detrimental to local people’s life. The secret lies in balance; working on sustainable numbers, and investing profits back into the community. As such, the experience can become positive to both tourists and villagers, as the last night of my trek in the hills of northern Laos was for me. An experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. To the community, our visit was a window on the world, which widened their experience and perspective. It increased their self-confidence, providing them with the knowledge that they have something that others want to discover: their lifestyle and traditions. Something worth maintaining, and passing onto future generations.