My chalenge : create a project in Thailand by merging tourism, environment protection and sustainable development.
The project village is located inside a large tropical forest near Chiang Mai (North of Thailand). Poverty is the main challenge here, and the forest is sometimes seen by villagers as a means to supplement income, albeit illegally (logging, poaching). Over-exploitation of resources by humans threatens the ecological balance of the area.
But there are other, better ways to generate income. Indeed, the area is rich in natural and cultural heritage, and has great potential for sustainable tourism. The proposed project has several main objectives: generate local employment through sustainable development; promote ecotourism and sustainable tourism based on respect of local culture, nature and conservation; contribute to the well-being of local communities by helping villagers preserve their forest; offer visitors an immersion experience in Northern Thai culture.
The proposed project is built on three strategies:
Building a homestay
The first step in the proposed project is to acquire a piece of land on which to build a homestay for tourists. Having visited many plots of land in the area, I found one that combines desirable natural attributes and sufficient space at an affordable price. The proposed project will include a main house and several bungalows built of bamboo. In this peaceful setting, visitors will be able to delve into local Thai culture and actively involve themselves in village activities, resulting in an authentic rather than a “packaged” experience. The proposed site is ideal for visitors who are drawn to peaceful, natural environments, and who value above all a respectful approach to nature and local cultures.
Building a coffee shop
The proposed project site is suitable for growing Arabica coffee plants. As a complement to the homestay, a coffee shop will sell fresh, locally-grown, locally-roasted coffee, as well as a variety of teas and smoothies made from local fruit and produce. The coffee shop will provide visitors, volunteers and locals a place to mingle, relax and enjoy the area’s natural beauty, with great views of the forest and the sunset.
Activities for visitors
1. Volunteer program: helping villagers preserve their forest
One of the main components of the proposed project is the volunteer program. Tourists can choose to volunteer for a few days, a few weeks or longer. Volunteers will work only in the morning (3 to 5 hours per day) alongside 2-3 Thai people employed from the village. Afternoons will be free for individual or group activities. Through this volunteer work, visitors will feel they are contributing meaningfully to the project by getting involved in village life and by sharing authentic experiences with local Thai people. For local people, this program will afford the opportunity to learn and practise English, acquire marketable skills for future employment, and help improve their own village.
A range of activities will be implemented to help the village develop sustainably:
- Helping kids and teenagers: build a football field where they can practice sports; organize a weekend and holiday program of English lessons, conservation activities and educational games, team sports, and information sessions on contraception.
- Helping the forest: clean debris from the forest floor to prevent forest fires (only during the dry season from January to April); set up and maintain a tree nursery (rainy season); carry out regular activities at the GRPC (Gibbon Rehabilitation Project Chiang Mai).
- Helping the village: improve water works (supply and drainage); build a clinic and a meeting place.
Teenagers are playing football.
English lessons and conservation activities with the kids from the village.
2. Ethical tours
During their free time in the afternoon, tourists will enjoy one of the many guided tours and activities around the village. All these activities will be designed and implemented in accordance with principles of sustainable, equitable and ethical tourism. There will be no activities whatsoever that involve animal cruelty or exploitation.
Local places of interest for ethical tours:
- Natural hot springs
- Gibbon rehabilitation project: see gibbons progress through the stages of rehabilitation leading to their final release in the wild.
- Forest trek: observe gibbons, birds, insects, trees and flowers; enjoy dinner (barbecue) and camping in the forest (hammocks or tents); breakfast in the forest.
- “Flight of the Gibbon”: one of Thailand’s most popular attractions, this 5 km zip-line though the forest canopy brings visitors close to wild gibbons.
- King’s project: a project launched by the royal family to help local villages: learn about sustainable systems, how to grow vegetables, mushrooms, flowers and trees, how to produce honey. Bird-watching tours including peacocks; discover the different species of trees.
- Thai rice paddy: learn how to plant rice with local farmers and discover their way of life.
- Banana-leaf wrappers: under the supervision of a villager, learn how to select banana leaves, dry them and prepare them for various uses (as food wrappers, etc.).
- Thai coffee: coffee from the bean to the cup; coffee tasting.
- Thai whisky: how to make rice wine and whisky; wine and whisky tasting.
- Thai cooking class: prepare a Thai meal in the homestay, including classics like pad thai, spring rolls, green papaya salad, Thai curries, stir-fried morning glory, sweet and sour vegetables, mango with sticky rice… to name a few.
- Muay Thai: meet local teenagers for a 1-hour evening lesson in Thai kickboxing, the most popular sport in Thailand.
- Thai massage: lessons by a massage therapist from the village.
- Chiang Mai city: a plethora of ancient temples and other places of interest.
- Wat Doi Suthep: one of Thailand’s most famous temples, located at the summit of a national park with breath-taking views of Chiang Mai city.
- Ban Tawai: this famous handicrafts village near Chiang Mai is a good place to support local artisans and buy Thai handicrafts in a village setting.
- Doi Inthanon: Chiang Mai’s other national park includes a royal botanical and agricultural project, world-class waterfalls, forest treks and the highest peak in Thailand (2556 m).
Hot spring, waterfall, wild gibbons and rice field.
The proposed project offers an alternative to mass tourism by merging environmental protection with touring, and by maintaining two core values: the primacy of nature and the need to balance human and ecological needs. Volunteer activities will allow the village to develop both economically and socially, in an environmentally sustainable way.
While back-packing in Asia, I discovered an NGO, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), and decided to volunteer there for few months. I ended up staying more than one year. The GRP was founded in 1992 in Phuket, Thailand. Its aim is to care for and rehabilitate gibbons (a kind of ape in the family Hylobatidae) rescued from the illegal wildlife trade to give them another chance at freedom. The wildlife trade exploits baby gibbons by using them as photo props in bars and other tourist spots. Souvenir photos of tourists cuddling a baby gibbon mask a cruel reality. For each baby gibbon stolen from the forest, about 50 adult gibbons are killed. The young gibbon is drugged, starved and beaten so that its owner can gain control over it. Once a gibbon reaches the age of 5 years and starts to become too aggressive for the photo trade, it is killed or abandoned.
A baby gibbon used as photo prop.
Campaign in Phuket airport.
For rescued gibbons, the way back to freedom in the forest is very slow, and rehabilitation takes 10 years on average. Unfortunately, some gibbons cannot be released at all: after years in captivity, they develop psychological disorders such as bulimia or self-harming. One gibbon at the GRP was rescued from a previous owner who had inflicted a particularly cruel punishment on her: one hand and one foot had been amputated, and she had only two fingers left on the other hand.
Since 2014, the GRP has grown. A second project site has been created in a village near the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. This new project is also dedicated to releasing rescued gibbons back into the forest. It is amazing to see them free again after their terrible ordeal, jumping from branch to branch and singing (gibbons have complex vocalizations that sound to us like singing). The people who have given their time and resources to launch this new project have a true passion for wildlife and forest protection. The new site is beautiful, but increasingly threatened by pressures to exploit it financially.
Forest around Chiang Mai
I was privileged to travel around Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal and Singapore. In many places, I saw local people throwing rubbish out of bus windows, and rubbish accumulating in rivers and forests. I also saw first-hand how tropical forests are being wiped out by deforestation, as people clear forests for agriculture (ex. corn) and oil palm and rubber tree plantations. I wanted to act, and that is how the project was born.
During my travels, I have come to understand that we must help not only the forests, but also the human communities that live near forests, because their poverty is the driver of deforestation. I believe that I and others like me can help a village develop sustainably. I believe it is possible, and necessary, to teach tourists how to travel responsibly. Education is the key, and I am convinced that I can use my passion for wildlife and forest conservation to help tourists and locals save the forests and the gibbons that live in them. In our hearts, none of us can destroy what we love.