Voluntourists Without Borders (VWB)
To understand why volunteers are integral to the solution that is needed to secure a future for northern Thailand’s ecotourism industry you need to understand how the industry go to where it is now.
A study of ecotourism in northern Thailand shows that the industry started with Chiang Mai based tour operators selling low budget ‘treks’ taking ‘backpackers’ into the hill tribe areas some 30 years ago, following a ‘slash and burn’ formula that focused on one area until it became overused, and then moved on to another.
For many, the adventure soon became a mixture of easy access to opium and marijuana, mixed with ‘walking and gawking’ one’s way through the ethnic minority groups of the north. It became a must do for the backpacker community, something to be ‘crossed off’ the ‘to do’ list whilst developing ‘life experience’ between leaving university and entering the working world.
The local trekking industry business model has always, rather frustratingly, been built on individual operators gaining competitive advantage through price cutting, rather than through ensuring market share through good product design, good service and value for money pricing.
Guides are paid lower than stipulated minimum rates, costs are cut wherever possible, and of course the ‘ethnic minority’ groups (the attraction per se) receive far less than an equitable share of the ever declining rewards.
Historically, government and/or NGO led community based ecotourism development initiatives have, for several reasons, met with little success in northern Thailand. After some 30 years of trying there are but a handful of projects that generate more than a trickle of income for the community.
Their failure can be attributed to several things, amongst them:
That the priorities placed on development projects change with each new government. Quite often, the solutions proposed are not the best ones, are not tied into an integrated development plan, and pay scant attention to the lessons available from the failed projects that have preceded them.
The NGO’s invariably opt for and support the ‘bottom up’ decision making based ‘community development model’, and the time and budget they then give to the incubation period are in most cases insufficient. The financial rewards to the villagers are relatively low, and the business model denies a viable role for the private sector tour operator – the logical supply chain partner – and the only product development, sales and marketing ‘expert’ in the group.
The NGO’s do have a vital role to play.
They can use their long established skills in capacity building and fund raising on specific initiatives that provide funding and specialist instruction to the project by way of: Environmental education, forest and biodiversity management training, small scale agroforestry farming training, and assistance with the development of alternative revenue streams independent of tourism.
The NGO’s, and the government, may also play a role in ensuring the ventures established are legally compliant, equitable, and with accountability on all sides.
The vast majority of hill tribe and rural Thai villages, at the centre of what is potentially a world class ecotourism attraction, remain out of the tourism stakeholder loop, without land rights or full right of residence.
If the ecotourism industry of northern Thailand is to achieve its full ‘world class’ potential, there are legal obstacles to ensuring the majority of those living in and on the edge of the forest areas have the right and opportunity to become legitimate stakeholders in ecotourism, and guardians of their community forest.
If the private sector tour operators want a world class ecotourism product – or any product at all beyond 2020 – with forest cover being rapidly lost, and the survival of ethnic minority group cultures under serious threat from poverty and lack of opportunity, then they must stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
The development model – or solution - used by Track of the Tiger T.R.D on its pilot project from the privately owned Pang Soong Lodge, Outdoor Education & Research Centre is both unconventional, innovative and simple.
It is based on a straightforward, sustainable and equitable ‘fixed length’ (10 year) agreement (or concession)between Track of the Tiger T.R.D. the private sector partner, and the local community that brings generous short and long term benefits to both parties:
The operating model.
The private sector tourism partner works with the village community to identify and design an ecotourism attraction that will be owned by the village community (the pilot project consists of a network of nature trails). The attraction is located on property that the community owns or has access rights to.
The private sector partner uses its non profit organization VWB to source funding from institutional donors, and the corporate sector, as well as to secure volunteers and their funding to develop the trails; path work where needed, railings, steps, bridges etc. to ensure a product that is safe enough for the intended client base.
The private sector partner designs, markets and sells a range of programmes that will attract a variety of target markets to use the nature trails product. In this case:
- Outdoor Education.
- Corporate Team Building.
- Adventure Racing.
- Scientific, Environmental and Social Development Research.
Note* Trail entrance fee charges for each guest using the trail are paid to the village committee, who for the first year have used that revenue to set up a fund that:
Covers the cost of school transport for the village children – the local government funds for that purpose have run out due to fuel price increases.
Covers the cost of sending the old folk to the hospital (30kms distant when needed) – the government system covers free medical treatment.
Cover the costs of religious ceremonies, funeral rights etc., for those who cannot afford it.
The alternative income stream.
The private sector partner works with the village community to help them establish an income from small scale integrated agro-forestry.
Traditional products - for their own food security.
New products – to supply a spa, health and herbals medicine based JV production business with the private sector partner.
The short and long term (10 year) goals.
The short term goals are:
To provide the village with a network of nature trails of a standard and design that will ensure them of a ‘social security net’ – a village fund derived from trail entrance fees.
To provide training and employment in the ecotourism industry for those villagers who want it.
The long term goals are:
To provide the village children in the 4 local schools with an enhanced English language and environmental management component to their education aimed at attracting some of them to the ecotourism industry, and specifically to roles in the operation and management of their own community owned ecotourism attraction.
To develop the local small scale integrated agroforestry industry, and a ‘value added business’ built on it that provides the village community with a non tourism related and thus secure source of income.
Why then are volunteers the key to the success of the project.
Paying volunteers cover the cost of their being on site, and bring with them some basic funding and a diverse range of skills that can be fully employed in making the project a success, and that neither to village community or private sector partner could otherwise afford to provide:
Developing the nature trail in terms of its physical attributes (pathwork, steps, railings, bridges, as well as the materials development for the trail interpretation.
Developing the capacity of the villagers to work with foreign tourists.
Developing the English language, environmental and tourism management skills of the village children and future project management.
What do volunteers receive in return.
They play a very rewarding hands on role in the building of a community owned ecotourism product, and in developing the capacity of the villagers to operate it.
They play an important role is contributing to the implementation of a development model that will (we believe) help bring large numbers of impoverished rural communities out of poverty, and earning an income from the forest environment – which they must therefore protect.
They learn a great deal about themselves and their abilities, and about the community they become a part of for the duration their stay. The experience will in all probability stay with them for life.
VWB provides a volunteering option that provides:
Full transparency – a detailed breakdown on regarding exactly your contributions are spent.
Very low admin and marketing costs – we do not have a EU/UK or based admin base creating an unbalanced drain on donor funding, and all admin costs are absorbed by our parent company.
On site supervision costs by foreign and local staff - at local rates.
As a result we get a higher percentage of your financial contributions to exactly where they are needed – than does any other volunteer based operation that we know of.
Visit the VWB website for more specific detail.