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Ecotourism in Thailand

Though the tourism boom has been great for Thailand's economy, it has had many negative effects on Thai culture and natural resources. These problems, which range from water pollution to sex tourism to the transformation of hill-tribe villages into virtual theme parks, are difficult to rein in. The good news is that a growing number of tour operators and hotel proprietors are addressing these issues, and are therefore worthy of your support.

Planning Your Trip

Though the worldwide eco trend is catching on in Thailand, truly eco-friendly companies are still thin on the ground. Many businesses describe themselves as "eco," so ask some tough questions about what the company does to preserve the environment and help local communities before you book. And as always, don't be afraid to shop around. Your critical eye will help raise standards. Here are a few questions you might ask.

Accommodations: Ask whether the hotel or resort is energy efficient. Does it use alternative power sources? What steps does it take to conserve water and reduce waste? If it's a beach hotel, how does it handle sewage? Does it recycle? Is the building made with any natural or recycled materials? Does it employ members of the local community? Does it contribute any percentage of profits to health, education, or wildlife preservation initiatives?

Elephant Treks: It's important to find out how tour operators treat their elephants. You might ask how many hours a day the elephants work, and whether you'll be riding in the afternoon heat, or resting until it's cooler.

Hill-Tribe Tours and Other Expeditions: How much the operator knows about the village or wilderness area you'll be visiting is often telling, so ask for details. Also, does the operator work with any NGOs or other interest groups to protect the culture and/or the environment?

Resources

The umbrella group Thailand Community Based Tourism Institute (www.cbt-i.org) is a good place to start. It provides information about tour agencies and community programs that promote culturally sensitive tourism.

"Voluntourism"—travel that includes an effort to give back to local communities—is a growing trend in Thailand, and a number of organizations are now offering educational travel programs that incorporate some volunteer work. Lots of businesses are offering eco-minded tours. Here are a few reputable resources that will get you started.

The Educational Travel Center (www.etc.co.th) organizes cultural exchanges and ecotours, as well as volunteer programs at a variety of destinations.

The Himmapaan Foundation (himmapaan.com) is a reforestation initiative near Chiang Mai. Participants work alongside tribespeople and forestry experts to promote biodiversity.

Lost Horizons (www.losthorizonsasia.com) runs several thematic ecotourism trips in Thailand, including jungle treks, kayaking, beach retreats, and animal conservation.

North by North East Tours (www.north-by-north-east.com) works throughout the Mekong region, offering homestays and volunteer work such as building schools, teaching English, and providing medical care in Thailand, Laos and elsewhere along the Mekong.

Wild Asia's Map of Hope (www.wildasia.org/main.cfm/RTI/RT_Map_of_Hope) is a regional map showing the nonprofit group's recommended responsible travel and tour operators.

Animal Rights

Though preserving wildlife habitats is a priority in Thailand's national parks, illegal poaching is still rampant. There's such high demand for tiger products (not only skins, but also teeth, bones, and penises, which are used as charms or in traditional medicines) that tigers are now virtually extinct in Thailand.

Elephants are revered in Thailand, where they have a long history as laborers. But mechanization has made elephants' traditional timber-hauling jobs obsolete, and elephant handlers (mahouts) now rely on elephant shows, treks, and other tourism-related business for their livelihood. Unfortunately, these endeavors often lead to mistreatment. Yet if there's no work, handlers can't afford the 550 pounds of food and 60 gallons of water an elephant consumes each day; malnutrition is another problem for Thai elephants. Organizations like PeunPa focus on broader issues, including educating village communities on the importance of wildlife conservation and how to combat problems like illegal trafficking of endangered species.

Ecotourism vs. Sustainable Tourism

Ecotourism is travel to natural areas to observe and learn about wildlife; tourism that refrains from damaging the environment; or tourism that strengthens conservation and improves the lives of local people.

Sustainable tourism has a wider scope that encompasses the definition of ecotourism but also includes increased ecological responsibility throughout the entire travel industry, in everything from city hotels to cruise shops. Not all ecotourism is sustainable tourism.

What You Can Do

Whatever kind of trip you're planning, there are a few simple things you can do to ensure that you're part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Don't litter. Sadly, garbage is a common sight on Thailand's once-pristine beaches. Litter is hazardous to marine life. You can help by disposing of your rubbish properly; you can also pay a little extra for biodegradable glass water bottles. If you plan to travel regularly in the developing world, consider buying a hand-pump water purifier, available at many sporting-goods stores for $20 and up. You can make your own clean water wherever you go, instead of generating a trail of disposable water bottles.

Don't disturb animal and plant life. Whether you're trekking or snorkeling, be as unobtrusive as possible. Don't remove plants or coral for souvenirs, and don't feed fish or other animals, even if your guide says it's okay.

Respect local customs. Though it may seem like a matter of etiquette, demonstrating respect for a culture is part of ecotourism. Thais tend to be exceedingly tolerant of Western behavior, but tourists who are ignorant about basic customs have a negative effect on the communities they encounter. Take a little time to learn about major cultural mores (especially those related to Buddhism). Thais will appreciate your efforts.

Updated: 2014-03-04

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