An Assessment of the Thai Domestic Market for Community-based Tourism in Thailand’s Northeast

by William Tuffin, Ecotourism Consultant

Introduction

According to statistics from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sport[1], the Thai domestic tourism market is estimated to be three to four times larger than the international tourism market. An emerging trend of Thai domestic market is tourists from Bangkok and other urban areas seeking respite from modern city life to rediscover authentic rural life and culture and to experience natural beauty. These tourists are seeking communities who have preserved a rustic rural atmosphere and still have a traditional rural life. This explains the popularity of traditional heritage market towns of Amphawa in Samut Prakan Province and the 100 Year Market in Samchuk, Supanburi Province.

To better understand how this trend in Thai tourism could be applied for income generation activities in nature conservation areas in the Northeast of Thailand, the author spent several days observing and interviewing tourists and service providers in Ban Wang Nam Mok Homestay, in Sri Chiangmai District of Nongkhai Province and the new booming tourist destination of Chiang Khan in Loei Province to gain a better understanding of the domestic demand for community-based ecotourism products.

1. Research Sites

(a) Ban Wang Nam Mok

Ban Wang Nam Mok is a homegrown, awarding winning homestay program which has been in operation for 10 years. Ban Wang Nam Mok[2] is a village located in Sangkhom District of Nongkhai Province 7 km inland from the banks of the Mekong River. Eighty households out of the total (approximate) 150 households in the village own shares in the community’s tourism operation, which is incorporated as a community enterprise[3].

1. Map of northeast Thailand showing the location of the two research sites.
 

Ban Wang Nam Mok was chosen because the community states in its promotional literature that it has a commitment to preserving natural resources and developing occupations for the local people. The main selling points of the program are the community forest, folklore and culture. Its stated purpose is to raise consciousness about preservation of natural resources and local lifestyles to generate income for the community.

The villagers report that Ban Wang Nam Mok was first settled around 40 years ago as a logging camp. People from Laos and Udonthani in Thailand immigrated to the area to work as loggers, to collect forest products, to make charcoal and to grow cassava on the cleared land. As the local water sources dried up the villagers realized that the cause was the clearing of the forest and eventually established a community forest to protect the watershed. Poverty in the village drove many people to seek employment in Bangkok. One of the main activities of the village was to make brooms from "broom grass" which grew in degraded forest areas. Few of the youth that left the village for work or education ever returned as there was little career opportunities available for them.

Ten years ago one of the sons of this village, Mr. Thinapob, returned. When his classmates from the university in Bangkok came to visit he discovered that they enjoyed the experience of rural village life. They in turn passed the word on and soon there was a steady stream of visitors coming from Bangkok to experience the traditional life of Ban Wang Nam Mok.

In the beginning 3 households were involved in the operation. Today this has grown to 80 families who hold shares in a registered community enterprise with approximately 1,000 visitors per year and a total distribution[4] to the community of 1 million THB[5] per year.

Guest HutsGuest Huts

Youth Group ActivitiesYouth Group Activities

2. Guest huts, Guests can also stay in village homes. 3. Youth group activities are integrated with the tourism activities. The youth guide the tourists on the walk through the community forest.
Overlook of Mekong RiverOverlook of Mekong River 55

4 An overlook of the Mekong River from the community forest.

5 Mr. Thinapob with the youth in the community forest.[6]

This community enterprise has grown organically from within the community itself. Mr. Thinapob, now the general director of the enterprise, reports that the only outside assistance they have received in 10 years of operation of the homestay program is some promotional assistance from the Tourism of Authority of Thailand (TAT).

The main markets for Ban Wang Mok are Bangkok tourists and government sponsored study tour trips. There are also a small number of international visitors. Mr. Thinapob reports that most of the visitors come independently and learn about the homestay program from the internet or by word of mouth.

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6. Close up Map of the research area. Source: www.maps.google.com

(b) The Municipality of Chiang Khan

Chiang Khan is an old trading town on the banks of the Mekong located in Chiang Khan District, Loei Province. The historic part of the town consists of well preserved traditional wooden shop houses lining the Mekong River Bank.

The town has been a minor tourist destination for international backpackers since the mid 1970’s but has only recently experienced sudden tourism boom from Thai tourists in 2009. The locals reported the surge of Thai tourists started around July or August of 2009. From interviews with local residents and business owners, the recent boom is attributable to promotion by TAT, tourism and travel shows on several Thai TV networks, the sensational arrest of a Thai movie star in Chiang Khan and the website www.chiangkhan.com .

77 88

7. Up stream view of the Chiang Khan River Ban

8. Alms round merit making ceremony.

99 1010

9. Street view of the main tourism area.

10. Entrance to a riverside restaurant.

2. Potential Markets for Community-based Ecotourism in the Northeast

In 2008, Thailand’s domestic tourism market, in gross number of tourists, comprised 78% (114 million people) of the total Thai tourism market making it is approximately 3.5 times larger than the international market (33 million). [7]

Thailand’s domestic tourism market is broken down into 2 main sectors: (1) tourists and (2) so-called "study tour participants".[8] Nationally, in 2008, there were just over 100 million domestic tourists and 46 million study tour participants with a total expenditure of 790 million THB. The average expenditure per person per trip was 5,300 THB. Tourism statistics for Thailand are separated into 7 regions. Bangkok was the region with the largest amount of domestic visitors followed by the South with the Northeast as the third largest destination in terms of number of visitors but fifth in the size of expenditures per trip. In terms of expenditure per trip the Northeast is 6th with only to the Central Region having a lower average expenditure per trip per tourist. In terms of international tourists, the Northeast has the lowest number of visitors in this market and lowest expenditure of any of Thailand’s regions with the Northeast comprising only 2% of the international market. Interviews by the author with inbound tour operators[9] in Bangkok confirm this - See Annex A - [PDF - 71 kb]. While reporting that they have unmet demand, the Northeast is a small market for them. Their clients who want to visit the Northeast are typically return visitors to Thailand. Conversely, the Northeast makes up 17% of the Thai domestic tourism market and 23% of the total tourism market in Thailand.

As the purpose of this study was to determine what would be the potential target market for a community-based ecotourism program in the Northeast of Thailand, it became clear that the greatest potential lay within the Thai domestic market. However, without data on market trends and the demand for ecotourism undifferentiated in Thai tourism statistics, the demand for community-based ecotourism products is unknown.

To better understand the trends in Thai tourism regarding village tourism, conservation tourism and tourism in nature, the two sites described above, Ban Wang Nam Mok and Chiang Khan were chosen for a rapid survey. Ban Wang Nam Mok was chosen as it represented a community-based ecotourism model linked to conservation in the Northeast which has been in operation for 10 years. And Chiang Khan was chosen as it represents new trends in Thai domestic tourism in the Northeast.

Methods

To collect the data the author conducted focus group interviews in the last week of December 2009. Tourists were interviewed orally as they were encountered in the destinations at their leisure. The groups were chosen at random. As the tourists were in situ, group members would often come and go from the interviews and frequently defer to the opinion of a lead member of their group. In total there were 9 focus group interviews comprising a total over 53 individuals. Given the small size of the sample and the nature of the interviews, statistical analysis is not possible. The interviews are only suggestive of the type of tourists, the demand and the motivations for tourists in these two destinations. Further research would need to be conducted to confirm or refute the results of these interviews - see Annex B - [PDF - 227 kb] for the focus group questionnaire.

In addition to the focus group interviews, for four consecutive days a transect walk was conducted between the hours 4 – 6 PM in the main tourism area between Chiang Khan Soi[10] 5 and Soi 20 with the purpose of counting the number of vehicles visiting from each province.

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11. A section of a tourist map showing the main tourist area of Chiang Khan where the survey was conducted.
Source; www.chiangkhan.in.th
3. Results

 

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a. Demographics

 

 

One way to discover where the tourists live is to look at vehicle license plates to see where the vehicles are registered. From the data collected from 429 vehicles between 28 – 31 Dec ‘09 in the main tourist section of the town, the majority (60%) of the visitors are from the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan area.

12b12b

 

Of the focus groups, 7 described themselves as Bangkok residents while the remaining two reported Pathumthani and Chumporn as their home province. Pathumthani is near Bangkok while Chumporn is in the South of Thailand.

Three of the groups identified themselves as primarily business people, two groups described themselves as architects, the other three groups as teachers, engineers and skilled construction workers. Four groups placed themselves primarily in the 20 – 30 year old age bracket, two groups in the 30-40 year range and 3 groups in the 40 – 50 year range. One of the 40 -50 year groups with 24 members was a multi-generational family group with several siblings and spouses traveling with grandparents and children.

The group sizes ranges 2 – 4 persons in 6 groups, 7 persons in 2 and 1 group of 24 people.

b. Mode and duration of travel

All of the interviewees were traveling independently with 6 groups using public transport (bus), one rented vehicles (the large family group) and two other groups drove private cars.

The majority of the groups would be traveling for 7 – 10 ten days before returning home with two groups only traveling 3 days and one group more than 10 days. Most would be lodging in Chiang Khan for 2 – 3 nights with only one group staying longer than 6 nights.

Eight of the groups reported that they would visit at least one destination during their trip with several groups stating that they would visit more than one destination. Three groups visited National Parks (Phu Luang, Phu Reua, Khao Kaw National Parks), two groups named destinations in the north and the other groups names destination in Laos or in Thailand’s Northeast such as Vientiane, Nongkhai and Khon Kaen.

 

c. Motivations for Travel

Reason for choosing this destination

Responses

Publicity

1

Rural atmosphere

2

Old houses and authentic lifestyle[11]

3

See the Mekong River

2

Visit Forest temples

1

Peaceful

2

New Destination

6

From the responses above one can surmise that the tourists are seeking a new destination which is peaceful, has natural beauty and preserves an authentic rural lifestyle. Certainly the draw of Chiang Khan is the old preserved wooden shop houses bordering the Mekong River coupled with a traditional lifestyle free of the trappings of modern consumerism. Several of the respondents mentioned they enjoyed the fact that Chiang Khan does not have a Seven-11 convenience store[12]. Some even suggested that Chiang Khan should ban 7-11 from opening a store in Chiang Khan.

Two reasons were given when asked why they were traveling at this time: (1) availability of a long holiday, (2) desire to experience cold weather. For Bangkokians and Southerners, who seldom have relief for the heat, the cool temperatures of the North and Northeast are an attraction in the cold season.

d. Activities

Stated Activities during visit

Reponses

Nature Sightseeing

7

Experiencing Local life

7

Outdoor Recreation (walking/riding bicycles)

4

Making Merit

4

Learning about the Local Culture

3

Shopping

2

Learning about the History

2

Exploring local Food

2

Visiting Friends/Relatives

1

Homestay

1

Helping Local People

1

Photography

1

Rest

1

The table above represents the activities that the focus group interviewees listed when asked what they did when during their stay in Chiang Khan. The second table are the activities that the author overheard[13] tourists discussing or observed tourists participating in during the 4 days of the survey. This table simple records the activity and now how many tourists were participating in it.

12c12c 1313

12. Tourists posing for a group photo along the Mekong Bank pedestrian walkway.[14]

13. Visitors to Chiang Khan love to take photos of Mekong River Views

1414 1515

14. Photographers capture photos of the News Years morning Buddhist merit makeing ceremony.

15. A man photographing the merit making ceremony from the balcony of a guest house.

Photography was certainly a very important activity among the tourists observed with a high percent possessing high value, high quality hobby camera equipment. Examples of their photography can been viewed on these links: (1) http://www.chiangkhan.com/photo/photo/search?q=khan and (2) http://www.chiangkhan.com/video.

Another very common activity for a large number of the tourists was bike riding. Riding as a group they will tour the city and neighboring villages. Interesting to note is that many of the bicycles for rent are not modern mountain bikes but rather restored vintage one speed bicycles rented by small private businesses. This is in keeping with the romantic desire of the tourist to recapture an ambience of a bygone life style.

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16. Vintage bicycles are a part of the vintage decor in Chiang Khan which includes old cars, signs and various antiques,
which give the flavor of a town from another era.

Observed Activities of the Tourists

Photography & Videography

Fog filled valleys

River Views

Sunsets

Old town street scenes

Old wooden shop houses

Local residents

Friends and family participating in activities

Merit making

Worship

Shopping

Ride bicycles

Ride motorcycles

Writing messages on shop walls

Writing postcards

Participate in the New Year Festivities

Eat local food

Relax at riverside restaurants

Massage

Sightseeing at the fresh market

Village sightseeing

Visit natural attractions

Visit Mekong River Rapids

View mist filled valleys from hill tops

Walk along the river bank

"Merit making" [15] and "Buddha worship" are activities which clearly differentiates domestic tourists from the international market in Thailand. The majority of the people interview stated not only had they made merit during their trip but that they did it every day and often stopped at temples along the way to pay homage to the Buddha. Several people also mentioned that during their trip they planned spend some time at a forest monastery for meditation practice.

In addition to viewing nature and traditional architecture, the majority of people interviewed mentioned that they wanted to learn more about the area and the life of the people living here. However, other than riding bikes through the villages there did not seem to be many structured activities designed to give the tourists an insight into local life and culture. One of group tourists described how they went to visit a nearby ethnic Black Thai [16] village but there was not really much to see. The author rode a motorcycle to the village and discovered that the villagers had built a “cultural center”. But it was not well maintained and there was no one to greet guests. A panel describing the history of the Black Thai in Thailand was hidden behind a row of looms.

Regarding food and evening entertainment, it was interesting to note as compared to other Thai tourist destinations, that there was no karaoke[17] available in the main tourist area nor did there seem to be a lot of alcohol consumption. Many of the tourists, when asked what the town should do to better manage tourism, stated that they should not allow karaoke establishments to open in the tourist area. In fact, all of the people interviewed said that the town should not allow anything at all to change. Chiang Khan needed to protect the look and feel of a quiet rural town and prevent development.

Regarding, alcohol consumption it was observed, during the New Year celebration, that people sat on mats in the park and watch the performances and soon after midnight the crowd dispersed as early the next morning was a large merit making ceremony[18]. The Mayor of the town was overheard to comment on the fact that since they had to get up early very few people were drinking and staying up late this New Year’s.

There were two curious exceptions to the expected tourist activities. From observation at the border post and boat pier [19] very few people seemed to be taking boat trips or crossing to the Lao town of Sanakham. As Chiang Khan is a local border crossing for Thai and Lao nationals, one would think crossing to look at the more traditional lifestyle of the Lao villages on the other side would be of interest. Several tourists mentioned that the trouble and cost of using a border pass was a prohibiting factor as well as that there were no organized activities for the tourists other than walking through the market. Regarding taking boat trips on the Mekong the tourists said that the price of the boats was too expensive. Local business owners and boatmen confirmed these observations and statements from the tourists. None of the focus groups mentioned crossing to Laos or a boat trip as one of their activities.

e. Information Sources

Source of Information for Chiang Khan

 

Word of mouth

4

Mass Media

5

Guidebook

0

Website

6

Travel Agent

0

Thai Tourism Authority

1

The interviewees response about where they got their travel information for Chiang Khan revealed that there had been several TV shows promoting travel to Chiang Khan in the preceding months. Most of the people first heard about Chiang Khan from friends or the TV and then looked for information on the internet.  The most common websites cited were www.chiangkhan.com and www.pantip.com (click Blue Planet). These websites are web boards where individuals relate their travel experiences, share advice and upload their photos.

f. Prior Tourism Destinations

The majority of the groups had visited other heritage community destinations in Thailand such Amphawa, the 100 Year Market and Pai in Mae Hong Son Province. Several mentioned that destinations like Chiang Khan are their preferred type of destinations. A few mentioned that they want to visit Chiang Khan now as they were sure that it would become overdeveloped like Pai has. Two groups mentioned having previously participated in a community-based tourism program.

g. Willlingness to Pay

Seven of the groups stated that they pay an average of 600 – 1000 THB per day per head inclusive of meals, entertainment and accommodation. The other two reported and expenditure of around 500 THB or less.  All groups said when asked that they will be willing to pay more if they knew that they were benefitting local communities and businesses.

As evidence of this, Ban Wang Nam Mok charged as a package 790 THB for two meals, evening entertainment and accommodation. The group interviewed in the village stated that this was more than they would normally pay but that they were happy to pay it as they could see that it would help the community.

h. Interest in Community-based Tourism

All but one group expressed interest in participating in a community-based tourism program. Only two groups said that had had prior experience with community-based tourism. Most said that they would stay 2 – 3 nights with one group saying they could stay a week. The following list are some of the elements that they would expect from a community-based tourism program: trekking, nature walk, homestay, agricultural work, rituals/ceremony, getting to know the villagers, village life, making handicrafts, tasting and cooking local food.

4. Conclusions

This study indicates that in Thailand’s Northeast the primary group of tourists interested in the culture and nature of the region are domestic tourists.  The Northeast is not a significant market for international tourists with a 2% share and the lowest expenditure rate of Thailand’s international tourism market.

Among domestic tourists there exists a market of urban Thai, primarily Bangkokians, who are seeking areas in the Northeast where they can experience traditional culture in a natural setting. This group desires that such areas be preserved as cultural and natural heritage sites. The size of this market is not known but it does appear to be an emerging trend in Thai domestic tourism.

This group is internet savvy sourcing most of their travel information from the advice of other travelers on web boards. They travel independently. They are willing to travel far to find what they want and to remote locations. This is evidenced by the fact that Chiang Khan is an overnight bus trip from Bangkok or 10 – 12 hour drive by private vehicle.

Similarly, one could make the case that the drawing power of authenticity takes priority over convenience and stunning landscapes. Ban Wang Nam Mok, located 6 kilometers off the main highway west of the Nongkhai district town of Sri Chiang Mai, is not particularly picturesque. It is not located close to any major tourism arteries or attractions; and the forest, while pleasant, is fairly young forest recovering from the logging of the previous decades. It would seem that the attraction of Ban Wang Nam Mok is in its people, their way of life and their efforts to conserve their culture and natural surroundings.

For the development of community-based tourism in the Northeast, the domestic tourism market holds the greatest potential. This market has a demonstrated interest in the region, expressing values in common with the goals of community-based tourism and travels independently meaning potentially less lead time in bringing new community-based tourism products online. Likewise, this market is not likely to be as sensitive to the impacts of politics[20], economics and epidemics as we have seen the international market to be in recent years. Further advantages of this market are the ease with which the communities will have in communicating with their guests as well as the guests’ comfort with the food and accommodation.

Community-based tourism offers the communities of the Northeast a good model for tourism development with its community ownership and more intimate style. After all, it is the communities and their intimate rural lifestyle which attracts the tourists. When the tourist focus groups were asked what Chiang Khan could do to improve the tourism experience, the majority responded “stay the way it is.” Several of the tourist focus groups expressed concern that investors from outside of the area would buy land and build developments which would overshadow the traditional lifestyle and destroy the community atmosphere. Community-based tourism offers an alternative model of tourism development which could help to preserve and multiply the community elements attracting the tourists.


[1] 2008 Statistics from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sport. 2008 data had not been certified at this writing.

[3] Under Thai law, communities can incorporate community owned and operated businesses as a “community enterprise”. Members of the local community are able to buy shares in the enterprise and it enjoys special reduced tax rates as a community enterprise.

[4] Distribution occurs in 3 ways: (1) distribution of profit through share dividends, (2) payment for labor and services, (3) purchase of local goods and produce.

[5] 1USD is around 31.5 THB

[6] All photos by William Tuffin

[7] 2008 Statistics from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sport. 2008 data had not been certified at this writing.

[8] In Thailand municipalities, provincial administrations by law must allot 25% of their budget for human resource development. It is popular to use these funds for study tours to other communities, businesses or regions of the country for the purpose of learning lessons in development. It is such a large part of domestic tourism in Thailand that the Ministry of Tourism and Sport classifies study tour participants as special category of domestic tourist (นักทัศนาจร).

[9] Exotissimo, East-West Siam and Buffalo Tours

[10] Soi is the Thai word for lane

[11] มีการอันุรักษ์ชีวิตการเปันอยู่

[12] In Thailand Seven-11’s have become a symbol of modernity and consumer culture much as McDonalds is a symbol of globalization of consumerism.

[13] Tourists like to discuss their day’s activities with other members of their group or other tourists over meals in restaurants. The author would sit in a restaurant and listen to the conversations of tourists at nearby tables.

[14] All photos are by the author.

[15] Merit making is a religious observance where the individual makes ritual offerings or does community service to accrue good karma.

[16] The Black Thai (ไทดำ) are an ethnic group from Vietnam related to the Central Thai who migrated to Siam (present Thailand) in small numbers due to a rebellion against the French Colonial exploitation.

[17] Karaoke, is a popular past time for many Thai people. Karaoke involves singing popular songs to recorded music. The singers voice is amplified and can be quite loud. In tropical Thailand many karaoke bars are open venues. The sound can travel quite far thus being a nuisance to people nearby.

[18] บินฑบาตร

[19] No attempt was made to gather border crossing statistics from the immigration police. As it is only a local crossing, the statistics may only show the number of border passes issued without any differentiation between locals and tourists.

[20] After this study in Dec 2009, violent political demonstrations occurred in Bangkok from 18 -23 May 2010. The author returned to Chiang Khan for a weekend in June. The local business people reported high occupancy for that weekend but that tourist numbers prior to that had been low. This could be explained by schools starting in May and the beginning of the rainy season. This is the normal low season in Thailand. Furthermore, according to the focus group interviews, Bangkokians typically only travel long distances on long weekends. Therefore, it is hard to determine what impact the political situation had on domestic tourism, if any without further study.


 

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