This sponsored post, part of a series on Asia’s Young Social Entrepreneurs, is brought to you by DBS Bank. In partnership with the National University of Singapore, DBS is a proud supporter of the Social Venture Challenge, an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand reports that over 26 million international visitors entered the country last year, representing a 20 percent increase from 2012. The number of visitors is expected to rise to 28 million in 2014. Tourism is an important industry for Thailand’s economy and people. Last year, it made up 20 percent of GDP and 15 percent of total employment.
But Somsak Boonkam, the founder of a community-based tourism (CBT) social enterprise called Local Alike, knows about the harsh realities of tourism in Thailand.
One time, Boonkam and the staff of Local Alike were staying at one of the villages they were working with. He noticed a van that came by to drop off a group of 30 tourists. The group toured the village and snapped photos. And after 20 minutes they left.
Boonkam learned from the locals that this happens all the time. He compares it to a zoo. Travel agencies would bring tourists to a village. They would take some pictures and then leave to the next village without having any interaction with the villagers. Visitors don’t get an authentic experience at the village, while the villagers are being chased around with cameras.
The other thing Boonkam noticed was the difficulty seeing how much tourism revenue goes to hotels, corporations, and the community. He feels that local communities are left out, even though they offer unique experiences. So the idea of Local Alike, which was founded in 2012, would be to develop CBT packages with villages across Thailand, connect travelers directly to them, and use a portion of revenue for community development projects such as improving roads and infrastructure or forest conservation in the villages.
It’s easy to see why Boonkam cares so much about the villages. He grew up in one himself, where his family used to work as rice farmers. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him to live with his uncle for access to a better school. In high school, he had the highest grades in the class, so his teacher encouraged him to run for school president, which helped him develop social and leadership skills.
Students with good grades were expected to run for president and choose to study medicine or engineering in university in hopes of a better livelihood, so that’s what made him choose engineering. Upon graduation, a German company hired him and when not working, he traveled around Thailand and neighbouring countries. During his travels, he saw a lot of poverty and inequality, which reminded him of his roots. The only difference he saw between himself and a street beggar was that he had a chance at a better livelihood. His experiences eventually led him to start Local Alike. He felt he could somehow have a bigger impact, and engineering wasn’t for him anyway.
CBT provides villagers with direct access to secondary income. For instance, in one of Local Alike’s packages, travelers venture out to sea with a fisherman, which is their primary career, to learn how to fish. All of the packages are developed together with the villages because only ideas that start from the locals will last long, says Boonkam, who adds that he doesn’t want to see their lifestyle changed by an outsider.
Everything is managed by the communities. Local Alike provides support and tries to find young people in the villages that can speak English and work as tour guides. Communities decide what they’re comfortable charging, and Local Alike adds a markup to sustain the business and set aside funds for community development.
Boonkam knows it’s tough to improve tourism in Thailand. But after hearing Shiao Yin, founder of Food for Thought, speak at the Social Venture Challenge, he realizes the most important thing is just to keep moving forward.
“You know you’re going to do good. You have these ideas at the beginning and you start doing it. But a couple of months or a couple of years later, you know that you could have done something better. If you know that this idea is not going to work, make sure that you are really open to change. Don’t just stick with your first idea. Your first idea might lead to another idea which is better. Be ready and be open-minded. Gather as much comments as you can to improve your model. She said it might take years, but don’t give up.”
Ultimately, it’s not just about improving tourism. Local Alike wants to change the way city people think about those who live in the village. There are things people living in the city can learn and adapt from people in the village, says Boonkam. “The more I work with local people, the more I understand about listening: listening for the benefit of others, listening with no judgment.”
“We want to help [villages] to become self-sustaining. They don’t have to rely on money from the government. The young generations who live in the village have choice to remain home. We really want to create a better economic opportunity.”
Watch this video to learn more about Local Alike:
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