In 2008 I decided I wanted to go to Thailand. I’d always wanted to visit South East Asia and Thailand appeared the most accessible country for a solo traveller. Plus, so many people have been to Thailand and have an opinion on the country that I felt I wanted to experience it myself. I was 30 at the time so not a young backpacker looking for the party scene, nor was I looking for a beach holiday. What I wanted was to see a bit of the “real” Thailand, rather than the tourist version. I considered the option of volunteer tourism but felt my trip was too short to actually offer any benefit by volunteering. At the time I was working for VSO sending volunteers on long term (1-2 year) placements and there was much internal discussion about whether a volunteer spending 1- 6 months in a placement in a developing country could be effective, let alone a few weeks!
After some internet research I came across an organisation called Andaman Discoveries who offered a kind of experiential tourism where you could stay in a village. Andaman Discoveries grew from a not-for-profit organisation set up following the 2004 Tsunami to assist villages on the North Andaman coast to recover and rebuild. Many lives were lost and homes and livelihoods were destroyed. From this tragedy, many of the communities had to look for new opportunities to earn a living. A group of villages developed a community based tourism programme with the assistance of North Andaman Tsunami Relief, a non-profit organisation founded to support communities after the tsunami. Tourists could visit the villages and live among the community, learning about the local way of life, seeing the beautiful coast and appreciating the ecology of the area. The reason I chose this particular project was that it was clear from the website that the communities benefited directly and were heavily involved in how the organisation was managed and they have a long term, sustainable approach. They were also concerned with protecting their environment. The villagers were given opportunities to learn new skills and attend workshops and everything was done in a very participatory way.
In their own words, “Villagers decided that community-based tourism would allow them to generate additional income and support their traditions, culture, and lifestyle. Community-based tourism could fit into their lives, while not displacing their traditional lifestyles.”
I spent 2 days in Ban Talae Nok village. I stayed with a family in their home, cooking and eating meals with them. I was accompanied by Kelly, who worked for Andaman Discoveries and acted as my guide and translator. Although I couldn’t speak Thai and the family couldn’t speak English, I felt comfortable and able to communicate through Kelly. I also had a local guide who took me on a tour of the village and on a boat trip through the mangroves. I made soap and a batik sarong with local women – these are two of the livelihoods of the village. We also went for a swim in a lagoon with all the village children. The whole experience was very relaxed and I didn’t feel like an outsider looking in as the community embraced visitors and were keen to learn about my life in England.
The cost of the 2 days was quite high however some of the money goes into a community fund and the family and guides are also paid. I felt it was well worth the cost because of the experience – a real immersion into the culture of the region.
When I consider this kind of tourism in comparison to short volunteering placements, I can see that in many ways this had a greater impact than if I had volunteered, say teaching English to local children for a week. The organisation could attract a higher volume of visitors than volunteers and charge more. My stay had created income for local people and given them an opportunity for them to sell their handicrafts. The community was also able to manage their own tourism business, gain new skills and earn a living in their home village rather than having to leave and work in resorts like Phuket.
There are overlaps between this kind of experiential tourism and volunteer tourism – Andaman Discoveries offer volunteering placements alongside village tours and homestays. They are also partnering with ITC Classics for their ITC Giving programme, offering a 5 day visit to one of the villages which mixes touring the village and learning about the culture with volunteering on one of their projects. This kind of very short volunteering may not have a great long term impact on the community but an extra pair of hands making soap which can then be sold to generate income or a person for locals to practice their English can also be beneficial.
So perhaps this kind of experiential tourism, which also incorporates volunteering, could be an effective model for volunteer tourism in communities?