Our second training session with the TOURIST* project took place in Phuket, one of the most popular leisure tourism destinations in Asia. We were looking forward to seeing our project partners from Thailand, Vietnam and Europe again. This time around, we were beyond exchanging business cards. Now it was time for meaningful conversations and communication leading to action.
Sharing experiences about sustainability
The highlight of our training was the discussion about auto-ethnographic findings of a field trip, when we saw both community-based tourism (CBT) during a visit to Phuket Old Town and an attraction catering for the masses – the spectacular Siam Niramit show about Thai history and culture. In their findings, most participants focused on socio-cultural issues such as food, CBT and Thai hospitality. Environmental problems such as plastic, traffic and waste were also raised. On the economic side, the fact that many souvenirs were made locally was seen as a good thing. On the other hand, different prices for locals and tourists and an influx of Chinese products were seen as economic problems.
The mass tourism experience at Siam Niramit was regarded as superficial as the tourist was merely a passive participant. However, during the CBT visit, the tourist was seen as an active participant, who could ask the host community questions and learn from the locals. It was valuable to see the both sides of Phuket, the local community and its CBT tourism efforts, as well as the products catering for the mass market. Both CBT and mass tourism services are needed. In fact, they complement each other. The CBT cannot accommodate everyone, and the shows can be quality experiences for the masses.
Seeing the big picture
In a popular destination like Phuket it would make sense to concentrate on improvements to infrastructure, such as public transport, roads and waste management. Locals explained how inconvenient it is for them that the roads are in a bad shape and traffic jams make daily lives hard. Air pollution has become a problem in Thailand and litter can be seen everywhere. There may be two waste disposal bins, one for recyclables and one for everything else, but as long as people do not know which waste goes where (or if instructions are only in Thai) and where they end up, nothing changes for the better.
In our discussions with local tourism professionals, political influence came up as a prerequisite for the future of sustainable tourism. It will be a challenge to alter the current situation as numerous political interests and bureaucracy are involved. Big changes are required and can only be achieved through the economic clout of big tour operators and hotels as well as the power of the public sector. Recycling issues and traffic problems demand urgent attention on the island. Communication is clearly needed. This is where the competence centres of the TOURIST project come in by providing a platform for the stakeholder engagement.
From discussions to closer cooperation
This was how we interpreted the participants’ field trip findings. We were happy with the discussions as they showed that our relationship had deepened. As we already knew each other from the previous training, it was easier to discuss real issues in a safe environment. Based on the discussions during the training, we believe that our project partners feel the same way. We can all learn from sharing experiences with each other. Now we also know that opportunities for closer cooperation exist: We have already discussed joint papers, inviting each other to academic conferences and future projects. Until we meet again, we will keep in touch and exchange ideas through social media. After this training, we are hopeful that we are onto something great together, as a network.
Written by Haaga-Helians: Leena Grönroos and Annika Konttinen
*TOURIST project: The aim of the project is to create competence centres for the development of sustainable tourism and innovative financial management strategies to increase the positive impact of local tourism in Thailand and Vietnam.
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