Photo: Zolotarevs/Shutterstock

7 Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Thailand

Thailand Activism
by Jen Ambrose Apr 17, 2017

When you’re on the road, it’s easy to get completely caught up in your own experiences – your adventures, your struggles, where you’re going, and how the experience is affecting you. But as a visitor in someone else’s country, what about how you, as a traveler, affect the people who live there?

The tourism industry can be tremendously beneficial to local communities, by providing new job opportunities, accumulating tax revenue, and facilitating cross-cultural exchange. But when it goes unchecked – leading to overcrowding, environmental damage, and disrespect of local people – things get murky. Fortunately, the movement for responsible travel is growing, and it’s pushing both travelers and those working in tourism to make choices that have better social, economic, and environmental outcomes. But we have a long way to go before tourism will be wholly beneficial.

Responsible travel is especially critical in a place like Thailand, a developing country that now sees over 30 million visitors per year and is only getting more popular. Tourism in Thailand has really taken off over the past decade, and there are already stories of places that receive more visitors than they can sustain, where the level of tourism is straining local resources and degrading the environment, and where respect for local people has taken a backseat to having a good time. Travelers committed to having a positive impact can start to turn some of these situations around, so consider these seven things to make your next trip to Thailand a responsible one.

1. Don’t ride an elephant.

The effort to end elephant riding in Thailand and elsewhere is one of the most prominent causes of responsible travel advocates and has been taken up by animal rights groups as well. But despite the movement’s increasing visibility, elephant rides continue, as do shows with elephants trained to do circus-type tricks.

Even though they’re huge animals, elephants are not built to carry the weight of a human on their back, and they’re certainly not circus performers by nature. The elephants that work in the tourism industry have been taken from the wild or bred in captivity, and often separated from their mothers at a young age. They’re beaten into submission through a process known as “crushing the elephant’s spirit,” which involves having their feet roped or chained together, getting beaten and slashed with metal bull hooks, and being deprived of food and water. Once their spirit has been crushed, the elephants are held in captivity, where they often live in filthy conditions, are separated from other elephants, receive inadequate food and water, and are overworked to the point of exhaustion.

Though it might seem like fun from the outset, riding elephants or attending performances supports an abusive industry. Sanctuaries that instead give visitors the chance to feed or bathe elephants, though still somewhat controversial, are a significant improvement over traditional elephant tourism in Thailand.

2. Don’t take a tiger selfie.

Though not as synonymous with Thailand as the elephant, encounters with tigers are also common and equally problematic. While the notorious Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province was recently shut down, similar venues are still operating across the country, hosting circus performances or allowing visitors to pet or hug a tiger (perfect social media fodder!).

Like the elephants used in tourism, these tigers are often separated from their mothers at a young age and then chained, beaten, starved, and confined in cages. A tiger’s innate reaction to a human holding or petting it is to attack – the ones that don’t have had their natural instinct beaten out of them.

For an ethical way to see animals in Thailand, consider visiting one of the country’s national parks, where you’ll be able to see them in the wild, roaming free and unabused – and get plenty of Instagram-worthy photos, too.

3. Take a responsible hill tribe trek.

For travelers interested in culture, hill tribe visits in northern Thailand are extremely popular. But they, too, are rife with ethical concerns, commonly seen as tourist traps and called “human zoos.” Visits to the famed “long neck” Karen tribes are the most controversial. Most of the people in these villages are Burmese refugees who aren’t fully recognized in Thailand and often don’t have access to education, healthcare, or other job opportunities. Some of the “villages” are actually just rows of souvenir stalls that have been set up solely for tourism and even charge an admission fee to enter and see the women, who receive only a small fraction of the profits from the tours.

But that’s not to say that all hill tribe visits are bad; on the contrary, they can be enriching and responsible experiences that benefit both the visitor and the community. Many companies visit authentic villages that aren’t overrun with tourists, share their revenue with the community, and employ local guides from the hill tribes. Dozens of companies operate hill tribe treks that leave from various towns in northern Thailand, so just do your research before choosing one.

4. Spend your money locally.

One of the simplest ways to make an impact while traveling is to make sure the money you spend actually stays in the area. Staying at international hotel chains, eating at foreign-owned restaurants, and buying imported goods and snacks all send money out of the country, often to large corporations in the U.S. or Europe. Spending money with local businesses instead keeps cash in the country and town you’re visiting, benefitting the people who live there and helping to develop the local economy.

And in Thailand, there are plenty of locally owned guesthouses, restaurants, and tour companies that are charming and professional, so you won’t be missing out – and you’ll usually end up with a much more interesting experience.

5. Watch yourself under water.

There’s a good chance that diving or snorkeling will be on your itinerary in Thailand, since the country’s islands are famous for their tropical fish and coral reefs. But the ocean’s eco-systems are fragile, so it pays to be careful under water. Interacting with fish or other sea creatures in an unnatural way can change their habits, make them sick, and even cause them to become aggressive. Don’t dive with companies that feed the fish or encourage divers to touch them (and if you’re feeling bold, tell them that’s why they’re losing business!), and the same goes for coral. Those stories about the death of the Great Barrier Reef weren’t actually true, but it’s a fact that coral can die simply from being touched.

Even if you don’t intentionally touch the fish or coral, though, you may accidentally come into contact with something if you don’t have good buoyancy control. Practice your diving skills until you’re confident you can avoid brushing against fish or coral you swim by.

6. Be careful with volunteering.

Thailand has an abundance of “voluntourism” activities for travelers who want to give back, and they often involve working with children. But while these volunteers may have good intentions, the unfortunate truth is that they often end up doing more harm than good. Most short-term volunteer programs are mainly designed to give the volunteer a good experience – not to truly make a difference to the people they’re alleged to help.

Voluntourists usually lack the technical skills for the work they’re sent to do – like teaching, social work, healthcare, agriculture, or construction. Even for qualified volunteers, working effectively in a foreign country usually requires putting in the time to understand the culture, study the language, and build relationships with local communities. The few days or weeks most travelers want to commit is far too little to make a meaningful impact on the long-term, structural problems people in developing countries face. Plus, a constant stream of short-term volunteers means the programs they’re supposed to support have no continuity.

Some proponents argue that volunteers aren’t hurting anyone, even if they’re not highly effective. But these programs waste the local community’s time and resources, which could be directed at more useful initiatives, and exacerbate the notion of the “white savior” swooping in to help. Voluntourism opportunities with children, which are probably the most common, are especially problematic. A substantial portion of children living in orphanages in Southeast Asia aren’t even orphans (over 75 percent in Cambodia) – rather, they’re kept in institutions that exist to profit from providing volunteering opportunities for Westerners. Whether they’re in orphanages or elsewhere, vulnerable children experience psychological damage from developing relationships with foreign volunteers who quickly leave them again and again.

Unless you have a useful technical skill and can commit to a long-term placement, donating to a non-profit organization that works in Thailand will have a much more positive impact than volunteering (even if it doesn’t come with the warm fuzzies).

7. Pack responsibly.

Responsible travel actually starts before you leave home. Choices about what to pack and even where to shop make a difference, and they can set you up for a trip that’s eco-friendly and socially conscious. Sleeping at an eco-lodge in Thailand or elsewhere doesn’t cancel out the harm incurred by a bag full of clothes made in a sweatshop, so shop for your trips at responsible companies and small businesses when possible.

Some of the items on your Thailand packing list can also help you travel more responsibly there, especially when it comes to plastic. It’s no secret that plastic products are both ubiquitous and damaging to the environment, and many travelers find themselves using even more plastic on the road than at home, especially plastic bags and water bottles. Plastic use anywhere is environmentally harmful, but it’s especially problematic in developing countries, where waste management systems are weak and recycling infrastructure may not exist at all. Reduce your footprint in Thailand or anywhere you travel by bringing things like a refillable water bottle, portable water filter, and reusable cloth bag.

Of course, there’s more to responsible travel than these seven issues, and following these tips doesn’t guarantee your trip to Thailand will be completely free of ethical qualms. But, they’re a step in the right direction and if you’re new to responsible travel, they’re a good place to start.

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