“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.
Covid-19 has severely affected global tourism. Many local communities that rely on tourism are now struggling to maintain livelihoods. Without income generation from tourism, the future of community members has become uncertain more than ever while they are now dependent on financial aid and support packages from the government.
Although tourism is highly vulnerable to the pandemic, the industry holds a unique position to promote responsible recovery plans and actions. Tourism represents development opportunities for communities and the Covid-19 crisis has potential to become a turning point for tourism planners to rethink and rebuild tourism for sustainable community development.
Furthermore, relationship building through tough times can be exceptionally resilient. It is the time for community-based tourism businesses to review and strengthen their partnerships with the host communities to regenerate the sustainable tourism model.
PATA SSR spoke to Ms. Wanvipa Phanumat at the Office of Community-based Tourism, Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) to have further insights about the impact of Covid-19 on community-based tourism destinations in Thailand, what local communities can learn from the crisis and how local communities can rebuild confidence and enhance capacity for a sustainable future.
Q: Good morning Khun Wanvipa, thank you so much for your time today. For the benefits of our audience, would you mind introducing a bit about yourself and the work you are doing at DASTA, please?
Wanvipa: I’m Wanvipa Phanumat. I’m the Director of Community-based Tourism Development at DASTA, or the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration. We are the governmental agency that is trying to facilitate sustainable tourism development, especially in the context of Thailand. My key mission at DASTA is to make sure that the local communities in Thailand can benefit from sustainable tourism development. In detail, we have lots of things to do with the local communities such as capacity building, linking them with the market and also working with other stakeholders to make sure that they are aware of community-based tourism development in Thailand.
Q: What are the biggest impacts of COVID-19 on community-based tourism destinations in Thailand? Why should local community development be the top priority for recovery post Covid-19?
Wanvipa: I think one of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 crisis is on the income of the local communities. However, to be honest, I think the local community is not the most affected sector in the tourism value chain because when we work with local communities, one of the main concepts is that tourism should not be the only source of income, and the local communities shouldn’t change themselves just for the sake of tourism. We always emphasize that tourism should only be used as a community development tool, and it should be the secondary source of income. That’s why when the COVID-19 happens, even though there are no tourists going to the local communities, local people can still work in agriculture, do the fishery or the handicraft, which are their primary source of income. Even though the COVID-19 has lots of impact on the tourism industry, we should look at it more inclusive in terms of the whole tourism value chain. I think the tourism business sector is most affected by this crisis, and we should also include them as priority for recovery measures, not only focusing on local communities. This is the time when we have to allocate our limited resources for recovery, so the leverage points that would keep the tourism industry going is both the business and the local communities as the host of a destination.
Q: What are the opportunities from Covid-19 crisis for fostering sustainable tourism development in communities?
Wanvipa: Actually, I see a lot of opportunities during this crisis. Firstly, after the pandemic, the tourists’ behavior will change. They will travel shorter distances and try to avoid crowded places. For Thailand now, domestic travel has started coming back. The local communities will become getaway destinations for Thai people. However, domestic travel has never been a big market for community-based tourism because of similar culture and livelihood. Therefore, for the community to attract domestic tourists, it would be their opportunity if we can offer them something more in-depth, or the same thing with new perspectives. For example, when you go to Ayutthaya, you will often see the World Heritage Sites. But with community-based tourism, you can learn more about how Ayutthaya people live or what their food is, so deeper exploration in the same destination. It will be the new perspective of Thailand that the community-based tourism can offer.
Another opportunity is that during the crisis, lots of young people cannot find jobs in the cities. This situation pushes them to go back and stay at home as they have no choice. But that could be one of the opportunities for the development of local communities because young people can bring in the modern technology and new ideas to their communities, which can ultimately improve community-based tourism. But the challenge is how to keep them within the sustainable business. That’s one area that DASTA is trying to work on during and post the COVID-19 crisis. We are trying to work with the young people for the incubation of social enterprise businesses in the local communities.
Besides, this crisis is a rare chance for the tourism industry to have a break and look back at what needs to be fixed and what are the important things that we need to do in terms of sustainable development. This is also a test for the community’s resilience and how they’re going to survive after the crisis. As I mentioned earlier, we always remind the local communities not to give up everything for tourism; they don’t need to change themselves just for tourists’ demand. They need to keep their own identity and use tourism only as the secondary source of income. This crisis has proven that. The communities that adopt this concept and do not change themselves over tourism can survive. Their life is not going to be collapsed because they can still rely on their primary non-tourism source of income. But for some communities that are heavily dependent on tourism for income and adjust themselves for the tourists to maximize the profits from tourism will face big problems.
This is a very good case study to prove the concept of community-based tourism to other communities who want to develop this tourism model. If you want to be resilient, you have to conserve your identity. Before this crisis, we had been trying to share with local communities many other concepts regarding carrying capacity or health and safety but it was never the main priority. During this time, our work has become easier as the local communities have no choices; they need to be concerned about carrying capacity, and they need to care about various health and safety standards. I think it also makes many local communities realize how important it is to collaborate with other stakeholders, both internally and externally. To survive this crisis, local community members need to come together and help each other. This is a great foundation for sustainable tourism development in the long term. So, this is one bright side of the crisis.
Q: How do we enhance local community capacity and confidence to build back tourism better and more sustainably?
Wanvipa: For now, we don’t have tourists going to local communities. Both the local communities and tour operators do not have many tourism activities to engage in. One of the things that we are doing during this crisis is trying to match them together to help both sectors. The tour operators have business expertise and strong marketing experience that they can share with the local communities. We match them together for collaboration; for example, matching Company A with Community A to work together to develop capacity building programs including designing better itineraries, offering better activities and more creative storytelling. We hope that the local communities can form a strong bond with the private sector so that once the COVID-19 is gone, and tourism comes back; the tour operators will see that they have new products to offer. The local communities will also have more trust to work with the tour operators because they have already developed meaningful relationships beyond business during this tough time. It’s not the government job to do all the capacity building because we don’t know the market better than the private sector. That’s why I think this is a good time for the tour operators to work with the local communities because during normal circumstances, they wouldn’t have time to do this kind of thing together. So, this is a good opportunity and also one of the programs that DASTA is working on now.
In September, we will launch 40 community-based tourism packages that have passed through this program with the private sector. Currently, we work with 89 tour operators in Thailand on this program. So hopefully, after the COVID-19 crisis, there will be lots of domestic and international travelers coming. When they travel to Thailand, they will have the choices to go to the local communities that have been included in those packages. One of the aspects that the tour operators can help enhance local capacity is promoting the governmental measure of Safety and Health Administration Standard (SHA), which is a certification for the tourism industry in terms of health and safety. It is not easy for the local communities to be aware of the health and safety standards. So, what we do is that we work with the tour operators and the Department of Disease Control to go to the communities and uplift the health and safety standards; for example, how to ensure hygiene and safety for hands-on activities such as cooking classes. We will come together and try to analyze the critical points that the local communities should be aware of regarding human safety. This is what we are doing right now. In the long term, we will support the local communities to develop themselves based on the community-based tourism Thailand (CBT Thailand) standards. We already have that and it’s aligned with the GSTC standards. These are the tools that we have been using. We hope that after the COVID-19 crisis, with a strong bond between the private sector, the government and the local communities, tourism can come back better and stronger in terms of sustainable management of local resources.
Q: In one sentence, how would you envision the future of tourism after COVID-19?
Wanvipa: Sustainability in tourism cannot be an option; it has to be the new norm. To achieve this, stakeholder collaboration with shared goals is always an essential foundation for sustainable tourism management. Together, we can bring sustainable tourism into reality.