During the last week of June, I was invited by Destination Mekong and the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) to attend the Mekong Tourism Forum 2018 (MTF2018) in Nakhon Phanom, a small city in north-east Thailand that borders with Laos, the Mekong River separating the two countries.
It was my first time travelling to Nakhon Phanom – a destination that I never knew before – and attending MTF2018. The conference was held from 25th till 29th June but I was only able to attend from the 27th onwards due to prior engagements in Kuala Lumpur two days before. Although I had missed the earlier events, I was able to catch the last few keynote presentations.
Responsible and Sustainable Tourism
Just to share some background about the conference and the organisations involved. Destination Mekong is a non-governmental organisation that was created to promote the Mekong region – a region consisting of six countries through which the mighty Mekong River flows – and the countries are Cambodia, China (provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan), Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Destination Mekong and MTCO work together to promote the Mekong region as a single tourism destination and to work on projects and initiatives that drive responsible and sustainable tourism.
With increasing awareness, tourists are seeking more authentic travel experiences – many want to give back through visiting or volunteering at wildlife sanctuaries, cottage industries, organic farms and other activities in agritourism. As such, tour operators, innovative start-ups and entrepreneurs are responding to demands for such travel experiences, therefore they work together with local communities on programs that will enable them to have access to the tourism industry, enhance their well-being and improve their living and working conditions. At the same time, businesses are seeking ways to minimize negative economic, environmental and social impact on the communities.
In view of this, MTCO believes that responsible tourism practices have the opportunity to make positive impact on lives in the Mekong Region. Apart from their public and private initiatives, the tourism office organizes the annual Mekong Tourism Forum with the following objectives:
- to highlight examples of good practices and to provide benchmarks for improving visitor offerings in the region
- to inspire businesses to learn from best practices in the industry, to adopt transparency and to promote awareness in responsible and sustainable tourism
- to encourage media (including travel writers and bloggers) and travel trade associations to inspire travellers to visit the Greater Mekong region in a responsible way.
Thematic Village Experience
The theme for MTF2018 was “Transforming Travel – Transforming Lives”. Since tourism can be an important driver in changing communities’ lives, MTCO promotes “by visiting each other’s communities and exchanging ideas, the world can be a better place, and travel can be a force for good”. With this in mind, MTCO experimented with a different approach – thematic village experience – sessions in ethnic villages involving conference delegates and local communities discussing ways in which cultures, traditions and way of life of the villages can be promoted to the world in a responsible and sustainable way.
There were eight thematic village experiences for delegates to choose from: organic, adventure, wellness, religious, festival, heritage, eco-tourism and food. I chose the festival village experience. Along with eight delegates from Myanmar, Cambodia, Philippines, Australia and Guam – we were brought to Tai Guan tribe at Ban Na Ton village in the Na Ton sub-district, approximately thirty to forty-five minutes’ drive from Nakhon Phanom.
We received a very warm welcome by the Tai Guan community at their school village. They ushered us to the canteen where we were served lunch – a delicious meal of rice, green curry chicken, local vegetables with spices, soup and dessert. Post-lunch, we enjoyed a thirty-minute foot massage by the local women. They used coffee, salt and turmeric for foot scrub and jasmine cream for the massage. The lady who massaged my feet used to work in Koh Samui as a masseuse for several years and had recently returned to the village to care for her grandchildren.
After the foot massage, we sat down with the villagers and shared stories about how we celebrate festivals in our respective countries. Tai Guan village celebrates The Candle Festival, a festival that marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent and showcases float processions of exquisitely-carved candles symbolizing the people’s dedication and devotion during this reflective period. The locals mentioned how the Candle Festival brings the community together for weeks on end carving the candles, decorating the floats, preparing flowers and traditional costumes, cooking, laughing and sharing stories. They believed that the festival is a good way to attract more tourists to their village. We also spoke about providing transport and accommodation like homestay to tourists so that they are able to access to the village easily from the city.
We had good conversations but ran out of time as the community was eager to give us a short tour of the village. We saw their traditional fishing methods, blacksmithing and a cultural dance at the village shrine.
The highlight of the village tour was the cultural dance – we had fun joining them including laughing at the man who sat astride a turtle made of papier-mâché. If you see the video below, that’s not his real legs and jeans – it’s actually a pair of false legs made of papier-mâché and an old pair of jeans. The man hops inside the jeans with his real legs underneath the turtle hoop and lifts a wire hooked to the turtle neck up and down, dancing to the beats of the drums!
*Read: Homestay in Nepali Village
Future of Tourism
As we read more and more reports about tourism having a negative impact on destinations (we have contributed to it as well, unfortunately) especially on the environment, I’m concerned about smaller cities or villages not being able to cope with high volumes of tourists in the future as these areas have limited resources or may not have the financial means to run tourism in a responsible and sustainable way.
That said, I don’t think the tourist masses will flock to smaller cities or villages any time soon. But before that shift happens, all stakeholders from the communities, businesses and governments need to work collectively to ensure that tourism improves the living and working conditions of the communities and towns, preserves their local cultures and traditions and protects the environment in which they live in. And I believe that local province and MTCO is moving in the right direction.
As for us travellers, how can we contribute to these communities in a responsible way? We should strive to minimize plastic usage, conserve electricity and water, visit and support wildlife sanctuaries or cottage industries, discover and appreciate different heritage and cultures…and share our stories with the rest of the world!
*My trip to Nakhon Phanom was sponsored by Destination Mekong and Mekong Tourism Forum 2018. All opinions shared in this post are my own.
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