For nearly a year, Wanni Ruengsamut has been receiving a flow of visitors to her simple wooden house that stands on stilts and is surrounded by the calm waters of the Phang Nga Bay. They are not lost relatives attempting to restore broken family ties with the 38-year-old mother of two. Instead, they are tourists in search of a change from predictable destinations like the nearby island of Phuket, where mass-market tourism has triumphed. Wanni has hosted 10 groups of tourists so far. They include foreigners holidaying in Thailand and locals from places such as Bangkok.
‘They stay for two or three days in our home and learn how we live,’ she said on a recent Saturday afternoon after serving a home-cooked meal to two guests. The lunch was a feast of five dishes including steamed crab, shrimp and fish prepared with garlic and lime sauce. It was served in a room at the rear of her house that is open on three sides to take in the breeze that rolls off the bay. The dishes were laid out on mats, as is the style on the island Wanni calls home, Koh Yao Noi. Two rooms of the four in her home have been set aside for the guests and comfortable bedding is spread out on the wooden floors.
Wanni is a recent convert to this form of tourism, where visitors stay and participate in many facets of the life of this largely Muslim fishing community. ‘I decided to join after realizing there is much that my family can get and that we can give and share with our guests,’ she said of the community-based tourism programme. ‘This programme is not just about visiting Koh Yao Noi and experiencing a bit of home-stay. Showing how we try to protect our natural resources and sharing our fishing community’s culture are also important.’
In fact this unique venture, known as the Koh Yao Noi Community-based Ecotourism Club, has been around for over 12 years. There are currently 80 families who are part of the network, spread across this island of some 5,000 residents – 25 homes in seven villages have opened their doors to welcome guests. Most are either surrounded by rice fields and rubber trees or near gardens alive with brilliant orchids, bougainvillea and hibiscus. Three houses, like Wanni’s, face the sea.
‘Tourists who have heard about our programme are interested in learning about our fishing community and participating in our daily activities,’ said Samrung Raketh, a co-ordinator of the alternative tourism programme. ‘This is not about profit for us because the money the club’s members make is a second income. The first source is from fishing for most families. Last year we hosted about 800 people, most of them Thais.’
Worachat Kongkua is typical of Club members who welcome the curious to spend a day in their homes to learn traditional crafts. In the case of 39-year-old Worachat that means making tie-dye fabrics, and she goes about her business in a small shed under the shade of a sprawling tamarind tree. ‘This is a fun way for visitors to spend a day and learn how we use natural colours to make the patterns,’ she said. Worachat uses pigments from boiled ginger or the leaves of local trees. ‘We encourage them to make their own gifts rather than buy at a tourist shop,’ she adds.
The fisherfolk are equally open to sharing their skills and knowledge of the sea with guests who opt for an early morning expedition in the small, wooden single-motor boats. ‘We show them how we catch prawns and crabs and the different nets we use for each,’ said Sompong Nunuwan, as he pulled in a net that had trapped a fair number of prawns on a Sunday morning. Sompong explained what happens if a catch includes a female crab heavy with a cluster of eggs. ‘We drop those crabs in a crab bank we have set up in the bay to protect them. We don’t want to destroy them now. That is illegal for our members. We can benefit later.’
Respect for the environment has been a cornerstone of the island’s community-based tourism since it was founded in the mid-1990s. That’s when the small-scale fisherfolk of Koh Yao Noi began to battle the giant trawlers whose large nets destroyed the seabed as they scooped up marine life in the bay. The trawlers no longer come but the conservationist spirit that erupted in this fishing community is very much alive. Tourists are given pink brochures that include rules like ‘Do not litter’ and ‘Don’t collect any seashells or corals from the sea’.
The decision to open their homes to tourists also emerged during the conflict with the trawlers and the powerful political and business interests that backed such environmentally destructive fishing. At that time the Koh Yao Noi fisherfolk were supported by visiting students from the US who joined the flotilla of fishing boats in the bay confronting the large trawlers. Community leaders soon realized that the Thai authorities gave them more respect – and responded to their cause with more sympathy – after foreigners had joined them.
Small wonder that this community-based tourism project is viewed as a model for others who want to offer alternative travel options in Thailand.
‘Other communities should follow what we have achieved here because it has brought us together. We learn to co-operate and organize and there is some pleasure in tourists learning about our ways,’ said fisher Sompong Nunuwan. ‘But it is difficult to say if other communities will have success. Our selling points have been the sea and our work in conserving our natural resources.’
Even the problems faced by this venture offer lessons for other communities who want to follow Koh Yao Noi’s lead. The island still has a slow and quiet feel and gets only a trickle of visitors – especially when compared with Phuket, which attracted five million tourists last year.
‘This cannot work on a big scale,’ said the programme’s co-ordinator Samrung Raketh. ‘If too many tourists come, then we will lose control and it will create social problems. The interest can then shift to making money from our programme and nothing more. We have already had two families who left the Club because they were focused only on profit.’ •
Marwaan Macan-Markar is a journalist working for IPS, based in Bangkok.