A guide to ethical travel in Thailand

Responsible tourism in Thailand

Thailand has long been a magnet for tourists from around the globe. However, the rapid growth of tourism in recent decades has brought many challenges, from overtourism to wildlife cruelty. In this blog post, we’ll delve into some of the issues facing Thailand’s tourism industry but we’ll also outline some of the better tourism practices and initiatives that you can engage with to make a positive difference.

Overtourism in Thailand

One of the most pressing issues facing Thailand is overtourism, particularly in popular destinations such as Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya, Krabi and Chiang Mai. The influx of tourists has led to overcrowding, environmental strain, and cultural disruption. Phuket gained the unwanted award last year for being the most overtouristed place in the world. Off-the-beaten-track places, such as the rural villages of Isaan or the quieter islands in Trat or Khura Buri province, offer possibly more rewarding and enriching experiences away from the crowds. And even in the tourist magnet destinations, you don’t need to travel far to lighten the load. For example, on the notorious party island of Ko Phangan, you’ll find authentic Thai life and quieter beaches in Chaloklum town and the north.

Environmental degradation in Thailand

Thailand’s natural beauty is a major draw for tourists, but unchecked tourism development, often found in overtouristed places such as Ko Phi Phi and Koh Samui, has taken its toll on the environment. Beach erosion, coral reef damage, deforestation, and pollution threaten the country’s ecosystems and biodiversity. Maya Bay, located on the uninhabited island of Koh Phi Phi Leh in Thailand’s Andaman Sea, gained international fame after it was featured in the 2000 film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The stunning bay, surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and crystal-clear waters, quickly became one of Thailand’s most iconic tourist destinations. However, the rapid influx of tourists over the years led to severe environmental degradation. The fragile coral reefs and marine ecosystems suffered from damage caused by boat anchors, pollution from visitors, and overcrowding. Concerns about the long-term sustainability of Maya Bay prompted the Thai government to take action. In 2018, authorities made the difficult decision to close Maya Bay indefinitely to allow for ecosystem recovery and rehabilitation. The closure aimed to give the marine environment time to regenerate and prevent further damage from overtourism. Since then, efforts have been underway to implement sustainable tourism measures for Maya Bay’s reopening, including limiting visitor numbers, regulating boat access, and implementing conservation and monitoring programs to protect the delicate ecosystem.

Economic inequality in Thailand

While tourism can bring economic benefits to Thailand, there are often disparities in how these benefits are distributed. Economic leakage in Thailand’s tourism industry occurs when a substantial portion of tourist spending leaves the local economy. This often happens through foreign-owned businesses, imported goods and services, all-inclusive packages and large resorts, leaving local communities marginalized. One way to help keep the tourism dollar in the hands of local people is to support community tourism initiatives, stay in smaller boutique and locally-owned accommodation and dine at nearby restaurants. Tipping is also much appreciated, particularly in more expensive hotels.

Animal welfare concerns in Thailand

Thailand has faced criticism for its treatment of animals in tourist attractions such as elephant camps and tiger sanctuaries. Many of these facilities engage in unethical practices, including animal abuse and exploitation. In 2016 the Tiger Temple, in Kanchanaburi, was closed down by Thai authorities due to allegations of wildlife trafficking, animal abuse, and illegal breeding of tigers. Elephants face exploitation for tourism, logging, and street begging. Many elephants endure harsh conditions, including long working hours, inadequate care, and physical injuries. Ethical elephant sanctuaries, like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, provide a humane alternative to elephant tourism which relies on elephants performing tricks or providing rides. Other wildlife and animal sanctuaries, such as the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Soi Dog Foundation and the Gibbon Sanctuary rescue and rehabilitate animals in need while educating visitors about conservation.

Exploitation in Thailand

Thailand’s tourism industry unfortunately has led to children being coerced into labour, including begging, selling goods, or prostitution. Other people, including ethnic minorities and migrants, are also at risk of exploitation through low-wage work and human trafficking. Poverty and lack of education can exacerbate these vulnerabilities. ECPAT International estimated that nearly 40,000 children are exploited in Thailand. The ChildSafe Movement and The Code have useful information for what to do if you suspect children of being exploited.

Long-necked tribes in Thailand

The “long-necked” tribes in Thailand are Karen ethnic minorities, notably the Padaung, known for wearing brass coils around their necks. Originally refugees from Myanmar, many Padaung live in northern Thailand. Some villages have become tourist attractions, but ethical concerns arise over-commercialization and exploitation, with the tourism industry reducing the Padaung to spectacles and objects to make money from, with no power or benefits remaining with the Padaung. They are not classed as refugees and are not officially allowed to work, and yet are not allowed to return home, due to the draw of money from tourism. Equality in Tourism have shared a film ‘Beyond the Rings‘ about the Padaung tribes, to add to the complex debate, but until the long-necked tribes gain more rights to how they want to live, we discourage visits to the Padaung tribes.

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