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THAILAND's CASE

The NGO letter to UNEP tourism programme coordinator, Oliver Hillel, regarding the International Year of Ecotourism 2002 (20/10/2000) cited the example of Thailand to illustrate what can go wrong with ecotourism development. The letter said:

“In Thailand, the upsurge of ecotourism demand has resulted in construction frenzy in rural and natural areas to provide accommodation and infrastructure for visitors. A recently published survey by the Bangkok daily 'The Nation' found that under the pretext of ecotourism promotion, massive development projects - some involving logging operations - were in full steam in national parks countrywide, funded by loans from the World Bank's Social Investment Project and the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF).”

This case has drawn the attention of the World Bank, and Christopher Chamberlin, a Bank official based in Bangkok, forwarded his comments on the matter. In order to create a better understanding and a more solid base for further discussions on this Thailand case, the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team) sent the following letter to the Bank to provide additional information and to seek clarification regarding World Bank and OECF-funded tourism projects in Thailand.

RE WORLD BANK/OECF SIP FUNDS FOR TOURISM PROJECTS IN THAILAND

Communication from World Bank official Christopher Chamberlin (dated: 25 October 2000):

“The main point to make is that this Tourism Authority of Thailand component of SIP is completely OECF/JBIC financed and supervised.   We, the Bank, have no oversight whatsoever over JBIC co-financed activities under SIP.   What we can do, however, is bring this to the attention of those responsible for oversight of the TAT component, namely JBIC, TAT,  and the Ministry of Finance PCU.   In one of the attached newspaper articles, there is one mention of logging in connection with TAT improvements of infrastructure in a national park, namely to produce construction materials for the civil works being built in the parks.  According to the JBIC project documents we consulted at appraisal, these were all small scale service amenities in the parks, not "major construction".

This should be followed up by the Ministry of Finance, JBIC and TAT, and we can do our best to urge the parties to look into this.   The relevant section of the article is attached below.   Underlying these important allegations is a debate on the role of eco-tourism in Thailand, a most important decision for the future of Thailand's natural resources.   Many would argue that foreign tourists visiting national parks are a good lever to induce responsible conservation, but I leave that to the experts.”

OUR RESPONSE:

In early 1998, the press reported that the World Bank had agreed to provide about US$300 million loan for a social plan in Thailand, aimed at tackling the problems of unemployment, loss of income and higher costs of social services arising from the financial and economic crisis.

The Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team) received a copy of the 'Aide Memoire' by the Royal Thai Government (RTG) on the Social Investment Project Pre-Appraisal Mission, January 15 - February 12, 1998, which states, "The mission received essential support and guidance from J. Shivakumar, Country Director. The visit to Thailand of the World Bank's president, Mr. James D. Wolfensohn, contributed directly to advancing the project dialogue with the RTG and to broadening the understanding and support for the project in Thai civil society, particularly among NGOs."

Among other things, the report outlined a major set of governmental programmes under the SIP, which directly related to tourism and was estimated to cost US$46 million. We understand that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), which participated in the SIP negotiations was mandated to manage the proposed tourism activities in cooperation with

·        the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) - responsible for national parks and forest reserves,

·        the Fine Art Department within the Ministry of Education - responsible for cultural and historic sites,

·        the Ministry of Interior and its Department of Local Administration - responsible for recreational and cultural sites.

We further understand that an additional US$20 million were allocated to the Public Works Department for rural road construction to facilitate access to tourism sites, while improving village transport.

Since this 1998 agreement between the RTG and the World Bank, relatively little information trickled through to the public as to how SIP funds were actually used for tourism-related development projects. But in contradiction with Christopher Chamberlin's claim that the tourism component of SIP "is completely OECF/JBIC financed and supervised", reports by investigative journalists and other sources suggest that both the World Bank and the OECF have provided SIP funds for controversial tourism projects.

In September 1998, The Bangkok Post and The Nation reported that the TAT was set to coordinate the implementation of tourism projects worth about US$75 million as part of the Bank-initiated SIP, and this loan would be provided by the OECF. The fact that the Forest Industry Organization (FIO) - a state enterprise - was engaged to supervise OECF-funded ecotourism projects in cooperation with private companies in several protected areas was strongly criticized by academics and NGOs. They argued that the FIO's primary task was to oversee logging operations and had no experiences in forest conservation and community development. A serious conflict, which was also documented in a television programme (iTV), evolved around a FIO project at Wat Chan in Chiang Mai's Mae Chaem district. Villagers there protested for months, saying they were never consulted on this OECF-funded ecotourism project and it would have negative impacts on their culture and the environment. In light of the growing controversy, the Wat Chan project was quietly stopped.

Reports about doubtful tourism projects in national parks - including the building of roads, parking lots, accommodation and other facilities - have surfaced last and this year. On 12 April 2000, The Bangkok Post published a major story entitled "The business of parks", which questioned the RFD's development plan in relation to its "Visit National Parks Year 2000" promotion, noting that the drawn-up regulations for the scheme were "still unavailable for public scrutiny". It included an interview with RFD chief Plodprasop Suraswadi, who said, "Last year, we got a budget of 700 million baht from SIP. This year, it's likely that we get a loan of more than 10,000 million from the OECF, and we'll be able to do a lot of improvements with this money." Meanwhile, civic voices expressed skepticism about RFD's tourism-related activities. For example, former law lecturer and now senator Kaewsun Atibodhi was quoted as saying, "This plan will involve lots of investment and construction, which seems to go against the original purpose of national parks, which are supposed to be preserved for public relaxation and education."

Also in April, a group of 100 angry villagers in Surat Thani province seized a bulldozer owned by the RFD and trunks of trees felled by RFD officials in Khao Sok National Park (The Nation 12 April 2000). The protesters charged that national park staff had already felled 169 large trees with diameters of between 100cm and 200cm in relation to constructing a 1,000 sqm parking lot, a 800m-long road, 10 toilets and concrete stairs leading to a pier in the park. This news item did not say what agency financed this destruction. A few days later, however, Uamdao Noikorn of the Bangkok Post reported in an article "Plodprasop defends tourist plan" (19 April 2000)  that the "so-called renovation project is part of the [forestry] department's loan from World Bank's Social Investment Fund to develop facilities in 11 national parks to promote tourism and increase capacity in line with demand."

A front page story in the Sunday Nation of 14.5.2000 (title: "National parks threatened by tourist tide: Construction damaging ecology") confirmed the Bank's involvement. It said, "The fine line dividing the conservation and tourism uses of national parks was blurred again when the Tourism Authority of Thailand dumped Bt600 million of loans it received from the World Bank's Social Investment Project on the Royal Forestry Department to build additional tourist facilities in 19 protected areas." It further stated, "The Social Investment Project loan conditions call for all projects to be completed by the end of the year [2000]." That indicates that the construction was done in a hurry to meet the Bank's conditions, but apparently without much thought for the nature reserves' carrying capacity and biodiversity conservation.

The Nation article alerted the public that, "Major construction projects - some involving logging operations - are being undertaken at full steam in national parks countrywide under the pretence of ecotourism."

"Among the 19 parks (which were listed in an extra table, including the new facilities coming up) are highly popular ones already overwhelmed by visitors during the high season. Accommodations are being put up, concrete roads laid, parking lots paved, nature trails carved out and camping grounds installed," the article went on to say. "At Khao Sok in Surat Thani province, Khao Yai in Nakhon Ratchasima province and Kaeng Kracharn in Phetchaburi province, trees have been felled for use as construction materials. On top of a small hill in Kaeng Kracharn alone, as many as six new bungalows are springing up. New souvenir shops and large car parks are spoiling the abundant nature of Doi Suthep-Pui and Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai. Construction also includes security units, toilet grounds and camping grounds."

In accordance with these press reports are case studies that have been forwarded to tim-team by national park staff and other sources (who do not want to be named). There have been complaints that too many - and often unnecessary and lavish - service amenities are being established in the parks. Creating luxurious bungalows for high government officials and rich tourists only or extravagant multi-purpose buildings, equipped with audio-visual rooms and noise-polluting sound systems, inside significant wildlife habitats are a step back into the past in terms of nature conservation, the critics said.

One source informed us that with funding from the OECF SIP, Khao Yai park staff had actually "put forward a comprehensive management plan that seemed to follow the concept of eco-tourism reasonably well." However, "due to pressure from above, many of these worthwhile plans have been put on the shelf. Instead, the new priorities are on servicing the VIP visitor and increasing the amount of accommodation within the central area of the Park! Associated increases in costs will deter the poorer members of Thai society from visiting Khao Yai." The informant also pointed out that local communities around Khao Yai park were unlikely to benefit from the new tourism plan, saying, "though there is considerable talk of working with communities on 'eco-tourism' activities", but unconscionably, "there is no finance to back up such projects…"

"The current approach to tourism in national parks would more accurately be described as 'Mass Nature Tourism'," concluded the source reporting from Khao Yai.  "The focus is on numbers - the more the better! No attention is being paid to how these ever increasing numbers of tourists will damage Thailand's precious natural areas."

On a merry note, we are also wondering whether the World Bank believes it is a good idea if their loans are spent for the promotion of what has been called "military tourism". Here is what The Nation said in an article headlined "Fearless Fun" (20 July 2000): "…adrenaline pumping adventures are available at the Twenty-first Infantry Regiment Queen's Guard Compound, Nawanintrajinee Army Camp in Chon Buri Province, which recently received Bt136,300 from Miyasawa and World Bank loan to develop the place for tourism…" This project is part of a major scheme, initiated in 1997 by then Commander of Chief of the Army, Gen Chettha Thanajaro, aimed to develop a number of military camps as tourist attractions and offer activities such as firing weapons and jungle adventure tours. Pistol-shooting, tower jumps and zip-line flying are the tourists' favourites at the Bank-funded Nawamintrajinee military camp, according to The Nation article. Does the World Bank support such "Rambo" tourism activities by co-financing pistol ranges and the like?

Mr. Chamberlin's proposal to bring the matter to the attention of agencies in charge of the TAT component of the SIP (OECF/JBIC, TAT, Ministry of Finance) is very laudable. But it also seems highly necessary that the Bank examines its own role in the affair! In light of all the information above, it will be difficult for the Bank to deny any involvement in the tourism-related projects in question by shifting responsibility to OECF/JBIC alone. If the press reports included incorrect or misleading information about the Bank's role in the controversial projects under SIP, why did Bank officials based in Bangkok not make any effort to rectify the allegations when they were brought to public? Do Bank people not follow the local media and major environmental debates in the countries in which they operate and so are not aware of what is happening on the ground?

In any case, it is really hard to believe that the powerful Bank, which plays such a prominent role in influencing economic and developmental policies in many countries of the world and did initiate the SIP in Thailand, has "no oversight whatsoever" of the tourism component under SIP, as Mr. Chamberlin suggests.

.

Regarding the charges of logging operations in connection with tourism development projects in parks, Mr. Chamberlin said, "According to the JBIC project documents we consulted at appraisal, these [projects, where logging occurred to produce construction materials] were small scale service amenities in the parks, not 'major construction'." Mr. Chamberlin may not be properly informed about Thailand's environmental legislation. Whether there has been minor or major construction in the parks is not the point here. In fact, ANY felling of trees or landscape alteration in parks constitutes a violation of the national park law and can be prosecuted. It is even illegal to remove a pebble, and poor villagers get arrested if they collect mushrooms in the forest and mussels and corals in marine parks. So if the Bank endorses RFD's logging in parks for the building of tourist facilities - even small-scale ones-, that would mean it endorses state-sanctioned breaking of national park law.

In any case, to focus on "small-scale" logging in this way means to sidestep the issue, which is the big financial institutions' aiding and abetting with the technically illegal and environmentally destructive large-scale construction of tourism infrastructure in national parks.

Therefore, we request that the concerned World Bank officials carefully study the issues in question and let us know how they plan to proceed. Unfortunately, the tourism-related projects under SIP are almost completed and much of the damage done cannot be reversed. But at least, the responsible authorities and the public should learn lessons from this case for the future, also with respect to the US$150 million programme recently launched in Thailand by the World Bank in cooperation with the Global Environment Facility and Conservation International. We will surely watch this large scheme that proclaims to preserve "biological hotspots" in Thailand, while creating "alternative" income opportunities for local residents, which may involve ecotourism development.

Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team

P.O. Box 51 Chorakhebua

Bangkok 10230, Thailand

Fax: (66-2) 5192821

Email: tim-team@access.inet.co.th

 

 


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