Ecotourism is a travel trend skyrocketing globally. Recent studies from groups like AIG Travel and the Center for Sustainable Travel for the UN show that a significant majority of travelers want to engage more in local conservation, and activities that promote the preservation of culture sustainability. However, these same sample groups said that, on whole, they didn’t know where to start. Here’s our round-up of the best Thailand has to offer.
First opened in Chiang Mai in the 1990s, the park has consistently provided a sanctuary and rescue center for mistreated elephants nationwide. Tourist demand to engage with the treasured national animal has led to an industry that is highly exploitative, working elephants for incredibly long hours or promoting activities like elephant riding that injure the animal and shorten its lifespan. The Elephant Nature Park invites the public to learn about this endangered species and interact with them in a responsible way. The success of the Chiang Mai Park has spurred the growth of franchised centers in Phuket, Koh Samui, and Cambodia.
Located on the diving paradise of Koh Tao, this organization conducts a full range of marine conservation activities—from the maintenance of artificial coral reefs to the care of baby turtle hatchlings—and provides opportunities for budding conservationists of all levels to participate in daily projects. From one-day immersion experiences to several-month-long internship programs, there are options to get involved regardless of your itinerary or available time commitment. An advanced scuba license is required, but they can help you achieve that, too.
Founded in Phuket as a research division of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project aims to rescue and rehabilitate illegally captive gibbons, prevent the species’ mistreatment, and educate the public on the illegal wildlife trade. The park grounds are open to the public with volunteers offering guided tours and information about the individual animals on-site, with longer term volunteer opportunities available. The project also depends on public participation – it asks for any sightings of gibbons used for tourist photo-ops—a strictly illegal activity—to be sent to their e-mail so the group can follow up.
This global NGO traces its roots back to Thailand, where a small group of friends first started to organize community members for weekly beach cleans. Today, there are more than 50 chapters across nine countries, almost half of which are right here in Thailand. These community members assemble weekly to hold trash cleanups and a range of other creative projects, uniting locals and tourists alike and often capping off with a sunset beer and food. Check the Trash Hero Thailand Facebook page for information of individual chapter active across the country.
Attitudes toward dogs in Thailand have changed gradually over the years. Low awareness of canine disease, care, and availability of sterilization treatment has led to an estimated 8.5 million “soi dogs,” or street dogs roaming around the country. In the past, widespread euthanasia or sale of the dogs as meat to markets in Vietnam or China was practiced but more recently public backlash has curbed such policy. Today, the Soi Dog Foundation is one of the largest organizations that fight for the humane management of Thai street dogs, tending to their medical needs and working to find forever homes at home and abroad. Based on Phuket, the organization is always looking for volunteers to help “socialize” the new rescues—who often arrive to the shelter very shy of human interaction—and “flight volunteers” that help check in the animal at the airport bound for its new family abroad, at no extra expense to the volunteer.
Constructed of eco-friendly materials and powered by natural energy sources, the property has integrated zero-waste goals into every aspect of its operation within the “Green lung of Bangkok” – the city’s last natural frontier situated right in its center. Wall insulation is made out of upcycled juice cartons; reclaimed wood makes up the walkways; 100% of outdoor lights are powered by wind and solar energy; all kitchen waste is composted; amenities are all locally sourced; “air cleaning plants” are grown in guest rooms to purify the air. What’s more, the property sources all guest amenities from local, eco-friendly businesses and commits to the removal of one kilo of trash from its Chao Phraya River per booking.
Village visits and tribal homestays have been a burgeoning tourist economy in Thailand for many years, but critics question the ethics and sustainability of such activities. Chang Thun, a settlement in Trat Province, is one outstanding area that practices what is locally called Community Based Tourism, engaging visitors in traditional practices and regional history while preserving the integrity of the local culture. All projects are owned and managed by community members, limiting the threat of exploitation, with income generated circulated back into the community to help preserve its tradition.
Years ago, a member of the Akha hilltribe set up a coffee production company to provide jobs and generate more local economy in the area. Today the coffee product is affectionately named Akha Ama Coffee, paying tribute to its founding mother—or Ama in the local language—and the local community continues to practice sustainable agriculture on its ancestral lands. Its three-day Coffee Journey invites tourists into the daily lives of the coffee farmers, from bean to cup.
While hilltribe village visits in the North are currently all the rage, the community on Ko Yo Island in Southern Thailand offer inclusive activities to tourists that demonstrate their incredible nature-oriented history and cultural harmony with its natural resources. The local community’s economy revolves around sustainable fishing and the farming of chempedak, a cousin to jackfruit, and organic cotton weaving. Visitors have the opportunity to help cultivate the chempedak and see how local women weave coconut leaves into “khro” to protect the fruit from insects, and learn of the prawn-trapping techniques passed down over generations, before retiring to their own personl “khanam,” or floating house situated over the calm waters.