Thriving with Nature: Exploring Ecotourism in Thailand
Written by Li Laiyi and Woon Shijie, with inputs from Ng Yu Kang
The reopening of Thailand’s international borders in the post-pandemic era has heralded a new direction of tourism, one that is aligned with safe and sustainable travel. Overall, Thailand’s tourism industry has bounced back through the adoption of ecotourism. First, we seek to explore Thailand’s commitment to sustaining ecotourism under its Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) model, along with its significant schemes. Given that Thailand’s tourism sector is a significant contributor to its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), we would then examine the positive economic impact brought about by Thailand’s move into ecotourism as well as its accompanying limitations.
Thailand is in a good position to take advantage of the move, given the intersections between a high reliance on tourism, as well as 21st century trends. Already, we are seeing success in job creation and growth. However, it is equally crucial for the Thai government to sustain its progress by acknowledging and addressing limitations that threaten its long-term prospects, such as those of overcrowding, ecotourism’s high vulnerability to disasters, and greenwashing. Moving forward, we have suggested standards and frameworks for Thailand to secure the profits of a sustainable eco-tourism sector in the long run.
Introduction to Ecotourism in Thailand
Ecotourism: What is it all about?
Ecotourism is a “form of tourism that attempts to take responsibility for its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, by looking at the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities”. Around the globe, ecotourism is rising in demand and popularity, with over 80% of global travellers believing that ecotourism is important to counter the adverse impacts of tourism. With the growing availability of eco-friendly tourist accommodations and activities, given its environmental sustainability and enhanced travel experiences, the global ecotourism market is expected to reach an astounding USD526.16bn by 2027 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.24%.
Ecotourism in Thailand and the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) model
Tourism is especially significant in Thailand, being one of the world’s leading travel destinations known for its rich historical sites, unique culture, and delectable local cuisines and landscapes. Accounting for a fifth of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and about 20% of national employment, as well as knock-on impacts on informal sectors, Thailand’s tourism industry is a major contributor to the country’s employment and economic wealth. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand received 39.8 million international visitors in 2019 alone and collected USD60.5bn in international tourism receipts. Tourist revenues were more than the likes of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. As seen in Figure 1, Thailand’s tourism industry only seems to be growing exponentially from 2017 to 2019 with the total value of tourism’s contribution to Thailand’s GDP amounting to THB3028.78b in 2019, up until the 2020 pandemic-fuelled economic downturn, when Thailand’s GDP fell by about -6.1% y/y in 2020.
Post-Pandemic Tourism Revival: Going Green
The Thai government in 2021 announced plans to revive its tourism industry creatively in line with the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) model, signalling Thailand’s commitment to furthering ecotourism in its national agenda following the COVID-19 pandemic. Spanning from 2021 to 2026, the BCG model seeks to aid in Thailand’s recovery post-pandemic while targeting global environmental concerns. Taking inspiration from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the BCG model capitalises on Thailand’s strengths in biological diversity and cultural richness to employ technology and innovation in promoting secondary cities and rural communities as tourism spots. They also target niche market segments such as wellness tourism and cultural tourism, in their bid to stimulate sustainable economic growth.
Being supported by both the abundance of natural resources and man-made infrastructure as important enablers, the Thai government has pushed for local tourism businesses to adopt the BCG model. In turn, businesses have generally responded positively.
Notable Schemes in Thailand
The UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge
In line with its existing ‘No Foam No Plastic’ initiative, Thailand has been the first country to implement the UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge nationwide, with more than 500 hotels signing the pledge to eliminate single-use plastic and promote local culture. The changing nature of business needs also leads to a shift along the supply chain needed to sustain regular operations. This has resulted in a diverse range of support coming from local businesses, and profits as well. The growth of eco-tourism is important not just for greater tourism revenues, but also to support the growth of local businesses and productive labour.
Greater local conservation through activities in Nature
Thailand, being home to a myriad of natural attractions, provides ample opportunities for visitors to engage more in local conservation and activities that promote sustainability. This includes activities such as interactions with the mistreated national animals.
At the elephants of Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park, for example, visitors can learn more about the endangered species. Meanwhile, the new heaven reef conservation program ensures visitors can experience first-hand the range of marine conservation activities, including the maintenance of coral reefs to caring for baby turtle hatchlings.
More importantly, the BCG model has made a major impact through its greater promotion of community-based tourism, a type of excursion created for tourists to experience local communities. Community-based tourism is often concentrated in rural areas, extending the benefits of tourism to areas that historically had lower footfall and income streams as well.
Collaborative initiatives under the BCG model such as the joint effort between the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Thai Organic Consumers Association (TOCA) seek to promote organic tourism. In Phuket, for example, tourists are able to learn more about organic farming first-hand and collect their own produce to cook - straight from farm to pot. Local restaurants and hotels in Thailand are also sourcing directly from organic farmers. These initiatives are in conjunction with TOCA’s current platform which allows businesses to order local produce and consumers to search for organic farms for farm tours and restaurants that source their ingredients from local farmers.
In the process, ‘Earth Points’ can be earned through greater eco-friendly contributions from both businesses and consumers in the formation and sustenance of an organic society while increasing tourism revenue. These ‘Earth Points’ can be fully redeemed for rewards and promotions on the TOCA platform, further incentivising sustainable practices through the TOCA platform.
This creates a gamified ecosystem that creates a greater appreciation for the environment and strengthens tourism sustainability. Overall, greater exposure of local communities to tourist and business traffic helps create more revenue streams for local farmers, and their communities.
Positive Economic Impact
Rise in GDP and job opportunities for Thais
Following Thailand’s committed move to ecotourism within its tourism sector, TAT hosted an “Amazing Thailand Countdown 2023” on Dec 22 to celebrate its tourism achievements going into the new year. Mr Yuthasak Supasorn, the TAT Governor, commented that Thailand’s tourism sector has generated THB1.5tr in total tourism revenue, half of the pre-pandemic level seen in 2019.
Despite not being at pre-pandemic levels, Thailand’s revitalised tourism sector has boosted its GDP to reach a +4.5% y/y expansion in 3Q22, going against the odds of rising inflation and the global economic slowdown.
The Thai economy is now “growing at an accelerating rate” according to Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) which is predicting further growth of +3% to +4% in 2023. With the revival of tourist arrivals in Thailand in accordance with its BCG model, tourism in Thailand is expected to be among the main sectors to contribute to overall GDP growth once again. This is as it continues to strengthen in supporting jobs and incomes in related sectors as well.
Improved quality of life and income for local farmers
More specifically, given the greater prevalence of community-based tourism, greater income and work opportunities are automatically granted to local communities. The additional effects should not be understated. Tourism infrastructure is often a chicken-and-egg problem, with insufficient tourist amenities in rural areas often being a problem in raising revenues. However, through branding and natural tourism pipelines, Thailand is able to increase the amount of exposure and tourism less affluent communities receive without them supplying much capital in the first place. From these tourist activities, naturally, more hotels and restaurants can be set up, and survive. These benefits are further entrenched into local communities, for example when local farmers sell their produce to these establishments.
Eco-Tourism: Limitations and Challenges
Tourism is considered to be one of the most essential drivers of Thailand’s economic progress and in alleviating unemployment. Overall, Thailand is fortunate enough to have multiple geographical and comparative advantages in terms of lifestyle, culture, and food agronomy to make the sustainable tourism market a sizable one. However, eco-tourism comes with its own sets of limitations which must be addressed or at least mitigated by the public sector for continuity.
Overcrowding is one of the major concerns for Eco-tourism, as it can lead to undesired impacts on the wildlife, habitats, eco-system and even the indigenous community living in the area. Greater exposure to untouched areas leaves an environmental footprint the area might not be sufficiently well-equipped to handle.
One prominent example would be the closure of Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi in southern Thailand. It was a popular tourist destination for many years, known for its crystal-clear blue water, and towering limestone monoliths that have been worn by millions of years of seawater ebbing. Having this magnificent scene destroyed by tourists is considered by many to be heartbreaking. The effects are detrimental: in June 2000, 70-80% of the bay’s reef was intact. In 2018, less than 8% remained. Thai authorities had to resort to a closure of the bay in June 2018 for conservation efforts despite the large revenue it was generating for the country.
Fortunately, COVID-19 has allowed Thailand’s ecosystem to reset and recover in a more sustainable way. While COVID-19 has negative effects on Thailand’s tourism industry in terms of the economy, it provides plenty of opportunities for sustainability efforts in 2022, such as natural resource restoration. With the abundance of eco-tourism hotspots, the right question to ponder is not how natural resources can be recovered. But instead, how the recovered natural resources may be sustained in the long run.
The solution to sustained usage of natural resources to meet the demands of eco-tourists is through public sector strategy and action. Overcrowding is not the sole result of eco-tourism. Overcrowding is the result of unplanned and poor regulations, that prioritise maximising revenue over conservation. If organisations carry out their operations at the expense of the communities and indigenous people's way of living, Thailand can expect many recurrences of Maya Bay’s tragedy. Repeated offences might mean that rescue efforts may no longer suffice.
High Vulnerability to Natural and Human-Induced Hazards
Thailand is highly vulnerable to natural and human-induced hazards such as tsunamis, storms, droughts, landslides, forest fires and epidemics. The most recent trending disaster in Thailand is flooding. Despite the nature of the hazard, the number of casualties remains relatively high in the millions in regions since the 1990s. The areas being hit the hardest by the hazards are normally eco-tourist hot spots such as the Phuket Tsunami disaster in 2004.
While eco-tourism as a driver of growth is good news for the Thai economy, eco-tourism is highly prone to the effects of natural disasters. One event can lead to a loss of revenue lasting weeks or even months before tourists deem it safe to return. Thailand would also incur high costs to fund relief and restructuring efforts. Hence, it is crucial for the Thai government to consistently upgrade the country’s capital to dampen the effects of natural disasters on Thailand’s economic growth. Having strong industrial policy upgrades would also allow room for career mobility such that the employment rate does not take a sudden dip.
Some policy suggestions by the Asian Development Bank for Thailand include strengthening research and development to support technology absorption. While a reliance on tourism is not inherently wrong, the natural inherent risk means that aggressively diversifying through adopting high-growth sectors is important. With the increasing prevalence of natural disasters due to climate change, diversification becomes especially more pressing.
The Thai government can consider strategically positioning itself to promote the country as a high-tech centre and research base for global firms. This would entice more foreign direct investments which in turn generate more jobs and boost the Thai economy. However, climbing up the technological ladder also requires a simultaneous improvement in workers’ skill levels. It is crucial to increase availability and access to highly specialised vocational education and training and ensure that content is systematically aligned with industry needs. Nonetheless, over the past few decades, Thailand has established a robust manufacturing sector. The focus is on attracting investments for mid/high-tech manufacturing. One area that Thailand could exploit would be Electric Vehicles (EV) and other sustainable products, which align with the eco-tourism sector’s objective to better protect the environment. Already, there are plans to increase EV production to 30% of all cars by 2030. Thailand is also the world’s fifth-largest rare earth metals producer. As renewables become more widely produced due to the world’s quest for net-zero, and the West looking to diversify its renewable production sources outside of the Middle Kingdom, Thailand has a potential opportunity to increase its exports or move up the renewable supply chain with the abundance of these metals.
Greenwashing is another prominent issue. Greenwashing is a practice in which businesses make false or misleading claims about their environmental practices to appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, greenwashing is a common practice in the tourism industry, including in Thailand's eco-tourism sector.
Naturally, the booming sector allows eco-tourism operators to reap high revenue and accelerate expansion. Hence, firms are more likely to jump onto the trend hoping to get a fair share of the eco-tourism business. Rushing into the sector with profits as the main objective, while neglecting the essence of sustainability, would inevitably cause greenwashing.
Fortunately, the Thai government launched a few initiatives to tackle the issue of greenwashing. One of the notable ones is the ‘GSTC-Recognized Standard’ status launched by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. Attaining the GSTC-Recognized status signifies that a sustainable tourism standard has been reviewed by GSTC technical experts and the GSTC Accreditation Panel and deemed equivalent to the GSTC Criteria for sustainable tourism. This prevents firms from fabricating results as the certificate can only be achieved after an in-depth and comprehensive check by the experts. The GSTC programs serve to recognise genuine practitioners of sustainable tourism, which in turn builds confidence and credibility with consumers.
However, GSTC has its limitations. The GSTC uses a compliance-based approach, meaning that businesses are expected to meet specific requirements in order to be certified. While this approach can be useful in ensuring that businesses meet minimum standards, it may not necessarily encourage innovation or continuous improvement beyond the requirements of the standard. One possible outcome could be that thriving firms may not see the need to transition to cleaner energy or better environmental practices so long they can continue generating profits.
To sum it up, a healthy and sustainable eco-tourism practice should aim to have the following:
Ensure sustainability by limiting the number of tourists in an area. This prevents overcrowding which can lead to detrimental damage to the environment as mentioned above. It did lead to the closure of popular tourist hot spots, taking a toll on Thailand’s eco-tourism revenue.
Maximise local economic benefits by including residents in projects, encouraging local investments and regulating foreign ones. Not only would an inclusive eco-tourism sector generate more jobs for the locals, but the Thai government could also better control the extent of exploitation of natural reserves when the operators are local as compared to when it is foreign companies. This includes fair distribution of the eco-tourism revenue to locals whose spaces were used in the process.
Regular collaboration between government officials and conservation groups. It is crucial to tap into the environmental knowledge and advice of non-governmental groups in the space. In doing so, it allows for the better and timely protection of the natural reserves. It adds resources and capital to groups already doing good work while reducing the need for more costly government intervention. Enhancing these synergies could strike a sustainable balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
While Thailand’s eco-tourism sector has its merits such as the abundance of guided environment tours, sustainable resorts and nature conservation, the country still has some ways to go. The introduction of Thailand’s Bio-Circular-Green Economy Model (BCG), which aims to use natural assets more efficiently with the least impact on the environment, is a good stepping stone moving forward for the eco-tourism sector. However, it is essential that the Thai government continues to ramp up efforts in protecting the country’s natural resources given the surge in tourists following China’s reopening. Moving forward, Thailand's sustainable tourism market size is estimated to grow tremendously at a 17.8% CAGR from 2022 to 2032, which represents nearly 3-4% of the share in the global tourism industry. Such a bright outlook for the eco-tourism market is not an opportunity to miss out on. With proper regulation and new initiatives, Thailand can anticipate many fruitful years ahead.
Li Laiyi is a Research Analyst covering Southeast Asia the SMU Economics Intelligence Club (SEIC) and a third-year social sciences undergraduate majoring in Politics, Law, and Economics.
Woon Shijie is a Research Analyst covering Southeast Asia at SEIC, and a second-year economics undergraduate.
Ng Yu Kang is the Director of the Southeast Asia desk at SEIC.
The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not represent the official position of the SMU Economics Intelligence Club. This article may not be reproduced without prior permission from SEIC and due credit to the author(s) and SEIC.