Thailand Is Reopening to Tourists. What Would a More Ethical Tourism Look Like?

Thailand Is Reopening to Tourists. What Would a More Ethical Tourism Look Like?
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

It’s unlikely that the inequalities that exist between Southeast Asia and wealthier countries are going to disappear soon. In the meantime, we must work towards more conscientious cross cultural encounters.

This month, Thailand reopened to tourists, allowing quarantine-free entry from visitors from 63 countries and territories. With an easier path to enter, there’s no doubt that many tourists will soon be flocking to the tropical country. Some will head north to the mountains, while others head south to the world-famous islands. One popular destination is Koh Phangan.

I recently spent three months in Koh Phangan. Like many who enter the small island in the south of Thailand , I was floored by the beautiful beach paradise, impressed with the vegan cafes, nature trails, and waterfalls. Had I arrived pre-Covid, there would have been the infamous Full Moon party to revel in.

On the surface, Koh Phangan is emblematic of Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” economy. Its population is scarcely above 10,000, yet more than a million visitors come to Koh Phangan annually, about half for the Full Moon party. It is, in many ways, a great place for a foreign national to make a life. But it is not a zone free of relationships of power.

Visitors will feel right at home since almost everybody on the island speaks English. In fact, many foreign nationals have made Koh Phangan their home. There are many foreign-owned businesses, from hotels to bars to restaurants. While Thailand’s islands suffered immensely from the lack of visitors due to Covid, Koh Phangan managed reasonably well because of its immigrants, including in recent years a rise in digital nomads, who have made a home there and have kept the island economically alive. 

Yet it was difficult for me to see the presence of foreign tourists as an unalloyed good. To be sure, I believe deeply in a Thailand that is multicultural, fully embracing migrants and tourists alike. But the cases of foreign nationals behaving in ways that violated local custom or law, sometimes with tacit leniency granted by authorities, leads me to think that a better kind of cross-cultural encounter is possible.

Reports of Covid-rules violations by foreign nationals have made this question all the more salient. In early 2021, for example, 89 foreign partygoers in Koh Phangan were arrested for violating restrictions on large gatherings. This may seem to be the epitome of the “ugly American” stereotype. But despite the media prominence given to these incidents, they are not the best examples of what I’m talking about. Of course, Thais have violated these rules, too, and the Koh Phangan party that led to the arrests was organized by a Thai bar owner. And while flashy events like this often elicit an official response and public condemnation, it’s difficult to imagine this is the best we can expect. Still, I hope we can work towards a world in which tourists adhere to local Covid regulations.

A more illustrative case may be that of a British-Australian classmate in a yoga teacher training course I took on the island. The classmate went out at 3 a.m. to buy beers at a convenience store. The cashier didn’t allow her to purchase alcohol, as Thai law prohibits alcohol sales at that hour. So she stole the beer. Later that morning, police tracked her to our yoga school to arrest her.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A hotel swimming pool is seen closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic in Trat province, Koh Chang island, Thailand January 10, 2021.

Because of the yoga school’s reputation on the island, the school authorities talked the police out of arresting and deporting her and instead paid a fine. While the yoga school initially said that she would be removed from the course since students were prohibited from drinking, they later came back to tell us that she would be continuing the course.

I don’t know what the appropriate consequences should be for an incident such as this one, and Thailand’s current legal and political regime leaves much to be desired. But cases like this speak of a culture of general lack of regard for local custom and common law, and at root the people of Thailand.

Similarly, I have a foreign friend who’s been in Thailand for over a year who became angry with her landlord for not allowing her to dry her underwear and intimates on her balcony. She came to me in frustration that she couldn’t do what she wanted to in her own space and in her own house. If she had gotten to know Thai culture more deeply and put effort into studying Thai, she may have learned that it isn’t culturally sanctioned to hang her underwear in a publicly visible place.

How do locals on Koh Phangan view tourists?

It’s important to keep in mind the views of Thais who live and work in Koh Phangan. All the masseuses I talked to were not Koh Phangan locals and came from all over Thailand. They told me they followed their masseuse friends to the island to earn a living and generally see the influx of tourists as an economic opportunity for them. 

I also asked a Thai diving instructor on the island about his view of tourists. He remarked that overall, locals welcome all foreigners and the variety of cultures develops the language of the locals and helps expand their opportunities. He also mentioned that it’s easy for foreigners to open businesses on the island because Thailand’s laws are weak and it’s not as easy for Thais to start businesses; because of that, he chooses to support local people first, especially smaller businesses to increase their economic viability. 

Thais see foreigners as an opportunity to earn a living and to become more globally-minded. What’s really interesting to me about the way Thais view Western tourists is how it reinforces the inequality and power differences that exist.

It’s rather easy for foreigners to set up shop in Thailand and live a comfortable life. An English-speaking foreigner can come here and not learn the language and that’s completely expected, even if they plan to stay for a long time, but on the other hand, if a Thai migrant went to a Western country and didn’t learn the local language, we’d probably be excluded from much of public life.

Tourists and long term foreign residents contribute greatly to the Thai economy, society, and culture. But those from more economically developed countries, often white and white-passing, have a role to play in being responsible and conscientious living among Thai workers. 

It’s unlikely that the inequalities that exist between Southeast Asia and wealthier countries are going to disappear soon, but I’d still like to imagine a world where foreigners can not only learn about the place and enjoy the place that they’re visiting, but also learn to respect its people.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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