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Eco-Tourism in Thailand: The Case for Promoting Environmentally-Sensitive Travel to Chinese Visitors

Thailand has emerged as one of the most popular overseas destinations for Chinese holiday-makers with more than 500,000 tourists arriving this year. Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

China’s growing partnerships with Southeast Asia in the past decade, thanks largely to its Belt and Road Initiative championing the “China Dream‘, has attracted an influx of Chinese tourists into the region each year. Many Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia and Thailand, have even offered visa exemptions and tour packages for inbound Chinese visitors.

In just less than 20 years, Chinese outbound tourists grew from 4.5 million to 150 million, an average annual growth of 16%. For some parts of Southeast Asia, Chinese tourists have been crucial in supporting the rapid growth of the regional tourism economy.

Chinese tourists snorkeling in the waters off Thailand’s Green Island in the Andaman Sea. Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

However, in Thailand, the tension between environmental protection and tourism development is growing, due to the one-sided, excessive pursuit of rapid economic growth within the local tourism economy. The lack of awareness of an eco-friendly tourism economy, tourists – Chinese and non-Chinese alike – have contributed to the destruction of ecological resources in Thailand.

To deal with this problem, it’s urgent for Bangkok to push for responsible tourism, which calls on tourists and their travel agencies to avoid damaging the environment, and to respect the locals. Authorities must take advantage of the momentum of China’s tourism recovery, and a growing class of Chinese tourists who now prefer to travel in smaller groups or individually.

These groups tend to pursue nature photography, camping in forests, and golf playing. They also like to experience local culture through homestays. The emerging travel trends of Chinese tourists, especially among the younger generations, mark a shift towards more sustainable and eco-friendly tourism.

Investing in ecological conservation, including eco-tourism activities, could generate $2 trillion in revenue for Southeast Asian countries, a Malaysian scientific advisory organization said. Travel platforms in neighboring countries, like Indonesia, have also started to move towards sustainable tourism.

Thailand has long struggled with the reputation of being a sex tourism hub, making it more vulnerable to human rights violations for women and children. Illegal wildlife trade is another huge problem, further endangering animals that are already on the brink of extinction.

The Thai government could work with travel agencies to minimize Chinese tourists’ exposure to sex tourism activities. It must also prevent any local businesses from selling wild animals while reminding local travel agencies that they cannot introduce Chinese tourists to animal trading.

Chinese visitors should be encouraged to live in family hotels, visit national parks and museums to appreciate Thai environmental, cultural, and historical heritage, learn local folk customs, and even engage in volunteer tourism.

Simultaneously, eco-friendly tourism must be actively promoted. Authorities and travel agencies can capitalize on social media marketing and travel influencers, which is popular in the Chinese market and plays a big role in influencing tourists’ decision on which destinations to visit.

A success story can be found in the Thai wildlife conservation NGO Conserve Natural Forests’s (CNF) efforts. CNF’s flagship program –  giving visitors opportunities to play with local wild animals – is now one of the most famous eco-tourism programs in Thailand.

Then, Chinese visitors should be encouraged to live in family hotels, visit national parks and museums to appreciate Thai environmental, cultural, and historical heritage, learn local folk customs, and even engage in volunteer tourism.

Developing and promoting green hotels is also important. ASEAN introduced the Green Hotel Standard in the 2010s – a certification process that aims at raising environmentally friendly and energy conservation within the Southeast Asian hotel industry.

A recent study showed that staying in green hotels can further improve Chinese tourists’ environmental awareness, including how to reduce waste and conserve energy. Other studies have shown that “in-group” opinions can be highly influential – this means recommendations by families, friends, and other significant individuals play a crucial role in the decision-making of Chinese tourists.

Therefore, so long as responsible tourism becomes an increasing norm, more Chinese visitors will follow the emerging local trend to practice responsible and green tourism.

Jason Hung is a final-year PhD in Sociology candidate at the University of Cambridge. He works as a Fellow at Harvard University Asia Centre. He is an incoming visiting scholar at National Taiwan University.

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