Ethical tourism is tricky. If ever it did, the ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ brand of travel ethics doesn’t stand up to scrutiny during the era of climate crisis. The severely negative impact of mass tourism has blighted both historic cities and pristine natural habitats, and driven exploitation of people and nature. Travel can contribute to a greater understanding between peoples, but mass tourism is not a great vehicle for building mutual respect or sustainable economic development.
The exploitation of vulnerable minorities displaced by war is probably not something most of us would knowingly sign up for. Yet the case of the Kayan people highlights that even this over simplification is fraught with ethical dilemmas.
I was in Chiang Mai working with a local organisation providing mobile health services to remote communities in the region. These are mainly poor hill tribe villages that often lack basic services for whom a mobile clinic is the only health care they can access. In one Hmong village we were treated to musical and theatrical performances. Literacy isn’t guaranteed, and these oral storytelling traditions help spread the word.
It’s important to remember that Thailand is, essentially, a military dictatorship fronted by a compliant monarchy to add a facade of respectability. This alone should be an ethical dilemma, but it doesn’t seem to deter the millions of foreign tourists who visit each year. Hill tribes have been promoted heavily by the government as a cultural highlight of the country. It’s not all sun, sand and the sex trade.
The Hmong are one of several hill tribes, and their history is typical of many other minority ethnic groups in this region. Originally from Southern China, the Hmong migrated to Laos and Vietnam, and small numbers to Thailand. It was the Vietnam War, and the triumph of the communists in Vietnam and Laos that forced hundreds of thousands of Hmong to flee in the 1970s. Many arrived as refugees in Thailand and those that weren’t forcibly repatriated remain there … which brings me back to the Kayan.
Originally from Myanmar, Kayan women are famed for wearing coiled brass rings that seemingly elongate their necks. Those Kayan in villages in Northern Thailand fled or are descendants of those who fled conflict in Myanmar – a legacy of British colonial rule in Burma. In 1948, Karenni demands for an independent state led to a civil war with the Burmese government – another brutal military dictatorship. Thousands have died, many more displaced.
When the Kayan fled to Thailand in the 1980s they were viewed as economic migrants not refugees and were refused the right to Thai citizenship. Those that left refugee camps for villages found themselves in a trap: they couldn’t legally seek work outside the villages and had their freedom of movement restricted. Thai authorities quickly realised the tourist potential of the exotic ‘long neck’ women and the villages became tourist attractions.
Opportunities for education and employment were limited and the villages had few modern facilities because, well, tourists don’t want ‘modern’ in a traditional village. Tourists pay an entry fee to walk amongst the wooden homes, snap photos, buy handmade weavings and even spend the night. Villagers often don’t receive all the proceeds and have no legal status to stop exploitation by those who run the villages.
The majority of tourists visiting these facsimiles of Kayan villages do so as part of multi-stop tours and reports of tourists behaving disrespectfully are common. Yet, while every instinct might scream ‘boycott them’, the reality is that as long as the Thai authorities refuse to grant the Kayan basic rights, tourism is a lifeline they can’t afford to lose. There’s much not to like about the arrangement, but visiting respectfully, asking politely for photos and spending money with the women is an ethical choice.
There were few tourists the day a colleague took me me to visit a village several hours outside Chiang Mai. The extraordinary Kayan women gracefully agreed to have their photos taken, I bought some weavings, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re part of the problem.