Heading for the hills

Thailand’s luxury eco and cultural tourism market is finding plenty of new visitors attracted to the physical and moral high ground

Dennis Duncan
September 10, 2009

Thailand’s luxury eco and cultural tourism market is finding plenty of new visitors attracted to the physical and moral high ground

I am waking up in Thailand’s high country. Swirling mists compete with the cool morning sunshine for ownership of the dawn. The smell of cooking fires, damp hay and tea hang in the air. I huddle on the terrace of the bamboo and thatch bungalow I stayed in the previous night. Below me, down a steep hill, roosters begin to crow.

Golden land: a rainbow from Lanjia Lodge (Manfred Ilg)
Photo by Manfred Ilg.
Golden land: a rainbow from Lanjia Lodge

I shake off the morning chill and think about the scores of tourists who have trekked across northern Thailand over the past couple of decades, bringing with them their inevitably discarded garbage, bizarre cultural nuances, languages and customs. How has this onslaught affected the people who have for so long lived in traditional bliss out here in the hills?

As if on cue, a boy saunters out in front of my bungalow in traditional red woven smock and hat, catches my curious eye and stops. He turns, giggles and sings: “Billy Jean is not my lover, she’s just a girl who claims that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.” Laughing frantically he almost trips trying to perform a moonwalk, waves and runs down the hill.

A world away and hundreds of miles south in the rattle and hum of Bangkok, Manfred Ilg, the general manager of Asian Oasis, a local tour operator that offers “real experiences” through first-hand encounters with people living in Thailand’s north, tells me how mass-trek operations are affecting local hill tribes.

“What you have to understand is that the local people all want to see development in their communities,” he explains. “They want a modern life, but they also want to keep their culture, religion, language and social structures. They want to keep their identities while at the same time becoming more aware of western perceptions of the world and how they will affect them.”

Over the hill: Elephant trekking tourists at the remotely situated Lisu Lodge
Over the hill: Elephant trekking tourists at the remotely situated Lisu Lodge

Asian Oasis has been conducting eco and cultural tours from Lisu Lodge, about 50km north of Chiang Mai, for almost 15 years. In that time the company has witnessed many cultural clashes between tribal groups and tourists. “Time and time again we see westerners who are shocked when they see tribal people listening to the radio or wearing western-style clothing, such as hiking boots,” he says. “What visitors have to understand is that these people want more modern conveniences in their lives without too much in the way of interference from western values.”

Ilg explains that all the employees at the lodge are Lisu villagers as are the tour guides. Through training locals in language and hospitality and giving them lines of credit – Asian Oasis has forged partnerships with local non-governmental organisations to provide small loans from the company’s profits – it is possible for them to stay in their home villages and learn new skills.

“One of the main objectives of responsible eco and cultural tourism is to empower local communities – not control them,” he said, adding that tourism in the hill tribe region presents a way out of poverty and teaches people how to balance commerce with heritage. Lisu Lodge boasts that it is in the forefront of responsible tourism, which is a catchphrase that has to be constantly redefined, according to Nick Ascot, director of North by North East, a speciality tour company that tailors one-of-a-kind travel experiences in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.

“Responsible tourism is about offering people ways to enjoy an experience without causing any environmental damage,” he says pointing out that his company looks at small scenarios such as bicycle tours in Bangkok, so clients don’t feel bad about polluting the environment with gas-guzzling tour buses, and larger scenarios such as taking night trains to the north instead of flying.

“In both cases you will get to see more of real life in Thailand and be part of local experiences.” 

Guests at Khum Lanna learning the secrets of traditional Northern Thai cooking
Guests at Khum Lanna learning the secrets of traditional Northern Thai cooking

What affect did the global economic downturn have in business? Will responsible tourism fall by the wayside as tour agents and operators scramble to corner an increasingly smaller market? “Of course, business is worse than last year and numbers overall are declining,” says Ilg. “But numbers and losses on a comparative level are much less than, say, that of the five-star hotel industry. This is mainly because you don’t have to spend a lot on an eco-tour. We’re finding that in the current climate, people who would spend money on a five-star holiday are more willing to tighten their belts and look into eco-tourism with a recognised company as an alternative.”

His advice for operators in the current downturn is to be wise. “Everybody in the tourism industry is offering reduced rates and letting go staff to offset costs, which is lowering standards across the board and degrading quality. You can see it everywhere. Companies are eliminating marketing and public relations from their budgets when this is the last thing they should be doing.”

Ascot agrees: “My advice is for eco and cultural tour providers to put a greater emphasis on service. Training local staff should be a priority in a downturn. Tour operators also need to come up with ideas and infrastructure that cannot easily be copied.”

He offers up examples of operators that have revamped traditional boats to be more luxurious or are working in tandem with NGOs and government agencies on community-based projects.

“Community-based tourism development projects supported by international donors where locals can learn about tourism without having to leave their homes are really taking off in Thailand,” he says. “It is a growing market. Roughly 50%-60% of tourists in the five-star category are saying that they would give up one of their vacation days to ‘help out’ a poor village.

“I speculate that there will be a growing market in eco and cultural tourism for the five-star segment.”  

Back in the hills, I follow the moon-walking boy to a hut where his 70-year-old grandmother is watching a crackling fire steam sticky rice for their morning meal. In the corner, a young woman in long, patterned skirt and traditional cloth hat weaves yarn on a large loom. It’s a heartening scene.

The boy looks at me and giggles. He stands very seriously and then performs what can be best described as a child’s version of a traditional Lisu dance – a series of awkward hopping and bending movements, much like a Native American dance without the warpaint.

Balance between East and West is once again achieved.


-Tourism is seen by most as a valuable addition to the economy of the mountain peoples

-Visitors often offend hill tribe people. The villagers recognise this as (usually being) ignorance and are forgiving, but stress the need for education of visitors

-Despite the above, tourists are generally very welcome, and the experience of meeting them is usually interesting and enjoyable

-Tourist guides often give false information to their guests, for a variety of reasons, including lack of knowledge, understanding and pursuit of personal profit

-Cooperation between guides, tour companies and hill tribes would greatly improve hill tribe tourism

-Hill tribe people in the villages should be more directly involved with the industry, either as registered guides, or village guides appointed by the village and tour operators

-Profits from hill tribe tourism should be more equally shared between operators and villages


Asian Oasis is a fascinating collection of mythical journeys – cruises, tours and treks – that take travellers to rich, authentic first-hand encounters with unique people and places.

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North by North East customises specialty tours in Thailand, Laos and along the mighty Mekong River. They are also a leading provider of tours and travel services to Thailand’s Issan region.

More info at

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