Below you’ll find some details of our activities and thoughts in the responsible tourism area, along with some information on some specific projects that we’ve worked on recently.
All Points East’s group sizes are genuinely small, with scheduled tours usually limited to either 10 or 12 persons, (depending upon itinerary). Experience has shown that this offers major benefits in various areas, and is integral to our concept of responsible tourism.
- Socially, small numbers create a much more cohesive group with far less chance of cliques or ‘groups within groups’ – it’s often been described by those who travel with us as “more like a group of friends and not like a tour group at all”.
- Service is inevitably improved with a high ratio of guides and tour-leaders to customers and we are able to offer a more personalized service. Information and directions are passed on far more easily and a high level of flexibility can be maintained, which isn’t possible with larger groups.
- Transport; we are able to use smaller types of transport as well as making public transport more practical. i.e. pick–up trucks and minibuses instead of large coaches. This has practical as well as ecological benefits.Restaurants and Accommodation; we use smaller, locally run restaurants and accommodation that larger groups wouldn’t be able to do – again another essential element of our tours.
- Visting local people; Another significant advantage is when visiting local people, villages, tribal groups and so on, a smaller group has far less impact, is far less intimidating and there’s a much greater chance of a warm welcome and opportunities for genuine interaction. (No villager is going to invite 16 people in for a cup of tea!) Nature and the Environment: Similar benefits arise with respect to any nature based activities: hiking, snorkelling, bird watching etc. Not only do smaller groups have less negative impact on the natural environment but, as above, it is easier for a guide to transmit instructions and knowledge. There is also far more chance of spotting birds and wildlife with lower numbers.
Off the beaten track
Providing a balance between the well known ‘must sees’ and the off the beaten track ‘best kept secrets’ is what we’re all about. Not only taking in the famous sites and well known destinations, but also the rarely visited ones not usually included in tour itineraries, but which we believe provides a more authentic insight into the countries visited.
Not only does this mean you will visit sites which are more remote and which most people don’t get to see, but also that the people living in these less frequented areas will also get to benefit from the tourist dollar. The vast majority of tourism in SE Asian countries only touches a few key sites: e.g. in Cambodia only a very small percentage of visitors get to see anything other than the temples of Angkor and at a push Phnom Penh. In the case of Thailand the vast majority of the country’s tourism revenue is spent in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Samui and Chiang Mai .
People from Eastern Thailand hoping to benefit financially from tourism would more than likely end up having to go hundreds of miles to work in Bangkok or Pattaya; and anyone wishing to do the same in Western Cambodia would converge on Siem Reap, leading to social problems and depopulation in these rural areas and creating a serious imbalance in wealth between such regions.
Local food and meals are an essential part of any culture therefore an essential part of enjoying new and different cultures is discovering their traditional food. That’s why on all our tours, meals are, as much as possible, based on authentic regional food eaten in local restaurants, and whenever possible, we avoid eating in hotels and flashy tourist establishments. A Thai green curry eaten in a Western chain hotel is probably going to be altered for the Western palate and identical to those found in many UK high streets, whereas one eaten in a bustling night market is going to be the real McCoy!
This means better and more authentic food, and also means our custom is going directly to small cafés and market vendors rather than big businesses – and again provides more opportunities for interaction with local people.
By eating in this manner we are encouraging local people to offer local alternatives to visitors and indeed to increase pride in their traditional cuisines. It’s a sad state of affairs, and perhaps a reflection on many tourists, that in many areas, local people are of the impression that all foreigners want to eat pizzas and drink Nescafe!? It’s nice to show the locals otherwise.
Never fear, we won’t force anyone to eat fried bugs, (though please feel free to try them!) and hygiene considerations are always high on our priorities – as are traveller’s chilli tolerance levels! Note also that most Asian cuisine can easily accommodate vegetarian diets, and again with smaller groups individual tastes can be far more easily catered for.
We are often asked why we support the use of elephants in the tourist industry and on some occasions travellers have queried the ethics behind this.
We feel that this is largely due to a lack of background information, a misunderstanding of the context and certain incorrect myths sometimes circulated by otherwise well-meaning organizations.
Thailand, and to a degree Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, see the employment of elephants in the tourism industry. There is a huge population of domesticated elephants in Thailand, many of which have been domesticated for generations. They were used for transportation of goods and people, by the military, as well as for working in industries such as logging and agriculture but are now practically never used in any of these fields.
Several SE Asian countries currently have problems with this huge population of domesticated elephants for which there is no longer any employment outside of the tourist industry, so to dispel the first myth under no conceivable circumstances would wild elephants any longer be caught and domesticated for these purposes.
Domesticated elephants generally breed more rapidly, have a much lower death rate amongst the young and live to be older than their wild counterparts – due to better conditions, sufficient food and lack of predators.
It is unfortunately extremely difficult to rehabilitate Asian elephants born in captivity, to live in the wild, plus the current Thai wild elephant population is relatively stable and probably more or less optimal for the amount of remaining forest cover. Furthermore several national parks already have problems with wild elephant overcrowding so rehabilitation is not a feasible solution. Malaysia which has a small population of domesticated elephants but a large, protected wild one has critical overcrowding problems in several areas, so secondly – no, they can’t all simply be released into the wild.
Keeping domesticated elephants is very expensive so, unless they are able to be employed in the tourism industry, there is absolutely no solution for many owners other than to have their animals put down. Many unemployed mahouts bring their animals into tourist cities such as Phuket, Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh begging to tourists. (“Buy some bananas for the elephant?”) It is not uncommon to see a poor elephant walking down an 8-lane highway heading into downtown Bangkok. This has been clamped down upon by the Thai government, but with little success. (It is notoriously difficult to arrest an elephant and arresting the mahout and leaving the animal alone is not an option.) Also at the end of the day it means more mahouts without a livelihood or means of support for their animals. However we do strongly discourage the practice of feeding elephants in towns in this way, although clearly alternative sources of employment for the mahouts and their animals need to be provided.
Having elephants play football to entertain tourists is certainly not an ideal solution but, in view of the above, and indeed lack of any reasonable alternatives, we would certainly condone the use of elephants in the tourist industry. Out of the thousands of mahouts in Thailand, there may well be some less scrupulous than others, but in our many years of experience of visiting elephant camps, the vast majority seem to be very well run and the animals very well cared for.
If we ever have bad reports of a particular mahout then he gets reported to the management of the camp, and if we ever suspect the management of condoning such activities, the camp gets reported to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. (Since it is a key aspect of tourism in Thailand. TAT are genuinely concerned to ensure that all elephant camps are run correctly.) Elephants that are subject to excessive coercion are not going to be suitable for tourism anyway and an elephant that is scared is very dangerous – to his mahout let alone anyone else. Elephants are also notoriously stubborn animals and it is nigh on impossible to teach one of them to do tricks that it is not happy doing. So finally – the majority of elephants employed in the tourism industry are well looked after and no more mistreated than any other domesticated animal be it for example cat, dog or horse.
If governments see that creating and maintaining National Parks can create revenue, then it is an incentive for them to preserve such areas and create new ones instead of short term gain from logging, plantations etc.
If local communities can see that National Parks, Forest Reserves, Wildlife Sanctuaries etc bring in revenue for local communities and employment for local people then it is an incentive for them to respect such protected areas and participate in tourism schemes.
We therefore feel it is essential to incorporate as many such protected areas into our itineraries as possible – not only to show the scenery and exotic flora and fauna to visitors, but also to encourage authorities and local people to establish and take care of such areas.
Below is a list of just some of the National Parks and Protected areas included on All Points East tours.
Phnom Kulen National Park – spectacular scenery, unique flora and great historic interest
Tonle Sap, UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – wetlands, bird-life, traditional lifestyles.
Khao Preah Viharn National Park – scenery and historic interest
Kep National Park – coastal scenery
Angkor Protected Landscape – secondary forest, bird-life and historic interest.
Stone Forest of Lunan National Park – limestone scenery & UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dali National Park – lake & mountain scenery, historic Dali Town.
Three Parallel Rivers National Park – mountain scenery, wildlife
Xe Pian National Protected Area – wetlands, extensive lowland forest, flora and fauna.
Nam Ha National Biodiversity Area – forest, mountains, flora and fauna
Belum Forest, Royal State Park – scenery, extensive primary forest, mountains, abundant flora and fauna
Penang National Park – coastal scenery, coastal and primary tropical forest, flora and fauna, meromictic lake
Perhentian Islands National Marine Park – coastal scenery and well preserved aquatic flora and fauna
Mount Kinabalu National Park – mountain scenery, rainforest, Mt Kinabalu
Tawau Hills National Park – lowland rainforest and volcanic features
Danum Valley Conservation Area – lowland primary rainforest and abundant flora and fauna
Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary – forest and orang utan rehabilitation centre
Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary – lowland rainforest and riverine flora and fauna, abundant birdlife and primates.
Yala West National Park – wildlife including large mammals.
Horton Plains National Park – wildlife and spectacular scenery.
Doi Suthep National Park – Mountain scenery including 3 distinct forest types, birdlife and important temple site.
Thung Yai Nareusan Wildlife Sanctuary – UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site – 3,000 km2 of protected forest and core part of Thailand’s Western Forest Complex.
Sai Yok National Park – River Kwai, historic sites and primary forest.
Soi Dao Wildlife Sanctuary – Montane forest, waterfalls and fauna and flora
Khao Luang National Park – Highest mountain in Sth Thailand – Tropical montane scenery, waterfalls.
Pha Taem National Park – Prehistoric cliff paintings and unusual rock formations.
Bach Ma National Park – spectacular mountain scenery
Nam Cat Tien National Park – well preserved lowland jungle and wildlife
There’s no denying tourism causes a lot of damage to coral and coral reefs – much of which is however very easily avoidable. Swimmers inadvertently touching or standing on coral is common and snorkelling boats dropping anchors on coral is another problem. The latter is increasingly rare, with mooring buoys now situated in many popular snorkelling sites but the former is still frequently seen. A lesser known source of coral damage, according to recent reports, is the toxic effects of many sun creams on coral reefs.
Avoiding a popular pastime such as snorkelling altogether is no solution. If no-one ever snorkelled or dived on a reef it wouldn’t be in pristine condition it would probably have been dynamited by fishermen long ago! Indeed it’s essential that the commercial potential of coral reefs is demonstrated to fishermen and local people to encourage protection. Taking tourists snorkelling is a good earner for fishermen and boat owners as well as snorkelling guides, and tourists will flock to an island, with their tourist dollars, that’s renowned for it’s great snorkelling.
We believe that with minimal instruction to snorkellers these problems can be avoided: clear instructions not to touch anything whilst snorkelling and under no circumstances to stand on coral and so on. (Many people aren’t always capable of identifying coral and may be convinced they’re standing on a rock rather than a large brain coral!) We would also recommend keeping sun cream use to a minimum and a t-shirt and light trousers in the style of Thai fisherman’s pants are more eco-sensitive solutions to avoiding sun burn whilst in the water.
Ban Khone School
One of the successful projects that All Points East and our customers have been involved in is raising the financing for the construction of a new village primary school in Don Khone Nua Village on Don Khone Island, Champassak Southern Laos. We have visited this village for a number of years on our Emerald Triangle and Mekong Adventure tours.
The existing ‘schoolhouse’ for this large village was, to say the least, pitiful (and roofless) and from approximately 2005 to 2007 a project was organized by Peter Cochrane from All Points East to collect donations from All Points East staff and past customers in order to provide funds for the construction of a new building, as well as some basic items for the finished school.
Here’s the results — not exactly beautiful but at least functional with solid walls, roof and toilet facilities for the kids and certainly much appreciated by all concerned.
Thanks again to all those involved for making a difference for the families and kids of a remote Lao village, and please look out for news on our upcoming project in Pak Si Village school near Luang Prabang, Nth Laos. Discussions have begun with the school teacher and donations have started!
Ban Nam Chang
Ban Nam Chang is a small village, a few miles outside of Huay Xai Town in North Western Laos, inhabited by people of the Lanten ethnic minority group. The Lanten people are part of the larger Yao/Dzao ethnic group originating in Southern China who migrated into Northern Laos, Vietnam and Thailand during the last century.
Like many other remote mountain dwelling groups, they have often been somewhat left out of development in lowland and urban parts of SE Asia — having lower education opportunities, poorer agricultural land, less access to health care and lower incomes.
We have been visiting this particular village for many years on our Lao tours and have built up a close relationship with the dynamic, young, village school-teacher Mr. Som Sy. (Indeed I’m sure anyone participating in one of our North Lao tours will remember him and his village well.)
As well as regular discussion with Mr. Som Sy, to organize contributions to the village school in the form of text books, crayons, sports equipment etc, other assistance to the village undertaken by All Points East staff and customers includes financing and facilitating 2 eye operations for village kids and more recently, buying an electricity generator for Ban Nam Chang village which is as yet without either electricity or running water.