An Online Platform Promotes Fair Tourism in Rural Thailand

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Pai Somsak Boonkam was born in the rural village of Roiet, Northeastern Thailand. His parents were poor rice farmers who believed in education. When he was eight, they sent him to an uncle, so he could go to high school. He studied his way through the university and became an engineer.

Lack of Economic Opportunities in Rural Thailand

At 18 years old, he came back to his hometown, but found that all his friends had left the village too. Like in most rural areas of Thailand, there were no job opportunities in Roiet. Many of Boonkam’s friends had moved to the cities hoping for a better life.

Once there, they were faced with many difficulties. It was hard for them to adapt to urban life, and they would only get the low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, with no one to enliven it, the community’s culture was dying.

Boonkam wondered what he could do, but he had no idea. He went on with his own life, took a sabbatical and traveled to India, Laos and Myanmar. He then moved to the US, to pursue an MBA in sustainability. Finally, he came back to Thailand and was hired by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation. His job was to manage a rural homestay project in the Northern part of the country.

This is when he got the idea to use tourism as a development tool.

Tourism in Thailand

Since the 1960s, tourism has been the engine of the Thai economy. It now accounts for 20 percent of the country’s GDP. For years most tourists have been to Bangkok, the Southern beaches and the Islands. But more and more are now striving for an immersive experience of the local life. That’s why many travel agencies offer what they call “sustainability tours.”

For Boonkam, these are just marketing tools and have zero benefit for the locals. Villages on the tourist route have become like “zoos.” One day, while he was working in a village, a bus of tourists arrived. All they did was chase the villagers, to take their pictures, and none bothered to talk to them. Twenty minutes later, they were gone to the next spot…

For the villagers, this was a great annoyance, for which they hardly received anything. Hotel chains and tour operators get 70 percent of the income generated by tourism. Less than 10 percent goes to the communities and hill tribes who still live in poverty. No wonder some are tempted to sell their traditional treasures to the tourists.

Sustainability

Boonkam believes there is another way to travel. He also believes that tourism can sustain the development of the communities. That’s why in 2012, he quit his job to start Local Alike. He was 31 at the time, and his ambition was to make the Thai tourism industry more just. And to do so, he would work with the communities to create authentic tourist activities.

Each tour promoted by Local Alike is designed by the villagers themselves. They decide everything – from the concept to the pricing. Even the guides are local people. Boonkam and his team give some support, making sure that the tourists’ expectations are met.

What’s more, Local Alike connects the local communities with their clients. They promote each project on their website, where the tourists can do their bookings.

A Source of Hope for the Future

In three years, Local Alike has developed tourism projects in 15 communities across Thailand. And everyone is already reaping the benefits!

Travelers can now delve into the local communities’ real life. So far, 1,300 tourists have participated in a tour or an activity. For the communities, it means 20 percent of extra income every year. And more than 2,000 jobs have been created.

Moreover, a dedicated development fund is formed for every participating village. Local Alike gives five percent of its profits and the community gives five percent of its income. The money is then used to finance local projects.

And it’s paid off, like in Suan Pa, north of Thailand. This hill tribe village was the first one to work with Local Alike. It is a hidden gem, yet it had a bad reputation among tourists. The locals would not pay any attention to the waste. Boonkam spent time explaining to them how important cleanliness was for the tourists. Right after, the villagers gathered to clean the whole place and its beautiful surroundings.

Soon, trekkers came back, bringing hope of a brighter future.

Google for Nonprofits Expands to 10 Asia-Pacific Economies

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Congratulations to non-governmental organizations in the Asia-Pacific region. In partnership withTechSoup, Google is now expanding its Google for Nonprofits program to ten new economies: Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Nonprofits can now apply to join the program to access a suite of free Google products and tools, including:

  • Google Ad Grants: Free AdWords advertising to promote their website on Google through keyword targeting.
  • Google Apps for Nonprofit: A free version of the Google Apps business productivity suite, including Gmail, Docs, Calendar, and more.
  • YouTube Nonprofit Program: Build their online presence with YouTube and overlay cards on their videos that link directly to their website.

Personally, I’ve used the Google for Nonprofits platform at two different organizations and it was a game-changer at both, specifically Google Apps.

The service can power enterprise-grade email services with a few clicks, giving organizations a legitimate yourname@NGOorganization.org email address (ie. not Gmail.com or Yahoo.com) and powerful email support systems that are actually easy to use. Google Apps also comes with their Drive, Sheets, Docs, and Forms tools, which can totally replace the Microsoft Office software suite and I find far superior to Microsoft’s online software products.

Nonprofits organizations can also leverage One Today, Google’s fundraising platform for Android devices. The app highlights cool projects from different organizations each day, and users can donate if they want to support the cause.

So if you have an NGO in the 10 new economies, get Google for Nonprofits today. You’ll be so glad you did!

Sai Fah: Gamified Disaster Risk Reduction for Southeast Asia

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Sai Fah: The Flood Fighter is the first gamification mobile app on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). The game follows the adventures of a young boy on a journey to reunite with his mother during a flood disaster. Players learn flood safety lessons as they encounter flood hazards, from live electrical current to dangerous wildlife.

The Thai version of Sai Fah was launched in January 2014. Shortly after its debut, the game reached the No.1 position in the Game/Education category on the iOS platform in Thailand and ranked among the top 70 overall apps in the country. Sai Fah is available in both Thai and English languages. Sai Fah was covered by many international media and became one of official education app recommended by the Ministry of Education in Thailand.

Sai Fah also incorporates a collection of teaching and learning materials on Disaster Risk Reduction in various formats for teachers and learners to download for extended explorations beyond the mobile application.

Sai Fah has been downloaded over 40,000 times in 114 countries and French and Bahasa Indonesia versions are coming up in 2015. UNESCO Bangkok also started to develop Sai Fah 2 on Earthquake and Tsunami experiences with the Red Cross and USAID.

Will Wikipedia Zero Inspire Local Language Content?

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The Wikimedia Foundation has launched Wikipedia Zero in Bangladesh, India Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand over the last two years. Wikipedia Zero is a “zero-rate” program that allows users to browse Wikipedia entries on their mobile phones for free thanks to a partnership between Wikimedia and the mobile carrier.

Wikimedia’s goal is to enable access to free knowledge for every single person on the planet, leveraging the ubiquity of the mobile phone. However, that information currently exists mainly in English. There are just 109,404 posts in Hindi for the 295 million native Hindi speakers, while the 365 million English speakers get 4,413,036 Wikipedia articles (and counting) to learn from.

And while I enjoy the benefits of English language domination on the public Internet, I feel we should pause a moment and think a bit about the pros and cons of yet another bastion of English being offered as a gift to the world.

Might it be better if Wikipedia Zero came with social cues and gamification that inspired more Hindi posts? Its not like the Indian government’s Vikaspedia will succeed by itself.

We need to recognize and empower all languages equally, so that the Internet can truly reflect the diversity that is our reality. We need a Wikipedia Plus that adds local knowledge, not just disseminates others’ distant information.