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.
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.