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Organic tourism: but what of the farms, farmers and ecology it relies on?

Mekong Eye

The Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Tourism sector strategy is built on the principles of sustainable tourism development that is economically viable and contributes to sustainable development, gender equality, and poverty reduction in the GMS. But what about the future of the natural and cultural assets such tourism relies on?

 Two week ago the program hosted a meeting in Bangkok around the theme of organic tourism, which, according to their Thai partner’s website represents, “…far more than just tourists visiting organic farms. It involves hotels, restaurants, supermarkets etc, buying produce from local farmers and communicate to their customers the importance of organic food.

“Organic is not only good for health, they say, “… but also kind to the environment and supports local farmers. Farm visits can be considered as additional activities to bring their customers to meet and understand the farmers. In this way, farmers’ livelihood will not be over exploited, thus rendering Organic Tourism sustainable.”

There’s a major contradiction here, however. Amidst this talk about helping local farmers, land grabbing of their farms continues unabated. Here’s a recent story (in Thai) about a letter presented to the Thai prime minister protesting his policies to allow community farms to be usurped for industrial development. Moreover, “smart agriculture” policies are now the norm, which push increased technology for factory food production over the community-based, poly-culture, native plant farming which organic tourism wants to promote.

The recent workshop was also designed as a brainstorming session for the first Mekong Trends Symposium on Organic Tourism to be held in Bangkok alongside the 4th UN World Tourism Organization’s World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism between 30 May-1 June 2018.

Meanwhile, the unique ecology within many parts of the GMS that too attracts the more holistically minded tourists is also suffering, and too not a priority for these tourism organizations to steadfastly defend and protect.

Yesterday, Asia Sentinel published a revealing story about the accelerating loss of forests, particularly in Cambodia, and posing the question if there’s even a future for ecotourism.

“National parks and wildlife sanctuaries across Southeast Asia have been coming apart at the seams, suffering the hydra-headed scourges of illegal logging, illegal mining, poaching, encroachment, road-building, dam-building, downsizing, and outright de-gazetting. Some questions whether protected areas in the tropics work at all.”

Too often it seems tourism interests are all too eager to exploit natural and cultural gifts, but slow to recognize, much less prioritize, the hard work needed to address the underlying threats working to undermine the very products they are marketing.