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Thailand's indigenous women break tourism barrier

Soe Aubomo, one of the Thai-Karen guides of Chai Lai Sisters, leads an elephant at dawn. (Photo by Oz Go)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- Deep in the jungle of Mae Wang, two hours drive southwest of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, five Thai-Karen women banded together to do something their community had never heard of: They started a company run entirely by women. It was only later they realized they might have made national history by becoming Thailand's first tour company run exclusively by indigenous women.

Supported by seed funds from the Mae Wang-based nonprofit Daughters Rising, the group, calling themselves Chai Lai Sisters, opened for business in September. The women all hail from the Karen hill tribe ethnic group that dwells near the Thai-Myanmar border. All the women at Chai Lai Sisters are under the age of 30, and come from ethnic hill tribe villages near Mae Wang.

Their company specializes in what it calls "immersive" homestays and eco-friendly tours in the women's home villages. Gender equality is a core tenet of the company, not just in terms of employment but also in the types of interactions and experiences they offer tourists on their programs, which showcase the skills, knowledge and lifestyles of hill tribe women.

Mujit, left, a Karen village girl, and Nukul Chorlopo, a co-founder of Chai Lai Sisters, at a forest temple in Mae Wang. (Photo by Oz Go)

"Karen women know many things, like how to find medicine in the jungle from plants and how to weave our clothes," said Nukul Chorlopo, one of the co-founders of Chai Lai Sisters. "It's amazing for people from Europe to see, because they're so different."

Golo Wararom, another co-founder, says this gender-sensitive cultural exchange with foreigners has inspired village women to be more creative and to take pride in their lifestyles.

"They cannot speak English, but they're learning little by little," Wararom said. "And they have many ideas, like maybe we can show foreigners how to cook in our cultural way, or how we make clothes... it makes me very happy."

Golo Wararom, one of the co-founders of Chai Lai Sisters, believes the sustainable tours her company runs is helping Karen hill tribe women find employment and preserve their culture. (Photo by Alexa Pham)

Chai Lai Sisters represents a niche business that is increasingly in demand in the era of socially responsible and eco-conscious tourism. According to a 2015 World Travel and Tourism Council report, the defining characteristic of the tourism industry over the next 20 years will be a trend toward sustainability. A Nielsen survey also found that the percentage of consumers willing to pay more for sustainable products and services increased from 55% to 66% between 2014 and 2015.

Indigenous operators show the way

Tour operators on the ground acknowledge growing interest in sustainable, community-based tourism. Alexa Pham, founder of Daughters Rising, the non-profit that provided funds and vocational training to Chai Lai Sisters, says the Thai tourism industry has room for improvement.

"I think tourists feel like they're getting ripped off with a generic experience because tour companies are so focused on profit," Pham said. "A lot of people get swept into these joint-group tours for 30 people and everyone has the same exact experience that's manufactured and not authentic. People don't want that anymore. Travelers are much more savvy."

Tourists on a Chai Lai Sisters tour wade in a river that runs through the co-founders' Karen villages near Mae Wang. (Photo by Bay Tlachu)

Rather than following the model of large, generic group tours, Chai Lai Sisters focuses on a more personal approach, taking smaller groups on site visits that are designed to limit environmental impact. As well as showing tourists less visible sides of the region and its culture, the group emphasizes ways of preserving Karen heritage and fostering gender equality.

In this light, companies like Chai Lai Sisters, stand to contribute to Thailand's tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 10% of gross domestic product but is looking for ways to add value and remain competitive in a growing market. As part of this drive, the government's Tourism Authority of Thailand is working with the Ministry of Tourism and Sports to advance community-based tourism as a way to meet the standards of "stability, prosperity and sustainability" set out in the national government's 2016-17 tourism development plan.

Bow Jeeno, one of the Thai-Karen guides of Chai Lai Sisters, stands in the rain in Mae Wang. (Photo by Oz Go)

On a more personal level, Chai Lai Sisters aims to provide better opportunities for the tour guides themselves. Gaining employment so close to home is both a boon and a rarity among the Karen, many of whom are stateless migrants or have limited access to education and opportunities. Even legal migrants and naturalized Thai-Karen, like the women at Chai Lai Sisters, often resort to taking "3D" jobs (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) in urban hubs, where they are isolated from family and community support networks. Instead, the Chai Lai Sisters have found a way to employ themselves in their local communities and retain important roles there.

But the path to such opportunities is difficult and tends to be limited to the lucky few. The founding members of Chai Lai Sisters are all graduates of the Daughters Rising hospitality program, which takes at least six months to complete and includes language classes five days a week and mandatory work hours at a guesthouse in Mae Wang.

The program seems a small commitment to these young women who are often accustomed to manual labor and bleak futures.

"Before I was a farmer, I was staff at 7-Eleven," says Chorlopo. "I thought I would always be staff and wake up at the same time every day and not take any days off. I would daydream about not being staff but I thought it was not possible because I had no money and I was not smart. Now I feel lucky, like a person who won the lottery."

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