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Giving Back

Local Alike Builds Community in Thailand

by Pai Boonkam

Local Alike Builds Community in Thailand

Community Immersion with Local Alike. Photo: Courtesy of Local Alike.

Local Alike is a social enterprise with a mission to promote community-based tourism. Founder and Thai native Pai Boonkam created the organization from his firm belief that local tourism contributes to the preservation of native cultures while providing economic opportunities for the community to improve its livelihood. It's a win-win for travelers, who gain valuable experiences from making genuine connections with indigenous cultures. This, he believes, is the key to building sustainable economies. Pai tells us more about his organization below.

What inspired you to create Local Alike?

Local Alike started in an effort to solve three major problems related to tourism in Thailand:

1. Distribution
Thailand generates around six billion Thai Baht (roughly $187 thousand) per year from the tourism industry. However, the income from tourism mainly disperses around urban areas in favor of large enterprises like hotel chains and large travel agencies. Only a handful of local people benefit. Local Alike aims to distribute at least ten percent of this huge income to local communities, the true owners of Thailand's beautiful resources. 

2. Engagement
There are plenty of examples of how mass tourism has and will continue to be damaging to the local communities, both environmentally and socially. Travel agencies that offer sustainable and eco-tourism options for tourists often employ locals in supporting, labor-based roles. Local Alike seeks to reinvent these opportunities so that they directly engage local communities, teach them the skills to sustain their own industries, and immerse tourists into their uniquely beautiful cultures.

3. Connection
There are actually 200 established community based tourism organizations in Thailand. The issue is the lack of a reliable channel or platform to connect them directly to prospective tourists. Local Alike is dedicated to being this channel for them.

Eating

Locals and tourists sharing a traditional Thai meal. All Photos by Pai Boonkam.

You are Thai. Can you tell us about your background? What did you do before this?

I was born and raised in rural Thailand where I developed a deep appreciation for the ingenuity of rural cultures. I am even more fascinated by the role of sustainable livelihood. I completed a Bachelor's degree in Petrochemicals and Polymeric Materials Engineering and an MBA in Sustainable Management at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. After three years as an engineer for a German manufacturing company, I saved enough money to travel around Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and India. I saw many problems.

After watching burglars rob someone on the streets of India one day, I thought to myself: Could I do something to change this inequality and lack of economic opportunity? I decided to further my studies in Sustainability Management and returned to Thailand with a whole new perspective on social entrepreneurship. I created Local Alike with the goal to expose and share the wisdom of indigenous people to the mass tourism market. In return, I hope to develop sustainable products and services that have a positive impact on local communities.

Who benefits from your work?

Our strategy enhances local communities through income generation, job creation, honor of local culture, preservation of traditions, environmental conservation, and educating the public on cross-cultural empathy. We work to promote unique indigenous cultures while promising not to deteriorate them through tourism activities. We act as a liaison between local entrepreneurs and tourists to ensure that both parties' expectations are met.

What can volunteers expect on a trip with your organization?

First and foremost, we want our volunteers to learn, teach, and share experiences with Thai locals. Second, we aim for volunteers to develop genuine and lasting relationships with hosts through simple and fun volunteer activities. We avoid providing own tour guides in an effort to encourage locals to be the leaders of their own communities, a hands-off approach that supports our belief that the locals know best.

Kids

Singing and dancing.

Whats the hardest part about working with local Thai communities? The most rewarding?

We work by planning with the communities, not for them. Our message for them is that we trust their knowledge and judgment on whether or not they are ready to welcome tourists. However, this often takes longer than expected, and adjusting to specific time frames can be difficult and often translates to higher costs.

It always brings a smile to my face when I think of my time eating, joking, and just being friends with the people we work with. The locals call us from time to time to update us on their lives. They always invite us to weddings and other special events. These connections are priceless.

How does each trip differ from community to community?

Trips differ based on each community's specific landscape and way of life. For instance, a community located in Southern Thailand by the ocean will have a lifestyle highly dependent on the sea, while those up north are experts in living on the hills. Our team, together with the locals, will come up with various activities that are based on the resources available to the community.

Tell us about a lost in translation moment.

One of the most common fears we have when we approach new communities is the culture and language barrier. Making assumptions is unavoidable. However, we usually find that miscommunications are easily circumvented during our time working together. The genuine relationship we create allow us to use our most intuitive senses to make connections through hand-gestures, facial expressions, and verbal cues. Assumptions turn out to be arbitrary fears. Human connection comes naturally when we all let our guard down and embrace differences.

What is one thing you feel people should know about Thailand but don't?

There are more than 200 local communities in Thailand that offer off-the-beaten-track travel experiences, each run by locals that take pride in what they can offer. Locals are ready and excited to share their beautiful natural landscapes and cultures with tourists. Everyone should experience and support them.

River

Kayaking in the jungle. 

Did starting this organization change the way you view global giving?

It did. The more I work with the locals, the more I come to realize that despite their lack of formal education, local leaders have a very strong desire to develop their communities by themselves. They don't want to be passive receivers, as outsiders often perceive them to be. They have the capability to share invaluable stories and experiences with tourists.

Where do you want your organization to be in five years?

Local Alike hopes to be reliable platform dedicated to community-based tourism and development. Additionally, we want to serve as a long-term partner through which local communities can generate income from sustainable tourism. In effect, we would like to become a showcase for sustainable tourism in our region. We plan to expand to at least 100 communities in Thailand and neighboring countries. Our ultimate goal is to help our communities achieve self-sustainability.

What is one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs who want their businesses to have an aspect of global giving?

As a social entrepreneur, you have to make sure that you really understand the problem of your primary beneficiaries. If you expose yourself to the problem enough, you might realize that the best solutions to solve the problems are actually indirect. If you are not a local and want to work with locals, make sure that you plan with them, not for them. It takes dedication to and full engagement with the local communities if you want to succeed.

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Pai is a traveler, a social entrepreneur, and a founder of Local Alike. He travels to work with local communities.

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