It’s extremely rare that you hear a presentation where the speaker emotionally cries at the end of it. In fact I’d never seen it happen before this day.

The speaker was H.E. Mrs. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports who I had met about three hours earlier at a welcome function at the Thai Travel Mart Plus Event in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There, upon asking the Minister why she thought people love Thailand so much, she had told me;

“Everyone always says ‘we love the Thai people’. Because in Thailand, we take friendship seriously… friendship is for life.”

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H.E. Mrs. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports

A soft, yet frankly spoken woman, immaculately groomed and with impeccable manners, she was now giving her presentation on Thailand’s tourism strategy for the coming years to a thousand strong international travel industry audience at the packed Chiang Mai Convention Centre.

“We are the little people.” She began by saying. “And if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, we all get nowhere. We need to learn to share; we need to learn to give. This is the duty of tourism.”

The future sustainability of not just Thailand’s tourism revenue, but also the countries success itself depends on enabling all of Thailand’s communities to stand side by side, and in her words “Share in the wealth creation for all”.

The Minister said that the country currently has 264 community-based tourism projects all over Thailand and will be adding another 99 in the course of the next year.

She said this was a critical component of the national tourism strategy, which is shifting entirely towards enhancing visitor expenditure and average length of stay rather than just being measured by visitor head-count.

Thailand's Spirit men

Thailand’s Spirit men

Australians are in fact Thailand’s biggest spenders and stay the longest on average with 70% of us having travelled to the Kingdom of Thailand at least once before.

A total of 791,631 Australians arrived in 2016, staying an average of 13 days per trip with an average spend of 4000 baht per day, per person (AUD$156) inclusive of their accommodation. Australia is ranked 6th in terms of global visitor arrivals behind – China #1, Malaysia, Russia, The UK and the U.S.

“It’s not about the numbers”, She said, “It’s about everyone getting something from tourism for the long term.”

The minister said Thailand’s community-tourism tourism villages were where visitors could get a truly unique experience, come away with a better understanding of the country’s culture and heritage, improve their own work-life balance and also help narrow the rich-poor income gap.

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Projects such as the remarkable ‘King Royal Project’ which was established by the much loved King ‘of the people’ Bhumiphul who passed away in October 2016.

Perturbed by the state of the Opium trade in Northern Thailand, in 1969 the King set about educating and transforming the then opium farming hill tribes to instead cultivate organic vegetables, fruits and coffee to supply to the whole of Thailand.

Strawberries now grow where once Opium was farmed

Strawberries now grow where once Opium was farmed in Doi Angkhang, Northern Thailand

As of 2017, there are now 4,685 royal development projects initiated by His Majesty and implemented throughout the country. Most of the projects are aimed at improving the living conditions of Thai’s, particularly those in the remote rural areas. Much of the produce now makes its ways to the increasingly growing high end ‘Gastronomy scene’ in Bangkok.

It’s these kind of projects, that the Minister says are the ones rising the most in popularity with a reported 22% of visitors to Thailand in 2016 experiencing some kind of ‘community’ based tour or activity.

“The new kind of tourist wants to travel like a local. They want to find happiness and true friendship – the experiences that money cannot buy.”

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In closing her presentation, the Minister tearfully said;

“We need to understand each other more and love each other more to help the next generation. I firmly believe that peace and unity can be achieved by travel and that it should be the core purpose for all of us in the industry.”

The Ministers passionate presentation received equally enthusiastic applause in return and for good reason, as her heartfelt message was the sum of her entire half hour presentation.

No complicated graphs, statistics or confusing data for the sake of data.

Just a powerful call to perhaps change the way we look at tourism and as they say in the movies ‘follow the money’ to ensure that Thailand’s Tourism and the Greater Mekong Region can remain universally sustainable for future generations.

Inspiration surely, for many other countries to follow.

What do you think of Thailand’s strategy for community based tourism? Share your thoughts below.