Enhancing Gender Equality Through Community-Based Tourism (CBT) in Thailand


In this guest article, Fair Tourism takes us to Huay Pu Keng in Thailand, where their community-based tourism (CBT) project is empowering women in the Kayan Community. 

They are known as the people with Long Necks – the Burmese women with brass rings around their necks who left their homeland and sought refuge in Thailand. Part of the Kayan community, they have sparked interest among tourists. Many have approached the tribe with curiosity, taking photos and offering money in return. 

Beyond the tourist trail, they are also entangled in the darker underbelly of exploitation, trapped in a new country which has taken advantage of their appearance to generate tourist income. 

The ethical challenges of tourism in the context of such exploitation are clear, with careful consideration needed. By scrutinising the practices and treatment in the places we visit, we can encourage meaningful change that addresses the issue of inequality and address the need for a common humanity. 

One approach is to start with the local community and focus on improving the quality of life of women. We see examples of this in the settlement villages in Thailand.

Ma Pang teaching tourist how to weave
Kayan woman teaching tourist how to weave. Credit: Fair Tourism

The Positive Impact of Community-based Tourism

According to the most recent edition of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)’s Global Report on Women in Tourism, 54% of the tourism workforce is female while it accounts for only 39% in the overall economy. Though this number might seem positive, women working in tourism earn 14.7% less on average than men. This raises the issue of gender equality in tourism, which according to Dunn (2007) and Richards et al. (2017) community-based tourism (CBT) can improve. 

CBT is tourism that is managed and owned by the local community, for the community (source: CBT-I). It aims to enable visitors to increase their awareness and learn about the local ways of living. Fair Tourism, founded by Equality in Tourism Associate Charlotte Louwman-Vogels, is one NGO which focuses on CBT in particular. Our mission is to raise greater awareness about sustainable tourism and assist communities around the world, such as the Kayan in Huay Pu Keng in Thailand. 

Everyone knows the Kayan, but nobody knows their stories. We wanted to change this, which is why we collaborated with this village transition to CBT. 

The Kayan Community and Tourism

In the village of Huay Pu Keng, the implementation of CBT is improving gender equality in the Kayan community.

Tourist making a bamboo cup at Kayan community-based tourism project
Making a bamboo cup. Credit: Fair Tourism

The Kayan are a sub-group of the Karenni people, an ethnic minority from Myanmar, who fled to the Thai borderlands in the late 1980s. This was a result of the internal conflict between rebel Karenni groups and the military regime in Myanmar. Together with other tribes, the Kayan settled in refugee camps in Northern Thailand. In Huay Pu Keng, the Shan community and Karenni subgroups (Kayan, Kayaw, Pakayor and Red Karen) live together.

The Thai government noticed the distinctive appearance of the Kayan women which they felt could be used. They came up with a number of options for them, including staying in the refugee camp (and needing written consent to leave), emigrating to another country or working for a living in villages open to tourism. 

This allowed the government to monetise and take advantage of the cultural identity of the Kayan women who stayed to work, while giving them a chance – in theory, at least – to make a living. Most of the families decided to go to villages open to tourism in the Mae Hong Son Province and seek work.  Here they were often solely seen as a photo opportunity and maybe as a souvenir vendor, which is only if the Kayan women were lucky.

The way the Kayan women dressed themselves was a significant factor as to why the Thai government encouraged this option. In keeping with tradition, girls start to wear rings made from brass coils when they are around five years old and the coils are seldom removed. It’s a custom connected with the cultural identity of the community and a celebration female beauty, which these communities associate with long necks.

The Positive Impacts of CBT in Huay Pu Keng

As part of our project in the village, we interviewed inhabitants of Huay Pu Keng about the effects of CBT. The interviewees shared stories of how CBT was empowering for both men and women. Through their work, they were able to demonstrate and use their skills practically and purposefully while providing them with paid employment. This has not only given them financial independence but has also enabled them to share their skills and stories, which ultimately led to them feeling proud of their culture and giving them a sense of achievement. 

Besides that, the intercultural exchange between hosts and guests makes tourists respect the community and local culture more. It’s a chance to learn about themselves and their hosts.

Through CBT, women specifically become less objectified because of the way CBT operates. Previously, it was not uncommon for so-called zooification (as objects of curiosity for the tourism industry) to take place in Huay Pu Keng as well as other villages. Unethical tour operators showcased the inhabitants as one might see at a zoo. The encounter was arguably a degrading experience. 

Zooification scene in Baan Tong Luang
Zooification scene in Baan Tong Luang. Credit: Fair Tourism

Tour guides often spread sensationalised misinformation to the tourists about why the women wear the rings, saying it’s to protect them from tiger bites. With CBT, the greater interaction between visitors and the local community creates a fertile environment for dispelling falsehoods like these and open cultural dialogue.     

We now want to collaborate with more communities around the world to make the transition towards CBT. Only then will they be less susceptible to exploitation and be able to positively embrace their heritage and culture through paid employment. We’re currently in the startup phase of a new project in Kenya. The aim is fair benefit sharing and CBT development to counter the exploitation of indigenous Kenyan communities.

An Equitable Cultural Exchange

In 2024, the idea of showcasing women with neck rings for tourism appears much like a practice from a colonial past. CBT creates a more equal footing when it comes to meetings of people from different cultures and different parts of the world. By engaging the whole community, the initiative also tackles the issue of gender equality in tourism. Men and women work alongside each other rather than have one group being objectified in dehumanising ways. 

Tourists also appreciate CBT. Over 25 DMCs and overseas agents are now providing the CBT experiences to their clients, who unanimously mark their visit to the village as one of the highlights of their trip. They enjoy experiencing the community’s traditions through workshops covering skills like weaving, wood carving and making brass jewellery, plus other activities like medicinal hikes.

Huay Pu Keng remains the only Karenni village that has transitioned towards CBT, but it sets an example for others to follow. Ultimately, CBT is helping to restore the dignity of a displaced community. 

Read next: Empowering women in local communities through sustainable tourism initiatives

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