by the Siam Society under Royal Patronage

Tourism and Heritage:
A Tense Relationship

The Siamese Heritage Protection Program
to Commemorate the 84th Birthday of
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Patron of The Siam Society
With coordination of The Senate Standing Sub-Committee on Religious, Moral, Ethics, Arts and Culture for Studying and Facilitating of Cultural Heritage Management
Will conduct a panel discussion on

Tourism and Heritage: A Tense Relationship

On Tuesday, 17 January 2012 at 12:30 – 4:30 p.m. at The Siam Society

In ASEAN countries, Tourism often accompanies cultural heritage in an uneasy relationship. When properly conceived tourism at a cultural heritage site or heritage area provides economic benefits to local people, businesses, and governments, and tourism also serves valid educational and recreational objectives. On the other hand, when not properly planned and controlled, or if cultural heritage conservation is undertaken only with tourist revenues in mind and is not undertaken for its own sake responsibly and professionally, then tourism all too often degrades cultural heritage sites through exceeding carrying capacity, introducing inappropriate commercial activities, and distracting from an appreciation of the true heritage values embedded in the site. The result of this is both diminished cultural heritage value and diminished quality of tourist experience.

This panel discussion will look at the cultural heritage protection relationship with tourism in Thailand as a case study of ASEAN experience, focusing on the following questions:


  1. In Thailand, have the concerns of cultural heritage protection been properly looked after in the planning, promotion, and management of tourism to Thai heritage sites?
  2. How can the relationship between cultural heritage and tourism be better managed?
  3. What are successful Tourism and Heritage conservation policies or experiences in other ASEAN countries that could be applied in Thailand?


Seminar program:




1:15 p.m.   

Welcome speech by Mrs. Bilaibhan Sampatisiri, the Siam Society President

1:20 – 2:00 p.m.

Keynote speech by Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of ASEAN

2:00 – 4:30 p.m. 

A panel discussion on Tourism and Heritage: A Tense Relationship
Panelists consist of;

Mr. Pradech Phayakvichien
Chairman of Thailand Community-Based Tourism Institute
Professor Dr. Apinan Poshyananda
Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Culture
Mr. Thawatchai Arunyik
Deputy Governor for Domestic Marketing, Tourism Authority of Thailand
Mr. Winai Prabripoo
Artist of Nan Province
Mr. Sisdiwacher Cheewarattanaporn
Chairman of The Association of Thai Travel Agents

Moderated by Mr. Pinyo Trisuriyatamma 
TV Program moderator, ThaiPBS Channel Thailand

4:30 p.m.

End program




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Keynote speech on Tourism and Heritage: A Tense Relationship
By Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of ASEAN
On Tuesday, 17 January 2012 at 12:30 – 4:30 p.m. at The Siam Society


Tourism is an industry and a very important commercial activity for many countries and economies around the world, including in the ASEAN region. One reason for the discussion and debate on this subject, and the cause for concern, is because tourism is a growth industry that thrives and prospers  but also has the potential to bring about negative changes in a country’s culture and national identity.

More convenient travel; telecommunications that provide access to more information; freedom of movement and ever increasing frequency and volume of travel; increased purchasing power – all of these factors make individuals who think they are being limited by the boundaries of their culture and community feel a thirst for knowledge and so are eager to find out what is interesting, different or diverse beyond that which is familiar to them – things that are considered to be exotic, strange or unusual.

His Majesty the King once remarked: “They are interested in the strange and bizarre aspects of Thailand. Think nothing of it because by nature mankind is curious and keen to encounter, experience and learn.” However, once tourism becomes an industry and a commercial activity, profits become the driving factor that decide which activity or cultural product, or form of performing art, appeals most to consumers and the market. In this way, cultural treasures are transformed into commodities.

For as long as something exists in the form of a cultural treasure, we can apply our own standards which are based on cultural excellence. But as soon as cultural heritage becomes commodities that are exchanged – bought and sold  –  they become products defined by what sells well or in great volumes and what appeals to the consumer most. This is the inherent source of conflict in the tourism versus heritage protection debate.

Many countries have met with great success albeit superficial or short term. Let’s take an example from within the ASEAN region – Phuket in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia.  Let us see what the difference will be between these two destinations in a period of, say, 50 to 70 years. In terms of the quality of their beaches, natural surroundings and air quality, both Phuket and Bali are about the same. Neither is superior to the other. Some might even claim that the beaches in Phuket and Phang-nga are magnificent and clean, and still retain their charm  – perhaps even more than those found in Bali. What Bali has that Phuket does not are the elements of culture and daily rituals – aspects that visitors can experience without having to pay an entrance fee or purchase a ticket. As you walk around the market, the hotel, or even along the beach and along the roads, what you see is the preservation of religious rituals and ceremonies which the Balinese believe in, observe and practise. These are still living features of the culture today.

If we are to go in search of such “values” in Thailand, regardless of any particular cultural group, The Siam Society would have to organize an excursion or study trip. When we travel to Myanmar  – be it to Mandalay or even Yangon – we see these religious rituals and ceremonies in everyday life – still living [still alive and well]. They live the rituals. They live the culture. This is something for managers, senior executives and operators to consider with regard to tourism in Thailand.

But then again, these are not the sort of thing that can be decided or controlled by those in authority or government.

The tourism authority does not go out to the Balinese people and tell them how to live – how to wear costumes or to wrap around cloths in certain ways; or how to present ritual offerings consisting of palm leaf containers with candles, incense and flowers at the sacred Hindu shrines found on every street corner.

Walk along any path in a hotel and you’ll see baskets of offerings hidden discretely among the shrubs. They are not intended to be displayed for everyone to see. This is everyday life and it is this that has intrinsic value because it is “exotic” life – a distinctive aspect of their daily ritual and ceremony that is still being diligently observed. In Thailand, it may be more difficult for us to find this in Bangkok or in city communities. It still exists in rural communities but is increasingly becoming a commercial activity. This is an area that needs to be given increased attention.

Further away in Marrakech, southern Morocco, is an area that is largely a desert.  Situated on the fringes of the parched Sahara, it is home to many tribal peoples,   a place tourists find most impressive – much like Chiang Mai. Its art, culture, rituals, ceremonies, architecture, traditional folk games and performances are all alive and well, and they are able to carefully nurture all this.

What is of increasing interest to tourists and travellers is the purity of the environment – a clean and pristine environment. They come in search of exotic places but in Thailand these are becoming fewer and fewer by the day. We used to go up the hill to visit hilltribe villages. This is getting to be easier and easier to do. However, once we’re there, we see hilltribes dressed in hilltribe costumes but they now use cellphones to communicate with their children and relatives. Whether this is in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, the charm disappears. But in our neighbouring countries, there is still an abundance of exotic destinations.

So formidable are the strength and dynamism of the Thai tourism industry that its impact is felt even in neighbouring countries. Some say that Thailand is rapidly running out of exotic destinations that are sufficiently unusual, different and diverse for world travellers to want to experience. Hence the need for them [operators] to venture out into other markets in search of attractions beyond our borders.

If we have poor internal management, and do not strive to protect and preserve anything within our own country, what we offer to our neighbours, be it Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia, will be the same. The same experience will be repeated in those countries and destinations and that would be a shame.

In addition, everyone is going in search of exoticism and purity of environment, such as secluded beaches devoid of human footprints. If they happen to be private beaches, all the better. Everyone wants exclusivity – something that is exclusively ours. Hence there are exclusive hotels – the more exclusive they are, the more expensive. Therefore the people who can afford to consume these services are individuals of another “bracket” for whom the unusual and different matters even more. As a result, what is offered becomes an increasingly commercial product.

People also seek cultural diversity. We talked about this earlier on. ASEAN is one of the world’s most culturally diverse regions. It is home to the only largest Catholic country in Asia – the Philippines. The largest Muslim country, Indonesia, is also situated here. In Indonesia, there are many more sub-cultures. The whole of the island of Bali represents “fossilized Hinduism”. It is as though Hinduism in Indonesia retreated back to the island of Bali. The form of Hinduism on the island preserves Hindu characteristics that are unique. Visitors from India who visit are intrigued that this is not the Hinduism they know in their own country. It is as though the evolution of Hinduism on the island stopped in its tracks and is frozen in time – and hence it is all the more fascinating and of great interest to visitors.

Diversity. The varied rhythms of dance and the various performances appeal to our senses. It is what we feel.

One special segment of travellers find slums such as Klong Toey of interest. If in Cairo, one travels to see the community behind the big masjid which is also a slum. And if one goes to Beijing, one goes to Hutong, a district that was always inhabited by the poor and still is. They have managed to preserve its original form. This is “exotic” in another sense of the word. Such visitors travel there to see for themselves. They find it interesting provided that they do not have to live there.

It triggers a sense of guilt. They begin to wonder: why do these people live like this? How can we help them? Is there no fairness or equality in society? They ask themselves these questions.  If there are voluntary organizations to facilitate travel, such visitors are keen to visit and want to be of help in some way. There are travellers who find this type of experience appealing just so long as they are not really part of the situation because if they were, it wouldn’t be much fun. But because they are on the outside looking in, and have only come along to volunteer for a day or two, or maybe a week, they feel they have done some good and contributed to the community and humanity in some way. They walk away with a sense of fulfilment.

When tourism, culture, values and ways of life converge, can we avoid conflict and confrontation? Can we find some way to minimize the negative impact that tourism and commercialisation has on all aspects of artistic and cultural heritage?

Yes we can, ...............[please download the full transcript below to continue reading.]