A Sustainable Alternative to Traditional Tourism in Chiang Mai

Chai Lai Garden: Community-Based Tourism at Its Best

 Joining our existing locations, Chai Lai Mountain and Chai Lai Riverside, Chai Lai Garden is Chai Lai Orchid’s newest initiative for the village of Mae Sapok. Nestled on the brow of a hill, the once abandoned, derelict Lanna farmhouse, along with the densely overgrown surrounding land, now comprises ten bungalows, a lovely landscaped garden, and a natural food forest bursting with an abundance of native vegetation and trees: pomelo, bananas, lychee, and rose apple, to name just a few.

a close up of a pink flower on a plantChai Lai Garden epitomizes our mission as a hospitality business that prioritizes social transformation over profit. Each bungalow is owned by a different local Karen family, including some of the staff who work at this location. Whilst ensuring that the cooperative owners receive all the support we can give them, enabling them to grow in confidence and knowledge as they benefit from our experience and expertise, our desire is that Chai Lai Garden owners are empowered to run and develop the business they have a stake in autonomously.

As a guest of Chai Lai Garden, as with each of our Chai Lai Orchid initiatives, you can travel to Thailand and experience a unique stay, knowing that the local community is directly benefiting from your contribution in ways unlike conventional tourism models.

 As the world becomes more interconnected, tourism has emerged as a significant economic driver for many countries. Thailand’s tourism industry accounts for around 18% of GDP. Traditional tourism, characterized by large-scale operations such as all-inclusive resorts, cruise ships, and packaged tours, has been the predominant model for decades. However, a new approach – Community-Based Tourism (CBT) – is gaining traction as travelers seek more authentic and sustainable experiences. 

 The Chai Lai Orchid is an example of a social business that puts the community first. Here, the local Karen community plays a central role in managing and hosting visitors. Unlike traditional tourism, which often operates with minimal input from local populations, CBT involves the community in planning, decision-making, and implementation processes. This model prioritizes local culture, heritage, and the environment, ensuring that tourism benefits are equitably distributed among community members. In the case of chailai orchid, proceeds from the social business empower the local community and also fund scholarships for indigenous girls and refugees fleeing conflict in Myanmar. What’s more, as a model for fair and balanced tourism, CBT helps to diminish the disempowerment and lack of autonomy frequently experienced by local people in high tourism areas.


karen youth

Cultural Preservation

 Community-based tourism emphasizes the preservation and promotion of local indigenous culture, traditions, and lifestyles, offering tourists a deeper and more meaningful connection with the destination. Traditional tourism can sometimes lead to cultural erosion, where local traditions and customs are diluted or commercialized to cater to tourists. CBT works to counter this imbalance by placing a high value on cultural preservation. By involving the community in the tourism process, CBT encourages the protection and celebration of unique local heritage. We believe that if visitors are introduced to authentic cultural practices, traditional ceremonies, and local crafts, it will foster respect and appreciation for the host community’s way of life. 

 Small Is Beautiful

Before Chai Lai Orchid opened, employment options in Mae Sapok (the village where we are located) were extremely limited. One of the most significant benefits of CBT is the economic empowerment it offers local communities. Traditional tourism often results in economic leakage, where a large portion of the revenue flows out of the local economy to international corporations. In contrast, CBT ensures that the financial benefits remain within the community.  Traditional tourism often prioritizes large-scale infrastructure projects and international hotel chains with huge marketing budgets which overshadow local businesses. In contrast, CBT supports small-scale, locally-owned homestays and other small enterprises that directly benefit the community. This localized economic approach helps to reduce poverty and improve the standard of living for local people. In our Chai Lai Orchid hotel, we make an additional effort to train and invest in local Karen women by employing them in all areas of our social business and by supporting female artisans. When a woman earns an income, she is more likely to prioritize things like education for her children, or ensure that there is food for the family!

karen mahout and his elephantEconomic Benefits

 Revenue generated from CBT stays within the community, supporting local development projects, the ethical elephant business Chai Lai partners with, education for Karen youth, and many other community-based initiatives. Through Chai Lai Orchid for example, guests can lodge in a family-run Karen homestay.  This localized economic approach helps to reduce poverty and improve the standard of living for residents.

 Strengthening Community Bonds

 Community-based tourism fosters a strong sense of community by involving residents in the tourism process. This collaborative approach enhances social cohesion and empowers individuals to take pride in their cultural heritage. For example, Karen people have lived with elephants for generations; these majestic animals have always been an important part of Karen culture. When logging was outlawed in Thailand in the 1980s, whilst a positive move, there were nonetheless dire consequences for many families – humans and their elephants!  The domestic elephant population became ‘unemployed’ and their caretakers could no longer feed them. This resulted in dangerous illegal logging, begging elephants in the cities and elephant shows.  Chai Lai Orchid guests help provide local Karen families with stable income to feed and care for their elephants. (We work in partnership with local Karen families who have generations of nurturing experience with elephants). This means they do not need to rent out elephants to exploitative situations; they can rescue more elephants in need; and they can pay their mahouts (elephant handlers) a fair wage.      

  Authentic and Unique Experiences for Travelers

 For travelers today, CBT offers a unique and authentic alternative to the often homogenized experiences of traditional tourism. Visitors can stay in locally-owned accommodations, dine on traditional cuisine, learn about traditional crafts, and participate in cultural activities that are not staged for tourists. This authentic engagement provides a richer and more rewarding travel experience, allowing tourists to form genuine connections with their hosts. Guests at Chai Lai Orchid can learn about jungle medecine and basic survival skills, taught to them by a local guide sharing their way of life. They can witness village life as it exists in real time – warts and all – rather than a Disney-style interpretation of a hill tribe community. 

Travel Better and Give Back

Traditional tourism tends to create a divide between tourists and locals, often resulting in a lack of meaningful interactions. Imagine the scenario: a beautiful beachfront resort erects a high cement wall closing off the beach to locals. The resort’s success causes gentrification, raising the cost of living in the area despite still paying meager wages to local staff in order to keep costs low for tourists and maximize profits for headquarters.

 Alexa Pham, Founder of Chai Lai Orchid says of her first visit to Thailand: “On my first trip to Thailand, I stayed at a beautiful beach hotel [as described above]. I became friends with a girl who sold ice-cream on the beach. One day, I visited her home and I was shocked that she lived in a tin shack that only had three walls and no running water. Since she could not afford electricity, she had to pay ‘rent’ to a homeowner with a freezer, to store her unsold ice-cream at night. It disturbed me that my experience of her beautiful island was so vastly different from her lived experience.  I believe we should try to leaving a negative impact. Maybe there is even a way to positively impact the people and places we visit. ”

Environmental Sustainability

bamboo hut in elephant sanctyaryCommunity-based tourism practices are designed to minimize environmental impact, often incorporating eco-friendly principles and activities like hiking, rafting and swimming. At Chai Lai Orchid our bamboo huts are made by local craftsmen using locally sourced materials. Furthermore, we strive to minimize waste and power usage in various ways:

  • We protect Asian elephants and endangered species that is also important to the ecosystem.
  •       Each bungalow is furnished with two lamps only, using energy-saving light bulbs.
  •       We intentionally do not equip bungalows with air conditioning units, fridges or TVs.
  •       We provide water-filling stations to allow guests to fill up reusable water bottles with drinking water for free (to reduce single-use plastic).
  •       We provide biodegradable straws in our café.
  •       We separate plastics, glass, cans etc. for recycling.
  •       We use food waste for garden composting or to feed local animals, such as village pigs.

 One of the effects of CBT is that it helps to bridge the gap between local inhabitants and visitors by encouraging direct engagement between them. This interaction not only enriches the travel experience but also fosters mutual respect and understanding. Instead of leading to cultural commodification, CBT actively works to preserve and promote local traditions and customs. Tourists are invited to participate in authentic cultural experiences that foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of the host community’s heritage.

Community-based tourism represents a sustainable and ethical alternative to traditional tourism. By prioritizing local ownership, cultural preservation, and environmental sustainability, CBT ensures that the benefits of tourism are equitably distributed and that tourism development aligns with the community’s values and needs. For travelers seeking meaningful and responsible travel experiences, community-based tourism offers an opportunity to connect with destinations in a way that respects and enhances the host community’s cultural and natural heritage.

 As global awareness of sustainable travel grows, community-based tourism has the potential to transform the tourism industry, creating positive outcomes for both travelers and host communities alike. By choosing CBT, tourists can contribute to a more equitable and sustainable world, one authentic experience at a time.