Not everyone can fly to the United States for an MBA programme, return home after 2 years, earn a comfortable wage of 50,000 baht (about S$2,000) a month with a prestigious company, and then quit only after a year just to fight for a cause he or she truly believes in. 31-year-old Pai Somsak Boonkam did just that – he launched Local Alike, a social enterprise that promotes community-based tourism in Thailand.
Started in 2012, Local Alike is a Thai start-up which develops and sells tourism packages to tourists. Unlike the usual holiday packages by regular tourism agencies, Local Alike helps curate an itinerary which allows its customers to truly immerse themselves in a local culture. For instance, tourists may get their hands dirty on activities and routines that villagers would normally do, such as the experience of being a fisherman or tea harvester.
“After I came back from the US, I decided to work in a social responsibility company called Doitung Development Project. I learnt a lot there and it ignited my passion to improve the livelihood of the rural communities in Thailand,” said Pai.
“I thought tourism can do much more to help them. I was born in the rural area in Thailand too and I know that there is no economic opportunity in our villages. With Local Alike, I hope to engage with the local communities and encourage them to be more sustainable for themselves,” explained Pai, via a Skype interview all the way from Bangkok.
Pai and his team of 5 receive no compensation and no pay as full-time employees of Local Alike for now. The company is expected to break even only next year. Nonetheless, this does not deter them from going extra miles to help local communities prosper or be financially-dependent at least.
Staying true to their model of a sustainable community-based tourism, besides providing income to the villagers, 5% of Local Alike’s profits from bookings and 5% of the overall community income is channeled into a special fund meant to improve facilities or living spaces in the village. In short, it’s like killing two birds with one click.
One case study is the Jabusee Village, located in Chiangrai. Pai recounted how the children in the village would congregate in an old school for their daily lessons. In the past, only 1 teacher was employed, and the position may to taken by someone new once every few years.
With 5,000 baht (about S$190) collected via the Local Alike community fund and donations from customers, the team managed to build a canteen specially for the kids. Another 6,000 baht has been set aside to construct a brand new playground in the heart of the village.
“For Jabusee, the village itself was very far away from town. Hence, the healthcare and education infrastructure are poor there. The village already has a dedicated teacher whom we can further work with to ensure a continual process for the kids’ education but for now, we are glad to have helped build a canteen and soon a playground for them,” Pai said.
Local Alike recently participated in the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia held early this month. The company snatched the 3rd prize, bringing home a trophy and cash prize of S$10,000. Pai valued the opportunity to be part of the contest, stating that it’s “not just about the money, but also mentorship”. The judges of the challenge included Ms Elim Chew of 77th Street and Mr Stanley Samuel of Ecosoftt.
A 3 days 2 nights group package consisting of 6-8 people by Local Alike ranges from as low as US$99 to around US$138 per person. Individual packages can be slightly more expensive: for example, a solo trip to the Si Pan Rai Tea Plantation costs US$450 per person, but booking the trip with two other friends lowers the price by more than half to S$198. There are 7 communities listed on the website, but Pai hinted that the number may be increased to 13 by the end of the year.
In terms of customer mix, Pai said that 70% of his team’s customers are foreigners while the rest are made up of Thais. Only 1 Singaporean – a National Technological University student – has enrolled in one of his packages. To Pai and his team, safety for the tourists and guides is paramount. Local Alike spends a great deal of time to collaborate with village heads and design a travel plan – which includes insurance – that benefits both the community and tourists.
“We always engage with the heads of the respective villages. As a whole, this community-based tourism can only work if the community itself takes care of tourists. Both the villagers and tourists are informed on what they should do or not do. Overall, the community must be strong as a unit,” Pai added.
Pai’s valiant efforts and hard work is truly inspirational and if you would like to do your part, you can check out his website and participate in this life-changing experience.