The Tourism Authority of Thailand is sponsoring a volunteer tourist, or ‘voluntourist’, competition to raise awareness of socially responsible travel. The Little Big Project selected 10 finalists to volunteer at five destinations around Thailand. Each destination receives two volunteers for two weeks. The volunteers blog about their experience, and the most liked blogger volunters get $5,000 to donate to their project.
For the next few days they will be at a local school for Burmese migrants’ children. They will be working with the children on English and Thai language skills. After that they are headed to Koh Phra Tong, a nearby island, to work on local conservation projects. This time of year seagrass monitoring and mangrove restoration are the most active projects. Turtle conservation projects are active at other times of the year.
Mangrove restoration gained new importance along the Andaman Coast after the 2004 tsunami, as the mangroves provide shelter from extreme weather events. Local mangroves are also an incredibly important nursery for crustaceans and fish. One of the Moken sea nomads I met on Koh Phra Tong explained the reasoning behind Moken mangrove restoration projects:
“People who eat vegetable must plant them every year. We eat crab here, so if we cut down any part of the mangrove we need to plant more mangrove to grow our crabs.”
Seagrass monitoring on Koh Phra Thong is very participative. Researchers, Koh Phra Thong locals, and tourists all collect data, which are used in local planning. Koh Phra Thong seagrass beds are important habitat for turtles, seahorses, and dugongs. Engaging locals more directly with the fragile seagrass beds increases conservation engagement and buy-in. Throughout my interviews people commented that seeing foreign tourists value the local environment made them view their surroundings with new eyes.