Since tourism is the rising economic star of the country, it is no surprise to see the Community Development Department of the Interior Ministry jump on the tourism bandwagon. It officially launched the Otop Nawatwithi project nationwide in June to promote tourism in 3,273 Otop communities or villages that have products certified as One Tambon One Product (Otop) by the department.
Now six months on and based on my recent experiences, I doubt whether the project will be sustainable or could really help local communities.
The government funded 9.3 billion baht, or 6.5% of the 1.5 trillion baht budget of its populist Thai Niyom Yangyuen (Sustainable Thainess) programme for the Otop Nawatwithi project. Out of the budget, 197 million baht has been spent for public relations and online marketing and another 49.3 million baht is for promoting the campaign to its potential visitors.
High-profile celebrities have been hired to promote the project. The department also funded the TV series Otop Nawatwithi. Press trips were organised while press conferences were hosted at the provincial level and even down to the village level.
When I had a chance to visit Koh Samui a week after the project was launched in the Ban Hin Lad community, I was surprised to see none of the locals I talked to knew about the project.
“Do you mean the Samui Music Festival?” replied my hotel driver, who picked me up at the airport.
I repeated the name of the village and the project to him one more time.
“I’ll bring you there. I know where Ban Hin Lad is, but I never heard about Otop Nawatwithi,” he said. My driver has been working in the hotel business in Koh Samui for 20 years.
When our van reached the community, I saw a cloth banner hung across the street. It read: “Otop Nawatwithi. Ban Hin Lad community.” I told my driver to drive further down the street.
“It is too quiet,” I told him. Based on the pictures I saw a week ago, there were plenty of fruit stalls lining the 1km long street. But on that day there were only two. I told the driver to stop at the check-in sign of the project located in front of one empty bamboo stall.
I exited the van and found no one to talk to. My driver then took me further down the street until we reached a dead end, which was the entrance of Hin Lad Waterfalls. He asked me one more time if I was sure about the news of Otop Nawatwithi in Ban Hin Lad. I told him that now I was not sure.
On the way back to the main street, I told my driver to stop at the two fruit stalls to find out what had really happened to this ghost street. I saw a middle-aged lady with her two nieces in front of the house. I asked if this was Ban Hin Lad. She said yes. When I asked if she knew about Otop Nawatwithi, she frowned and asked: “What?”
“I saw a sign almost opposite your house saying this was the check-in point,” I said. “There is also a message about the 200-year-old durian tree. The sign is part of the Otop Nawatwithi project. It’s supposed to promote your community to tourists.”
She said: “Ah, you mean the event last week. I don’t know what it is called. But you are too late, it’s already over.”
I didn’t give up easily. I stopped by the other fruit stall.
“Is langsat from your orchard?” I asked the elderly vendor. She replied yes with a big smile. She also encouraged me to try some. I asked if I could visit her orchard. She shook her head and replied: “You can’t go there. It is far from here. My orchard is in the mountain.”
I asked her if she heard that her village was promoted as Otop Nawatwithi, where visitors can learn about the local way of life.
She laughed out loud. “What do you want to see? There is nothing here. Visitors come here only for the Hin Lad waterfall,” she said.
Two weeks later I went to Ban Rom Pho Ngen in Chiang Rai. When I asked some villagers about the Otop Nawatwithi project, some shook their heads, others told me to see the logo sign of the project on the kilometre marker. Another time, in Phayao, a photographer took pictures of our group, busy dying our clothes. The man said he took the pictures for the Otop Nawatwithi project, but what we were doing was only a gimmicky activity of a restaurant.
When the top-down policy is widely implemented without addressing the real needs of a community, taxpayers’ money is wasted. The Community Development Department should stop the project and focus on things it knows best. The 9.3 billion baht budget should be spent wisely, perhaps for the R&D to help improve the quality and designs of Otop products or even to develop people’s living conditions. The government must stop this populist project. It must stop pouring money down the drain.