Helping local communities benefit from tourism doesn’t always have to be difficult. In fact it often the smallest gestures that can have the longest lasting and most meaningful impact.
Liverpool legend John Arse Riise learned this first hand during his recent travels around Phang Nga Bay. He started his adventure during the filming of a travel promotional documentary that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) intended to promote community-based tourism development around Phang Nga Bay.
Over the course of the three-day shoot, Riise started out on a luxury catamaran in the middle of the bay before sailing past ancient paintings of boats and animals etched on the walls of Khao Khian.
By this time, the mosque of Ko Panyi had come into view and Riise had switched to a speed boat for the final approach to the famed floating football pitch of this fishing village.
Villagers on Ko Panyi still earn a good part of their living from fishing, but tourism has now become a big part of the local economy and several large restaurants have been built to cater to the rising influx of tourists, offering very fresh seafood and stunning views. The hundreds of huts, shacks, restaurants and houses where the villagers live are built on stilts over the surrounding shallow sea.
No one seems quite sure how many wooden and concrete piles hold up this extraordinary community, but it is where much of the remaining ‘fishing’ takes place from informal farms surrounding the restaurants. Here, villagers and their kids happily pull local fish, cockles and clams from nets that soon will be served to visitors while helping sustain the local fishing industry in the most practical of ways.
There is also a large number of stalls and shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs in amongst the residents’ warren of houses. The village now has its own school, a solitary policeman, a health centre, plus several small football pitches including the aforementioned floating one.
The significance of it all isn’t lost on Riise, who sees sport, and in particular football, as a sort of glue that bonds sustainable community development.
“I think sport in general is a passion for me because I think it is the easiest way to connect people. And to give people of different backgrounds a way out to a better life. We might have different lifestyles and come from different parts of the world, but sport is always the easiest way to meet other people, meet other kids and connect everyone in a fun-filled environment. So, it is a passion for me to be able to travel around the world to show that football is for everybody.”
The island has its own football team, Panyee FC that got its original inspiration from watching the 1986 World Cup. A group of young boys decided to form a football team, but there was a problem – no football pitch or indeed any space that wasn’t already occupied. The boys therefore decided to build one with bits of old wood and anything else they could find on the island.
The island has a new and better pitch land-based one today and football is very much a passion on the island, and a newer version of the floating pitch is still there to show the tourists where it all began. But it was a simple idea of building something out of nothing that has had the most meaningful impact on sustainable tourism development on the island.
Panyee FC is currently one of the most successful youth teams in Southern Thailand, and winners of the South Thailand Youth Soccer Championships on many occasions. On this day, the kids on the island were excited the Liverpool legend was coming to visit, alighting from a speed boat to engage them in Sepak Takraw, or kick volleyball, and an informal football match on the floating field.
Afterwards, Riise spent time taking selfies and signing autographs with anyone who asked. It was a small gesture but was his way of giving back to local communities by exploiting the power of his celebrity status.
“First of all I feel honoured because I am so far away from where I come from in a small city in Norway. The fact that I am in Thailand and people recognise me shows how big football is, and that I must have done something good in my career. So, I enjoy it because I know how much it means to them to take a photo together, so I never say no,” Riise, said.
By doing so and taking part in the TAT promotion, Riise is acknowledging the power of tourism as an agent of change that can improve lives. Essentially, the idea of sustainable tourism should transcend conventional perceptions of travel like on Ko Panyi, where immersing tourists in authentic experiences is mutually beneficial for both the locals and visitors.