“Before we were only thinking traditionally; gathering things from the forest, and growing rice.”
Mrs Tho is standing in front of her homestay where she regularly welcomes guests from around the world. “Now we think beyond that, and invest in our children’s education. Now we want our children to stay in school.”
Mrs Tho and her husband are among the beneficiaries of a program by Hanoi-based not-for-profit COHED (Centre for Community Health and Development) to which three Australian volunteers have contributed their expertise through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. Under COHED’s program six ethnic Thai families were assisted to develop and run homestay businesses in the beautiful Mai Chau Valley region of northern Vietnam. The program has been very successful in bringing about positive change. To quote the COHED Director Dao Thi Mai Hoa, “the families’ incomes have sky-rocketed, from nothing in 2013 to US$423 per month in 2014, and US$1116 per month in 2015.”
However, the program has not only brought about economic benefits. Four couples spoken to in mid-2016 said that in the previous three years their ‘happiness’ had increased significantly because they fought less over money, and because they enjoyed managing their homestays.
According to COHED, the program has also driven social change. Latrines are now used and there is better general hygiene as homestay owners know this is necessary to attract foreign guests. For Mrs Tho, the ability to send her children to school was the biggest change. “Every time I receive a booking I am happy because I know it means I can afford for my children to go to school”.
Now a significant number of local people are opening their own homestays seeking to emulate the success of the original six families.
While the credit for these changes should go to COHED and to the families themselves, COHED acknowledges that the Australian volunteers made important contributions. The homestay project was part of COHED’s strategy to become a leader in community based tourism development. Each of the Australian volunteers was selected because of the relevance of their skills and knowledge to this objective. Alistair Henchman, placed in 2013 had experience in tourism project planning, Bradley Rae, placed in 2014, had experience in eco-tourism marketing, while Suzanne Duce placed in 2015 had experience in hospitality management.
“COHED was very pleased with the three volunteers” says Director Mai Hoa. “We recognised that they had deep knowledge and experience. The three volunteers worked on three different areas but all were targeting community based tourism which enabled the COHED team to build up a comprehensive perspective of … community based tourism.” Mai Hoa attributes the success of the homestay program to COHED’s in-depth understanding of the sector. Referring to the increase in homestay incomes she says, “(t)hese figures are very impressive and this success has been helped by good planning, good marketing and acceptable hospitality skills, and so the three volunteers have contributed to this.”
COHED will soon host two additional Australian volunteers. These assignments will seek to build on earlier successes and help grow the community based tourism sector in Mai Chau. The aim will be to ensure that economic success is combined with positive social change, and the preservation of local culture and the environment.
The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative. Alistair, Bradley and Suzanne’s assignments were developed by Australian Business Volunteers who are working in consortium with Scope Global, a delivery partner of the AVID program.