She began her work in Botswana in Community-Based Natural Resources Management, working with San (Bushmen) communities managing wildlife concessions and developing cultural tourism activities. She then expanded her work throughout the Southern African region, formulating and evaluating CBNRM and CBT projects. In 2003 she moved to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lao PDR, to work for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation as a Sustainable Tourism Advisor to the provincial tourism authorities. After finishing her contract, she stayed in Luang Prabang to set up TAEC, and continued with tourism work on the side. In 2009 she was SNV's Pro-Poor Sustainable Tourism Network Leader for Asia, and has since been consulting with development agencies in tourism and directing TAEC's strategic and curatorial work.
ECOCLUB.com: What were the key initial aims of your project and what local needs did you try to meet which were not being covered by the government and the private sector?
Tara Gujadhur: We started TAEC because we felt that there wasn't enough accessible information about the different ethnic cultures of Laos. Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Asia, but most people who visit, and locals themselves, aren't aware of this.
We also felt as if people hadn't been exposed to engaging museums experiences – the government-run museums in Laos are repositories of a wealth of historical artifacts and information, but they tend to be under-funded, under-staffed and static. We wanted to create a high-quality museum experience that, as far as possible, is dynamic, helps visitors understand the changing lifestyles of the people of Laos, and encourages people to think about identity, culture and heritage.
We want to promote pride in and appreciation for Laos' ethnic diversity and cultural resources, and hope that we can support sustainable livelihoods for ethnic communities that helps to safeguard their cultural heritage.
ECOCLUB.com: Which do you consider your main accomplishments so far?
Tara Gujadhur: Making it to 3.5 years! We're happy that we are a self-sufficient organization – if all outside funding ended tomorrow, we'd still be able to exist. We're also very proud of our Museum Shop and the income it funnels to rural ethnic communities in 12 provinces – currently we work with over 100 handicraft producers, primarily ethnic minority women, and in 2010 they earned over $30,000.
Also, in a relatively short period of time for a small organisation, we're lucky to have developed a good reputation nationally and regionally for our work in research, advocacy, exhibitions and outreach. We hope to build upon that and continue expanding our activities and reach.
ECOCLUB.com: You have accomplished many things on - one assumes - a tight budget. Recently you have publicly announced that you have received financial support for one of your projects from the US embassy, while you are also seeking charity status in the US. How difficult and necessary have you found it to obtain external funding? Can your project be self-sustained at some point down the line by visitor numbers alone?
Tara Gujadhur: As many small, non-profit organizations, funding is always an issue. However, we set ourselves up to run something like a social enterprise, and in fact, prepared a business plan before starting. Within two years, our ticket sales, services, and museum shop sales completely covered our overheads, salaries, and other running costs. So, we will always be able to stay open as a museum, disseminating information, without external funding. However, to pursue any "extra" activities, such as primary research, new handicraft development, temporary exhibitions, and school outreach, we currently have to write proposals and seek sponsors. We hope that this will not always be the case, but realistically, most museums have significant endowments and need sponsors for new exhibitions, so we will probably mix being able to self-fund new activities as well as having to seek outside support.
ECOCLUB.com: Does the local community participate in decision-making at your centre and organisation in some way and how?
Tara Gujadhur: We are not a membership organization, and we do not represent any specific communities, so we don't have villages that play a role in the day-to-day running of TAEC. However, being an ethnology museum in Laos, we do portray living cultures, so we have a responsibility to reflect a diversity of 'voices' and accurately and sensitively represent the ethnic communities from which we draw on for information, photos and objects. In most of our exhibits, we link directly to communities that we've done primary research in. We also vet our information with anthropologists who have worked with these communities in-depth.
For our last temporary exhibition, "Splendour and Sacrifice: Taoism in Northern Laos" we encouraged a more active role for the two communities in which we performed the documentation. Community members created objects which we used in the recreations and displays; eight indigenous knowledge experts (locals/elders from the community who were major informants) came to TAEC a week before the exhibit opening to help us set up the objects, change labels where needed, and suggest display adjustments; the experts shared their knowledge with TAEC visitors during the opening and for a week after through workshops and demonstrations; and we supported four ethnic youth from the communities to do a three-week internship at TAEC to learn more about our work, and interpret their own culture with our staff and visitors.
However, the concept of a museum, and more particularly an ethnology museum, is very abstract to rural ethnic communities, and so we've found it difficult to create a more direct role for communities so far. We hope a way around this is to help villages that receive tourists to start their own small community museums, where they can safeguard and interpret their own culture, as this might be a way to give them a 'voice' as well.
ECOCLUB.com: Ecotourism grew suddenly in the last few years in Laos. What were the main causes in your view and how does what you do fit, differ from or contribute to this process?
Tara Gujadhur: The word got out – Laos got 'discovered' as a great place to travel for tourists interested in nature, culture and rural life. We also had several development projects supporting ecotourism and community-based tourism, and some pioneering tour companies, guesthouses and handicraft businesses that contributed to Laos as an ecotourism destination.
For several years now there has been a movement of social enterprises and environmental or culture-oriented businesses fuelled in part by the opportunities presented by the growth in visitor numbers. We hope that we are part of and contribute to this movement, and that visitors to the country will appreciate its cultures and peoples, and travel more responsibly, after they've visited TAEC.
ECOCLUB.com: What is your evaluation of community tourism development in Laos and what sort of policies would you like to see?
Tara Gujadhur: There have been some great examples of community tourism products in Laos that have brought benefits to rural villages, contributed to environmental conservation, and given tourists genuine cultural experiences. However, there's been a bit of tunnel vision as well -- treks and community tourism are good, but not all tourists want to do them and there are many more ways of bringing benefits to locals from tourism. I'd like to see a broader approach to tourism development in Laos that can involve anything from handicraft development, more sophisticated cultural interpretation, environmental initiatives in urban areas, to more creative restaurants and accommodation enterprises. I'd also like to see the government take a more pro-active approach to choosing our tourism markets – Laos has had such good growth in visitor numbers – it's a great time to start thinking about what we want tourism to do for Laos and how we can start directing it.
ECOCLUB.com: Are you planning to stay in Luang Prabang and expand your projects horizontally and vertically, or perhaps keep your operation small and take this model as a best practice and apply it elsewhere in the region?
Tara Gujadhur: More of the former. TAEC is a small museum – we dream of expanding, and having space for many more exhibits, traditional houses, outdoor activities and demonstrations, and events. We also would like to expand our work outside the walls of the museum, working further with ethnic communities on cultural heritage mapping and interpretation, handicrafts, and potentially community museums. We see our broader goal as facilitating ethnic communities themselves to interpret and safeguard their own cultural heritage, so there's much more we can do outside of the museum.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you!