Weekly Local Biography

  Lilli Saxer

Lilli Saxer is the General Manager of Impulse Tourism Company, and she brings years of experience in the field as well as a lifetime of adventure to the job. She is a native of Switzerland, and grew up in a small village on the Austrian border. The village was near a vast forest, and her playmates were the forest animals. She was educated in the public schools, and then went to commercial college. She graduated with business skills, many ideas and a firm determination that her life would never include an “eight to five” job. She did not want “an ordinary life”.

She spent the next three years working temporary jobs at a university, restaurants, shops, a winery, here and there, any place that offered work and a good experience. Then she saw an advertisement in the newspaper. A well-known Swiss travel agency was looking for help, and would train the new hire. So Lilli applied and was accepted for the job, contingent on her having a car. Well, she didn’t but her sister did and her sister was out of town. After one week of training, Lilli borrowed her sister’s car, left her a note saying “Back in six months”, and headed out for northern Africa. That was in 1976, and the drive from Switzerland to Tunisia was not exactly on superhighways. It was a challenge.

But the company was good to her, and she worked hard. The work was seasonal, March until November, and employees who successfully completed a season could choose where they wanted to spend the next season. The whole world was open to Lilli, or may have been if she hadn’t done quite so good a job. The company asked her to return to Tunisia the next year, and the year following. Then they offered her Morocco, and she spent two seasons there. After that she headed out to Colombo, Sri Lanka where she spent seven years.

When she arrived in Sri Lanka, the office was home to 47 expatriates. By the time she left seven years later, that number had dwindled to one – Lilli. The civil war had taken its toll. Living in Sri Lanka went from “paradise” to a difficult challenge. But the local team was skilled, and she didn’t mind leaving them in charge so that she could explore other parts of the world.

The company offered her Africa, the United States or China as a new home base. She chose China. She was only there for six months, too short a time to learn the language, but it was a turning point in her life. Beijing in 1987 was not yet open to the west. Lilli remembers that the primary colors were brown and beige, with a smattering of blue and green. Everybody rode bicycles, so she bought one, too. But there was a problem. The Chinese rode in huge clusters, making it difficult to change lanes. They knew Beijing, she didn’t. So how could she let them know that there was a stranger riding among them, someone who needed a little bit more space than they customarily provided? After a little bit of problem solving, she had the answer. Lilli wore a bright red jumper, which definitely stood out in the brown/beige crowd.

After six months in Beijing, her next stop was Bangkok. Tourism was booming, and there were a lot of opportunities. Lilli was there until 1990, then took a two-year sabbatical and moved to Paris. Restored, she had an offer to go to Cambodia. It was 1992, and she opened one of the first travel agencies in the country. Seam Reap was gaining worldwide acclaim, but it was incredibly difficult to get around the country. Not only were the existing roads bad, at some points they were impassable. Bridges were in poor condition or nonexistent. There was a definite element of danger when people drove from one town to the other, and foreigners were not allowed to travel overland. Telephones were scarce, and communication was primarily by telegram. There was no government. But Lilli lived there for several years, faced the obstacles and developed the business.

In 1995 she went to Myan-mar and opened the very first western tour company. There were huge hurdles to overcome. The country was still essentially closed, and there was a dearth of knowledge about tourism and how to develop it. The country offered incredible opportunities, but the people of Myan-mar did not understand the mindset of upscale tourists. They wanted to offer a set program with no opportunities for deviation. The tourists wanted the flexibility to explore the country. Lilli worked there for ten years. In a business that depends on communication, it was a primitive commodity. There was no telephone, no inter-net, and no news. She was beginning to feel out of touch with the world. Things don’t move in Myanmar, she says, and she decided that she needed to return to “real life”.

She was too young to retire, so last year Lilli moved to Chiang Mai and became the general manager of Impulse Tourism Company. She believes that the city has wonderful opportunities for up-market tourism, but recognizes the need for infrastructure improvements. She sees the air pollution as a problem, but also notes that stray dogs and the ample supply of garbage is also off-putting. She likes its location and proximity to tribal people and other countries. She appreciates the culture. She lives and works in San-sai, choosing country over city life. She has telephones, use of the internet, ample news on both television and in printed material. She goes to the movies and keeps up with cultural events. She has used the ATM for the first time ever. Chiang Mai is like the t-shirt you see in the Night Bazaar, “Same, same, but different” from Myan-mar. Not as developed as Europe, it’s a “good point in between”. A lot of expatriates will agree with you, Lilli. Welcome to Chiang Mai.