Known as the Pearl of the Andaman, Phuket has enjoyed remarkable success as a major resort island in southern Thailand. However, the exponential growth of tourism has at times outpaced the island’s infrastructure and taken a heavy toll on its natural environment.
Nonetheless, Phuket is resilient. After the 2004 tsunami left much of the island devastated and claimed more than 230,000 lives, the island inhabitants fought to rebuild and guard against future natural disasters. Now, Phuketians are rallying to create a better future for themselves and the millions of travelers who arrive on their shores.
Sustainability has never been more relevant. Islands are at the greatest risk of climate change-related sea level rise, and the COVID-19 pandemic has turned back the clock on several sustainability initiatives, including Thailand’s ban on single-use plastic bags.
Like any resort island, Phuket must strike a balance between tourist revenue and environmental stewardship. However, it is precisely this reputation as a major tourist destination that makes it such a promising lever for green leadership, where sustainability efforts can be piloted and promoted to full effect.
Following APEC endorsement of the Bangkok Goals on the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy, “where technology and innovation are used to create value, reduce waste, advance resource efficiency, and promote sustainable business models,” the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Thai Organic Consumers Association (TOCA) have collaborated to promote organic tourism.
Hotels and restaurants have started sourcing ingredients from organic farmers and offering tours of organic farms like Ban Suan Phak Kut Thong, where they can collect their own produce. These experiences aren’t only healthier for travelers and the island but provide inclusive opportunities for local communities to share in tourism revenue.
Other businesses, such as SAii Phi Phi Island Village resort in nearby Krabi, provide educational experiences where guests can learn about their marine conservation projects. Its Marine Discovery Centre collaborates with the Phuket Marine Biological Center (PMBC) to save endangered bamboo sharks. Eco-excursions, such as guided kayaking tours to collect marine trash from the surrounding mangrove forests or scuba diving to scrub algae off coral nurseries, are also popular among guests.
When it comes to waste management, there’s no denying that Phuket faces an overwhelming problem of ocean debris. At the last “Phuket Green Day” beach cleaning organized by the Phuket Hotels Association, volunteers collected over 2.5 tonnes of trash on Phuket and its surrounding islands.
However, the island also has the distinction of being a pilot province for waste-to-energy power generation in Thailand, using a 2.5-megawatt municipal facility and a 12-megawatt plant built by PJT Technology capable of disposing of 700 tonnes per day.
With Thailand’s reopening to international travel this year, the government and private sector are seizing on the opportunity for major tourism destinations like Phuket to show environmental leadership.
The stakes for the Pearl of the Andaman are high. According to Dr. Jesko-Philipp Neuenburg, Managing Director for Global Travel & Aviation Sustainability Lead at Accenture, many business travelers are considering the Scope 3 emissions of their corporate travel and participation in international expositions. At the same time, Accenture research has indicated that 83% of travelers ages 25-34 are willing to pay more for sustainable travel options.
“The question should be less whether the [hospitality] sector can afford greater sustainability—and more whether it can afford to fall behind its customers’ evolving expectations,” he stated.
The combination of Thailand’s BCG movement, the collective eco-consciousness of Phuket’s communities and businesses, as well as the island’s role as a major tourist destination have placed it in a key position to make a difference in the way we tackle the existential challenge of sustainability.