5 Min Read
BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - The sands are soft and the weather balmy at Paradee, a five-star resort oozing luxury that is perched on the southern fringe of Thailand's Samet island.
But while top-notch resorts are not often associated with having an environmental conscience, Paradee and other resorts in one of the world's most popular destinations are turning green.
"The whole concept of the resort from day-one was the environment," said Hans Sporri, group general manager for Samed Resorts, which comprises six properties on Koh Samet.
"To take care of our environment comes very easily to a farmer's son like me. Now it's becoming a top priority."
The words "five-star retreat" rarely conjure up the image of an ecologically friendly paradise, but for a growing number of Thai resorts, ecological sustainability is not only a nice thing to do, but an economic imperative, helping to maintain the natural beauty that lured tourists in the first place.
For the past eight months, the Swiss-born Sporri has grappled with instituting a system for utilizing waste products like food, recycling trash, keeping beaches clean and growing fruits and herbs for the resort group's properties.
At times, it has been an uphill battle: styrofoam floaters for fishermen's cages - used to catch crabs - litter the beach on most days, while instilling a more environmentally aware turn of mind for employees had encountered its own share of obstacles.
Today, that is becoming less of a problem. "It's very, very rewarding when the staff think it's no longer hilarious when you walk into a 7-11 and refuse plastic," said Sporri.
Other changes are more far-reaching. A system of maintaining the delicate environmental balance around Koh Samet includes waste separation, minimizing the amount of trash to be dumped.
For the resort group's gardens, meant to provide half of the greenery for its kitchens and the herbs for its spas, there is home-made liquid fertilizer -- a heady mix of leftovers that are minced, mixed with molasses and left to ferment.
To keep the soil fertile, there is also compost, made from wood chips, grass clippings, fallen leaves and soil.
Eventually, Sporri hopes to spread more environmental practices to all Koh Samed's six properties by January to re-"green" the island, only three hours south of Bangkok.
Koh Samet is not the only destination that has woken up to the need to preserve the environment for future generations of tourists -- and the employees and industry that serves them.
Four hours south of Bangkok in Chumphon, Varisorn Rakphan, inspired by King Bhumibol Adulyadej's "sufficiency economy" philosophy, has turned his family's resort and diving center into an almost fully eco-friendly, and self-sufficient, property.
"The reason I applied sufficiency economy was because of my strong faith in HM the King. It's like he is my hero," he said.
Aside from recycling its own trash and making its own fertilizer, Chumphon Cabana treats its own water, uses interlocking clay bricks in construction to cut down on the need for wood scaffolding and is researching the use of water-cooled air conditioning for its more than 100 rooms.
Even more daringly, it has a "no beachfront development policy," meaning its buildings are set back from the seashore in order to leave it pristine, and promotes rice-field tourism, instead of letting them fall prey to further resort development.
But despite the efforts of Thai entrepreneurs like Varisorn and a world-wide focus on more ecologically friendly practices, tourism remains, by nature, a polluting industry.
While aircraft create 3 percent of global carbon emissions, a number expected to rise to 7 percent by 2050, tourists generate on average 1 kg (2 lb) of waste per day.
At the same time, Thailand depends on tourism, which is the primary source of its foreign exchange earnings and makes up about 6 percent of its economy.
Global economic woes and political turmoil have crimped tourist arrivals -- analysts expect high-season tourism revenue to be more than halved after political activists forced Bangkok's main airport to shut for a week recently -- but Sporri is philosophical about the industry's ability to bounce back.
And while he acknowledges that the five-star experience and total environmental awareness can sometimes be at odds, he says that doesn't absolve resorts of doing their part.
"You can minimize the damage, that's all," he said.
"Nature is healing itself rapidly. But in order to do such environmental projects, you have to have income first."
Editing by Miral Fahmy