The Tongsai Bay Resort on Koh Samui, Thailand recently celebrated its 30th birthday and has become a champion of responsible business and good sustainable practice on the island. Owner Thanakorn Hoontrakul, described why it's important to this five star resort to look after its local environment as well as its guests, despite some local challenges.
GH: Can you take us on your resort's sustainability journey? When did it begin?
TH: It all started back in 2001 or thereabouts when one of the staff took some construction waste to burn at an empty land that belonged to the hotel nearby. Some residents complained about the smoke and smell of the burnt rubbish (including paint tins). My wife (Goya, Saisiri Xoomsai) took the matter into her own hands and went to see what really happened, she then found out how we got rid of our construction waste by burning. She proceeded to sort all waste and rubbish produced from the hotel and separated them into categories namely:
- dangerous waste e.g. light bulbs, foams, batteries - we transport a truck load of this category to an industrial grade waste disposal facility some 1,000 km away from the hotel, at our own cost. This happens may be once every 2 years before the truck is full.
- organic waste from the kitchen and gardens which are collected and made into fertilisers in compost heaps.
Regards waste, the separation is the end process but the beginning is to reduce non-biodegradable waste. So it starts with the purchasing department and all head of departments who know what to buy and what to avoid, and what is a substitution of an undesirable product e.g. we reduce the usage of plastic wherever possible - especially if it's single use - so guests would find no plastic bottled water in our hotel for example.
GH: Why did you feel it was important to have a sustainable hotel?
TH: It's a matter of belief I suppose. Goya and I are animal and nature lovers so we try to leave nature alone wherever possible. So the basic belief is that nature is best. Humans just fiddle with nature and ended up damaging it. How can we leave nature alone? By not, building more rooms or have more construction. that take up new natural space. We leave animals be, never encourage animal trade and confinement. There are 66 kinds of birds spotted at Tongsai among other animals like slow loris, fireflies, tree shrews, monitor lizards etc.
We issued a rule that staff caught hurting or killing animals will be fired. We never fired anyone but they got the message. It's a policy we don't use chemicals in our garden and reduce the use of chemicals wherever possible. So insecticides or pesticides are banned from the hotel. We don't fog the mosquitoes because by doing so fogging kills other insects as well. Hence the food chain will be poisoned if we poison all the insects which are food for the birds and lizards. Snakes are caught and let out in the hotel ground if non-poisonous. Poisonous snakes are caught and taken to snake farms (not a natural place for them but there are not enough natural space left to let them out and not pose danger to other humans).
GH: What are the key initiatives that the hotel has undertaken to improve its sustainability?
TH: Our waste and nature protection programmes. Moreover, we try to use materials like wood from known and reliable sources only, or else a substitute will be thought of. Trees are not to be felled without prior knowledge and approval from the owners.
GH: What initiatives have had the biggest impact on your sustainability and / or your bottom line?
TH: I suppose recycling waste water and food waste in the form of fertilisers make our ground sustainable and rich for animals to share their habitat. It's generally more expensive still to operate with ecology protection in mind (well, in Thailand at least) so we definitely haven't saved on money. The most tangible impact was when we made a big deal out of a dead bird and announced to the staff that we do not tolerate hunting or killing of animals whatever the excuse one may have, not in Tongsai at least. That had a lasting impact, staff became eyes and ears about animals on our grounds.
GH: Do you have any community outreach programmes and if so, can you describe them for us?
TH: We haven't been that active in this area due to some limitations of a community overwhelmed by tourism and weak support from the government sector. There is definitely room for improvement. In the past we have collected rubbish on neighbouring Choengmon beach and along the road around Baan Plailaem. We helped build a canteen for a local school and encouraged the school to grow more trees and use less packing for lunches but sadly it fell on deaf ears of the school principal.
GH: What has been the biggest surprise on your sustainability journey?
TH: It's not a surprise but more like something you half expected. We find that staff feel like it's not convenient to not be able to use single used plastic bags when they enter hotel premises, when other hotels don't go as far as controlling their waste. I'm surprised as to how little people know about what is bio-degradable and what is not.
GH: What has been the biggest challenge?
TH: I think it's the added time and effort that staff have to take with sustainable work practices. To practice responsibly, it's not so convenient and sometimes costly. Staff prefer short cuts and we have to have check and balance or audits. It's not easy to convince someone when the whole society still practices wasteful lifestyle.
GH: How have guests reacted to your sustainability programmes?
TH: Guests, particularly from the west seem to be more readily supportive of the environmental protection efforts than guests from the east, e.g. turning off air-conditioning units when guests are not in the room. Some guests prefer to leave air-con on all day so that they could return and immediately feel cool. They wouldn't care about the wasted energy to keep the room cool in the past 6-7 hours when it only takes 3 minutes or less to cool a guest room.
GH: Is there a stand-out aspect to your sustainability that is unusual or eye-catching or different from other hotels?
TH: I think the fact that we don't see insects as the enemies that have to be eradicated is quite unique in the hotel industry. The fact that we discourage guests from going to local zoos, aquariums or elephant riding is pretty hardcore.
GH: What plans do you have for your hotel's sustainability in the future?
TH: We still have to work on changing all light bulbs to be LED. If there's money available or if there are government subsidises, we may look at solar roof top at our laundry. We may install more energy saving devices. We want to cut the distance we have to run our water truck by finding a better source of water. We're looking at cutting down on our newspaper order and replacing it with newspaper and magazines apps.
I still haven't been successful in finding an electric motorcycle to replace petrol based motorcycles which our mechanics use a lot.
GH: What awards and / or certificates has your hotel been awarded for its sustainability?
TH: Kuoni Green Planet award 2009, GIFTTS award Preferred Hotel & Resorts and more Thai awards.
GH: What other information would you like to share about your sustainability work?
TH: We use rice from the south (grown in Nakorn Sri Thammarat) as opposed to rice from North eastern Thailand - this reduces carbon footprint in transportation as well as promotes local produce. Moreover, we bypass middle men and buy directly from the farmers. The strain of rice is called 'LebNok' which is not common but found in the south of Thailand.
As we try to control waste (which ends up in landfill or the incinerator) we either choose recyclable or biodegradable products, so there should be minimal waste and thus less carbon footprint because less will be burnt or landfilled (which may not add to carbon footprint but could add to soil pollution).
Waste water after treatment is recycled in the form of watering our garden on a daily basis.
Once we have a full time Chief of Environment Protection (CEP) again we would have more output than currently. This goes to community as well but first we have to make sure what we have set up is well run and maintained.
GH: What tips or advice would you offer to any other hotel in your region which is just beginning the sustainability journey?
TH: Concentrate on the basics and do it well e.g. if you don't have waste water treatment plant then add one and make sure it works by sending the last water to a lab on a regular basis. At least, separate food waste from non-food waste if space is limited. Most importantly, all investors should think about leaving natural space for the birds and instead of clearing the land of all trees - they should clear only where it's needed. In Thailand it's a shame that investors and landscapers / architects don't always have a concern about the state of nature. Those who build on a slope should protect soil running off into the water ways or the sea when it rains. Hotels can also do much more to protect animals and wildlife from human exploitation e.g. discourage guests from visiting zoos, aquariums, circuses or elephant riding. They don't need to associate with those who offer these kind of services.