Insights and Analysis

Thailand’s Beaches: Creating Opportunity Out of Disaster

January 23, 2008

By Gordon Hein

Before the 2004 tsunami, in provinces like Phuket, Thailand, high-end luxury resorts studded the coastline, like shimmering jewels. Over the last fifty years, in order to make way for hotels, significant numbers of coral reefs and mangrove forests were damaged or destroyed. These reefs and mangrove forests are organic buffers against storms and erosions”nature’s natural walls. Yet, it is estimated that Thailand has lost more than half of its mangrove forests as result of coastal development.

Since the tsunami, studies have revealed a common trait of the hardest hit beach developments: there were little to no mangroves or coral reefs left to protect them. Those beautiful, wide beaches and their non-stop views had no shields in place; instead, they were exposed and vulnerable.

Thailand is now poised to lose even more mangroves, among other important plant and animal species. In anticipation of an increase in travelers returning to Indian Ocean beaches from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, hotel construction in Thailand is booming. Last November, the Bangkok Post reported that in the Andaman Sea towns of Phuket and Phangnga, three hotel chains are breaking new ground, and in Phangnga alone, four thousand newly-built rooms will be available this high season. This surge in new construction is in addition to major re-building efforts in the past three years, and is likely to create further environmental damage. Runoff and sedimentation, which decades ago might have been filtered by mangrove forests, could spread out to more reefs. Increased pollution, trampling, and snorkeling may also damage coastal forests and reefs. There could also be an increase of infrastructure: power lines and plants, roads, and new water and sewage systems.

What to do? Fortunately, a small but growing movement is afoot in Thailand. Environmentalist and professor Dr. Chirapol Sintunawa”he is a champion and hero of sustainable growth in Thailand; we don’t know him yet in the U.S.”and his cutting-edge GreenLeaf Foundation are influencing some local hotel owners to build responsibly; in essence, creating environmental opportunities out of the disaster.

Reasoning that rising sea levels and land erosion are financial threats to hoteliers, Chirapol has convinced some to build further back from the shore, behind the first layer of sand dunes. Aware that additional infrastructure is a necessity for new building projects, GreenLeaf supports new sewage systems that reduce effluent discharged by hotels along Thailand’s coastline, which could improve the water quality and reduce pollution that has historically been pushed toward the reefs. Dr. Chirapol has also convinced some hoteliers to re-create natural shore barriers by planting trees and to use less electricity by creating open-air lobbies and hallways that don’t require air conditioning. He encourages slanting wooden hotel roofs, inspired by traditional Thai architecture, because of their ability to lessen the need for artificial cooling.

Dr. Chirapol has accomplished great things, but he is just one person. Travelers to Asia can reduce their negative impact and create a positive one by asking questions and making appropriate decisions. In Phuket, for example, GreenLeaf, in partnership with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, has instituted a new rating system for green travelers: hotels that meet strict environmental standards receive a five-leaf rating. Anyone can ask a hotel reservationist, How many leaves do you have? Following a rigorous, on-site evaluation, a hotel or resort can accrue leaves if the property conserves water or electricity, or if ceramic tiles are being used in rooms instead of carpet, which require daily vacuuming and frequent replacement.

Travelers can also ask more challenging questions: Do you support local conservation efforts? Are you taking steps to reduce water consumption? Do you work with environmentally-aware tour guides?

San Francisco is on the cutting-edge of technology, science, and conservation. We should apply the same level of awareness and insight if we plan trips to fragile, recovering places like Phuket”and long before we book the room. We might just protect whole communities: reefs, mangroves, and all.

Gordon Hein is Vice President of Programs at The Asia Foundation, overseeing environmental initiatives. Dr. Hein spent many years working on the ground in Southeast Asia.

Related locations: Thailand
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


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