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GRAY AREA from the Phuket Gazette


HEADCASES: Volunteer Forest Patrol members in Puerto Princesa practice first aid.

I was about to leave for Puerto Princesa in the Philippines when Evason Phuket & Six Senses Spa's Environmental Coordinator Arnfinn Oines called and asked if I could take a look at their Environmental programs.

I'm always skeptical of travel industry PR schemes, and with Evason on my blacklist for developing on Koh Yao Noi, I told Mr Oines I had my doubts, but I would keep an open mind and left for Puerto Princesa.

More than a sanity fix, this Princesa trip was to write a case study on "Responsible Destination Development" for the University of Leeds in England.

I've kept an eye on Puerto Princesa since 1995, but when I began questioning the municipality on an academic level I was astounded. For starters, Princesa's officials are proud of their plans, programs and detailed budgets.

Information I haven't found in Phuket for the past 18 years was provided without even asking. In Princesa's transparent administration, budgets were included automatically with every program description.

Five basic environmental programs, each with a budget between 1.7 and 2.2 million baht a year, are being implemented to protect Puerto Princesa's environment in the city, jungles, forests and seas.

Canals are clean and open, rubbish goes to a state-of-the art sanitary landfill, water is pure, 85% of forests and jungles are patrolled every day, poaching has been eliminated, a "communal forest" offsets the logging ban, seas on both coasts are patrolled daily for illegal fishing and both coastlines are patrolled by foot.

Princesa's school system maintains a 98% literacy rate in the general population, 85% of high school graduates qualify for higher education (keeping internationally-funded scholarship programs constantly full), most residents speak fluent English and the tuk-tuks are converting to clean-burning liquefied natural gas thanks to a city-sponsored program.

On top of all that, environmental club membership is so cool that drugs and gangs simply don't exist.

Princesa also hosts two nature-based World Heritage sites and another on the way. I've been on three committees to get Phang Nga Bay recognized as World Heritage - but every time it gets rejected for "mismanagement".

Phuket bills itself as a water sports playground, but there are few public water training courses and many local water sport and tour guides can't even swim. We have few public pools and we still don't have a convention center.

Yet in a destination with 140,000 tourism arrivals a year - only 12,000 international - I stumbled upon an Olympic-standard swimming pool. A couple dozen college kids under the stadium were wrapping up their heads like pirates. I asked if they were rehearsing for the next festival but they said no, they were a Volunteer Forest Patrol practicing their first aid.

In town, there's a modern 8,000-seat convention center-sports arena under constant use. The local dive resort is so clean that dugong live nearby, and the Mayor grows endangered Tradachna clams around his island - where he maintains a low profile yet very comfortable shelter, refusing to build an ornate "show" mansion.

It's amazing what visionary, corruption-free leadership can do - and in two years Puerto Princesa International Airport opens, allowing environmental tourists to bypass Manila. Watch as the arrival numbers skyrocket.

So after Princesa's environmental nirvana, how could a Phuket hotel interest me in its environmental program? I promised Mr Oines an open mind, so upon return I paid him a visit.

Evason Phuket has won many tourism awards, but since I consider most hotel awards self-serving prattle, I was suspicious. After I took a closer look, however, it appears that Evason Phuket "walks the walk" when it comes to the environment - and that's coming from a skeptic.

More than just doing things right, Evason Phuket experiments with environmental innovations - and they don't wear their heart on their sleeve. As Mr Oines said, "We aren't trying to make anybody look bad, but we do want to enlist others into comprehensive environmental practices."

Evason Phuket Resort Manager Claude Baltes isn't arrogant. "Hopefully, most Phuket hotels are doing many of the same things. The question is if any other hotels do all the things we do."

That comment kept me awake for nights. What can Phuket hotels do to make a significant impact on environmental tourism - and maintain sustainable, quality arrivals?

The answer is, "Plenty." We are a major destination in a region not known for environmental enlightenment. Pooling our ideas and resources, putting them into practice and then promoting them properly will keep Phuket "Clean and Green", giving our island a significant marketing advantage over competing destinations. Ideas will spread because they make economic sense - and everybody wins.

The Evason Phuket practices dozens of environmental programs - too many to mention in one column - so I'll start by highlighting five. I used three criteria to determine the best practices. First, they should be well-tested and universal. Second, they top the list of my favorite environmental practices. Finally, they have to be good business.

. Four-cycle boats. Evason's commitment to 4-cycle speedboats immediately caught my attention. Speedboats and jet-skis have nothing to do with "natural tranquility", but high-pollution 2-cycles show no respect for the sea or the atmosphere. The Racha Island Resort is the only other property I know with four-cycle speedboats.

If your hotel doesn't own speedboats, does your tour counter have a four-cycle-only booking policy? You can't hide your head in the sand. If you sell two-cycle tours you contribute to the problem same as operating your own - maybe more.

Ironically, speedboat operators benefit the most from switching to four-cycle engines. The lower fuel, repair and maintenance costs offset the price of converting within a few weeks - after that, it's all gravy.

. Solar hot water. Solar hot water has been with us about 50 years, but how many hotels in tropical Phuket use this energy-saving and cost-saving method. Traditionally hot water consumes 40% of the energy in a home.

. Waste reduction. Hippies first learned to separate their trash in the 60s. Back then, separating was only between glass, metal and paper. Evason Phuket separates rubbish - not three, but eight ways.

. Composting. The Gray family had a compost pile in our suburban back yard, so I learned the virtues of free warm organic fertilizer from birth. I saw my first compost pile in three decades at Evason. After aging, the compost is spread in the garden, where it fertilizes the vegetables Evason grows for its own kitchen.

. Social responsibility. Life is a two-way street, and every business should be involved in its own community's welfare. Simply providing jobs isn't enough. Unlike many travel industry "community programs" that are simply self-serving PR, EvasonPhuket donates 0.5% of its revenue - note: not profit - into community welfare programs, including the Life Home Project.

Hopefully, many local hotels already employ these concepts. If you do, let us know with an email. Good practice deserves praise. Let's share experiences and results until we develop a comprehensive statement of environmental lodging practices.

Using the Evason example, let's make Phuket tourism more environmentally-friendly and then let others understand our commitment. Remember, surveys say "Clean and Natural" is the highest factor in destination selection.

Send your responsible practices, comments and suggestions to info@johngrayseacanoevietnam.com

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