On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

The association of Phuket hotels has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 August 2018
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On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

  • Hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups
  • Hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans

KUALA LUMPUR: For the millions of sun seekers who head to Thailand’s resort island of Phuket each year in search of stunning beaches and clear waters, cutting down on waste may not be a top priority.
But the island’s hotel association is hoping to change that with a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of plastic, tackling the garbage that washes up on its shores, and educating staff, local communities and tourists alike.
“Hotels unchecked are huge consumers and users of single-use plastics,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association and managing director of the Trisara resort.
“Every resort in Southeast Asia has a plastic problem. Until we all make a change, it’s going to get worse and worse,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Established in 2016 and with about 70 members — including all Phuket’s five-star hotels — the association has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list.
Last year the group surveyed members’ plastics use and then began looking at ways to shrink their plastics footprint.
As part of this, three months ago the association’s hotels committed to phase out, or put plans in place to stop using plastic water bottles and plastic drinking straws by 2019.
About five years ago, Lark’s own resort with about 40 villas used to dump into landfill about 250,000 plastic water bottles annually. It has now switched to reusable glass bottles.
The hotel association also teamed up with the documentary makers of “A Plastic Ocean,” and now show an edited version with Thai subtitles for staff training.
Meanwhile hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups.
“The association is involved in good and inclusive community-based action, rather than just hotel general managers getting together for a drink,” Lark said.
Phuket, like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines, has become a top holiday destination in Southeast Asia — and faces similar challenges.
Of a similar size to Singapore and at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia, Phuket is easily accessible to tourists from China, India, Malaysia and Australia.
With its white sandy beaches and infamous nightlife, Phuket attracts about 10 million visitors each year, media reports say, helping make the Thai tourism industry one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy.
Popular with holiday makers and retirees, Phuket — like many other Southeast Asian resorts — must contend with traffic congestion, poor water management and patchy waste collection services.
Despite these persistent problems, hotels in the region need to follow Phuket’s lead and step up action to cut their dependence on plastics, said Susan Ruffo, a managing director at the US-based non-profit group Ocean Conservancy.
Worldwide, between 8 million and 15 million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UN Environment says.
Five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for up to 60 percent of plastic waste leaking into the seas, an Ocean Conservancy study found.
“As both creators and ‘victims’ of waste, the hotel industry has a lot to gain by making efforts to control their own waste and helping their guests do the same,” Ruffo said.
“We are seeing more and more resorts and chains start to take action, but there is a lot more to be done, particularly in the area of ensuring that hotel waste is properly collected and recycled,” she added.
Data on how much plastic is used by hotels and the hospitality industry is hard to find. But packaging accounts for up to 40 percent of an establishment’s waste stream, according to a 2011 study by The Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity.
Water bottles, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and even food delivered by room service all tend to use throw-away plastics.
In the past, the hospitality industry has looked at how to use less water and energy, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator at the “Break Free From Plastic” movement in Manila.
Now hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans.
“A lot of hotels are doing good work around plastics,” adopting measures to eliminate or shrink their footprint, said Hernandez.
But hotels in Southeast Asia often have to contend with poor waste management and crumbling infrastructure.
“I’ve seen resorts in Bali that pay staff to rake the beach every morning to get rid of plastic, but then they either dig a hole, and bury it or burn it on the beach,” said Ruffo. “Those are not effective solutions, and can lead to other issues.”
Hotels should look at providing reusable water containers and refill stations, giving guests metal or bamboo drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and replacing single-use soap and shampoo containers with refillable dispensers, experts said.
“Over time, this could actually lower their operational costs — it could give them savings,” said Hernandez. “It could help change mindsets of people, so that when they go back to their usual lives, they have a little bit of education.”
Back in Phuket, the hotel association is exploring ways to cut plastic waste further, and will host its first regional forum on environmental awareness next month.
The hope is that what the group has learned over the last two years can be implemented at other Southeast Asian resorts and across the wider community.
“If the 20,000 staff in our hotels go home and educate mum and dad about recycling or reusing, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Lark.


Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

The Chumbi Mountain Resort. (Supplied)
Updated 15 January 2019
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Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

  • Chumbi Mountain Retreat is located in India, in the northeastern state of Sikkim
  • The retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and craft

DUBAI: At the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I was awoken by a phone call from reception. “Madam, we have a really clear view of Kanchenjunga mountain this morning, so Mr. Chopel has asked us to wake you, so you can see it,” said a disembodied voice, apologetically but with a sense of urgency.

I smiled and flung open the curtains, and there it was. The majestic Himalayan mountain — the world’s third-highest — looked like it was right outside my bedroom window, within touching distance. Clustered with its neighboring snow-clad peaks, it sparkled a bright white, against the impossibly blue skies.

General view of Kanchenjunga mountain.(Shutterstock)

That’s the kind of thing that you don’t mind dragging yourself out of bed — and barefoot onto the cold stone terrace — for; to capture that perfect photo before the fleeting view disappears behind a veil of clouds.

And it’s the kind of personal touch that makes the Chumbi Mountain Retreat special. Owner Ugyen Chopel (a filmmaker and prominent local personality) has made it is his mission to showcase this little-known corner of paradise to the world.

The retreat is situated in India, near the Himalayas in the northeastern state of Sikkim — the country’s second smallest and one of its youngest, having remained a Buddhist monarchy until as recently as 1975. Sikkim has a rich and unique heritage, as well as the more recent distinction of being India’s first fully organic (in terms of agriculture) state.

Nestled in the hills of Pelling in western Sikkim, Chumbi Mountain Retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and crafts. The traditional monastic design and motifs recreated using natural materials such as local stone and wood, in an artisanal approach, and the many hand-picked historic artifacts used in the décor make staying in this serene hideaway an immersive experience.

Nowhere is this truer than at Dyenkhang, an intimate specialty restaurant offering authentic local cuisine in the traditions of the royal palace. It’s the only place in Sikkim offering this kind of meal, I was told.

The food is served in a traditionally reverential manner — the servers are meant to never show their back to the diner — on gleaming copper tableware, the fit-for-a-king feast includes phing zekar (glass noodles with marinated local greens); chu zhema (cottage cheese dumplings); gundtruk sadako (fermented greens tossed with onion and chilli); and phyasha saltum (chicken cooked in traditional herbs).

The fresh, organic produce ensures each dish bursts with flavor. But dinner here is as educational as it is delicious, providing an insight into the many influences that went into shaping Sikkimese culture and cuisine.

Another great way to experience that local culture is with a traditional ‘Dottho’ hot-stone bath in the resort’s zen-like Mhenlha Spa. An Al-fresco soak in a wooden tub with heated mineral stones added to the water together with local herbs makes for a healing, hugely relaxing experience — aided by a fermented rice drink which you are meant to sip throughout.

With its vantage point boasting panoramic views across the valley, and with numerous nooks and communal spaces to relax in, guests may be tempted to simply stay in the resort for the duration of their trip. But that would be a shame, as there is a great deal more to see in this unspoiled region.

From the scenic Khecheopalri Lake (which, local folklore has it, has the power to grant wishes) and the impressive perennial Kanchenjunga waterfall, to the sacred Pemayangtse monastery — a mountaintop Buddhist temple where fluttering prayer flags and meditative chanting create a rarified atmosphere of tranquility — excursion options abound. For the more adventurous, trekking and hiking trails are also available nearby, as are farm tours.

Kanchenjunga waterfall. (Shutterstock)

Truth be told, this isn’t the easiest place to get to or around — the roads aren’t great and Sikkim’s overall infrastructure is still developing. But those making the effort to visit this remote land will be rewarded with stunning alpine landscapes, great hospitality from unaffected, friendly people, and an inescapable sense of spiritual wellbeing. And, who knows, maybe even an elusive sighting of some of the world’s greatest mountain peaks.