Phuket is Thailand’s most popular beach resort, attracting almost five million visitors a year. The resort rightly has a reputation for mass tourism with both the benefits and the ills that can bring including, most recently, violent tourist crimes that have hit the news worldwide. Yet tourist numbers continue to be on the rise and some of Thailand’s best hotels are located here, attracting the discerning traveller. And there are a number of international and local hoteliers who are making a difference with sustainability and community initiatives.
At just over nine hours away from Australia with direct flights from Sydney, Phuket is increasingly popular with Aussies with around 100,000 visiting each high season. Thailand’s largest island is the country’s second most visited destination after Bangkok.
Tourists flock here for good reason with white sand beaches, turquoise seas and some of the country’s finest resorts and restaurants.
The island is also surrounded by stunning islands and bays, such as Phang Nga bay with its world famous James Bond island; making Phuket a great base for touring in this beautiful region of Southern Thailand.
And not forgetting the world-renowned Thai hospitality – even in commercialised Phuket, Thailand isn’t called the land of smiles for nothing.
The bad and the ugly…
This popularity doesn’t come without a price of course, with crowds, traffic and overdevelopment evident on many of the island’s beautiful west coast beach resorts. Patong is arguably the most impacted, although this doesn’t appear to deter its many visitors who continue to make it the island’s most popular destination attracted by a good beach, great dining and shopping, as well as some of the island’s best family friendly activities and facilities.
However, be warned that it is in Patong where you are likely to see the darker side of tourism in Thailand with “Go Go” bars and sex tourism apparent in some areas. This issue is complex and, sadly, part and parcel of life and tourism in Thailand.
As in all major tourist destinations, do be on your guard for petty crime, but don’t believe all the hype of some international media reports. Although scams and isolated violent incidents do occur, Phuket is no more dangerous than any other heavily populated area at home in Australia or overseas.
Responsible hotel options
Phuket is justifiably popular and with more than 1100 resorts it offers something for everyone, even the most discerning traveller.
Here we meet two hotels making a difference to the local environment and community.
The Holiday Inn in Patong was Phuket’s first international resort and under general manager, Wolfgang Meusburger, has evolving environmentally and socially responsible practices.
As part of the InterContinental Hotels Group, the hotel follows a comprehensive set of corporate environmental and risk management standards through their global “Green Engage” program.
Targets are set at a global and regional level, such as the annual three per cent reduction in energy consumption per hotel room. Implementation can be challenging, as IHG predominantly manages resorts on behalf of independent owners with success dependent on achieving buy-in to the benefits of sustainability investment. Meusburger says he is fortunate to have a supportive owner, from Singapore, who appreciates the value and payback of investing in the hotel, its staff and the local community.
At a local level, the hotel implements a number of initiatives such as segregating waste, an onsite waste water treatment plant and sending wet waste to the local pig farm. But Meusburger, admits there is insufficient incentive or support from the local municipality to encourage environmental initiatives, with this left up to individual businesses.
In addition, there is a comparatively low level of environmental understanding amongst locals, which is a further barrier to progress. Consequently staff education and involvement is key to drive change.
The hotel is particularly well regarded for its community initiatives and Wolfgang admits that the devastating Asian tsunami in 2004 was what really galvanised themanagement team, staff and owners to focus on community issues.
Phuket suffered widespread physical damage to its beachfront buildings and many larger hotels stayed closed for several months, a further blow to locals who lost their jobs as a result.
The Holiday Inn was one of the few hotels in Phuket that continued to pay staff on full wages for more than a year while the resort was closed for repairs. In addition, IHG ran a global fund raising campaign that raised A$300,000 for the hotel staff, leaving Meusburger with the dilemma of “how to spend it, and how to spend it most wisely”.
The Holiday Inn lost one guest in the tragedy, compared to further up the coast at Khao Lak where several thousands of lives, both locals and tourists, were lost.
Many staff lost belongings and some lost their vehicles and homes, so donations went first to staff to help compensate their losses. With the surplus, management canvassed the team and decided to focus on children in need. In 2004, the Holiday Inn contributed funds with local and European partners to open a children’s home for orphaned street kids.
After the tsunami, community initiatives have continued to be a focal point for the hotel team. A staff charity committee was established to promote and direct fund raising efforts, with a focus on supporting local schools.
Donations from guests are dollar for dollar matched by the hotel and go towards scholarships, uniforms, extra food and books, as well as building facilities such as showers and toilets for the children. All administration costs are met by the hotel, so 100 per cent of the funds raised goes directly to the schools.
The Holiday Inn is one of IHG’s highest scoring hotels in the region for customer satisfaction and also has one of the best staff retention levels in the region with turnover at just 4 per cent (an outstanding achievement in an industry where 50 per cent turnover and higher is not uncommon).
This is no coincidence in a service industry where staff satisfaction directly impacts customer experience. Meusburger puts it simply down to treating staff well, “firstly treating people with respect, as well as fair salaries and social benefits – importantly better than the competition – and finally career opportunities”. Involving staff in initiatives that assist their local community, also adds to their job satisfaction and retention, he says.
So while the Patong area will not be to everyone’s taste, the four-star Holiday Inn is a choice where you can support a hotel that is attempting to act responsibly and make a difference to its employees and the local community.
Set back from the main road in large grounds, the Holiday Inn is located in the heart of Patong, just a few minutes walk from the beach and main restaurant and nightlife area, and only a five minute tuk tuk or taxi ride from the major shopping centre – Jung Ceylon.
Pitched to families, the resort has been voted as a top 10 Family Resort in Asia by Tripadvisor. It also has a luxury wing with pool view and pool access rooms suitable for couples seeking a more tranquil resort experience.
- Rooms are from A$200 per night.
Katathani and The Shore, Kata Noi Beach
While the popular resorts of Patong and Kata continue to thrive, Phuket is increasingly becoming a destination for the luxury traveller with many exclusive five star resorts, arguably some of the best Thailand has to offer.
Two sister five-star resorts are a stand out example of how local hotel groups are also taking a more sustainable stance. The Thai-owned Katathani established in 1984 is one of the area’s first five-star resorts with environmental and social best practice unusually a driving principal from the outset.
Located on Kata Noi Beach, the next bay along from busy Kata, the owners built an 18 million litre capacity rain water reservoir behind the resort which eases the strain on the island’s limited water supply. Katathani also operates a waste water treatment plant to recycle 100 per cent of the hotel’s grey water for irrigating organic tropical gardens.
The resort plants native and water retaining trees at the rate of about 10 per cent annually and estimates it recycles 80 per cent of its waste, with a target of 100 per cent. An early adopter of solar power, solar panels provide 100 per cent of the water heating.
As a result of all these initiatives, the resort has won many environmental awards including most recently the travel industry’s Travelife Gold Status 2011 – 2013 Sustainability in Tourism award, Thailand’s Green Leaf Excellence award and the Phuket Zero Waste award from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The money saved from reduced resource consumption – which the hotel estimates to be around A$3 million – is reinvested back into its community foundation “We love hometown”.
Socially responsible practices extend to staff, with targets to employ at least 25 per cent of employees to be from Phuket and overall 95 per cent of staff are Thai.
This local first approach also applies to the whole supply chain with local businesses making up the grand majority of suppliers, reducing both unnecessary transport and energy consumption. The resorts also arrange community beach clean-up’s involving local school kids and guests, as well as sponsoring reef clean-up projects.
The Shore at Kata Noi
Next door to Katathani is its sister resort, The Shore at Kata Noi, a deluxe all pool villa property.
Built in 2010, the owners invested in the latest water and energy saving technologies, learning from its experience in operating Katathani. The resort shares the water treatment plant and purpose-built reservoir and a bio-diesel project reuses cooking oil as fuel for the resort vehicles.
In addition, the Group developed its own eco cleaning line “Ko Green” for both its Phuket resorts, as well as its two hotels in Khao Lak, one hour north of Phuket.
Sensitively designed by a local Thai architect and interior designer to maximise natural light with low VOC’s and careful selection of building materials used throughout, The Shore offers an exclusive resort experience while treading lightly on the local environment.
- Rooms at Katathani from A$290 per night; Seaview pool villas at The Shore from A$770 per night.
Destination insider tips
Snorkelling and diving. You are spoilt for choice here with several of Thailand’s best diving and snorkelling sites accessible from Phuket. For a Seychelles vibe head to the dazzling Similan islands by speedboat. The Phi Phi islands are a beautiful day trip and do visit the scene of the film “The Beach”, also known as Maya Beach at Phi Phi Ley, though try to time your visit early morning or late afternoon, outside of the many crowds to get some semblance of the film portrayed.
Day trips – visit Phang Nga Bay and the incredible karst islands the region is known for. Visit Wat Chalong, with its gold statues, one of more than 30 Buddhist temples on the island. For a bit of history, visit Phuket Town for a stroll around its old town and its many historic Chinese shophouses and houses dating back over 100 years from its tin mining days.
Best time to travel
Phuket is hot all year round, the best time to visit is during its long high season (Nov-April) with early December and February/March (avoiding Chinese New Year when all of Thailand gets very crowded) quieter times to travel. Avoid the monsoon months of May to October – though rain is usually intermittent and crowds, and subsequently hotel prices, are considerably reduced.
Jetstar offers direct flights from Sydney and connecting flights from other major Australian cities. Thai Airways and Qantas/BA offer fights via Bangkok, or alternatively fly Singapore airlines to Singapore then via their Silk Air carrier to Phuket.