Thailand’s famed Eco-resort, Tongsai Bay, on the island of Koh Samui is a beautiful shining example of what can be achieved through mindful green thinking, time, energy and a deep understanding of the delicate balance of one of the most stunning beach destinations in the world. Owners Gob and his wife Goya Hoontrakul have turned this cottage, villa and suite paradise set on close to 29 acres into a green award-winning example of how hospitality can be sustainable successful and holistically environmentally healthy.
The land, set by a stunning bay was first bought by Gob’s father more than 30 years ago after he fell in love with its natural beauty. Gob has turned this love affair into a passion for protecting the environment and along with Goya shows a spirit for sustainable tourism that is back to nature and wonderfully pioneering at the same time.
We interviewed Gob and discovered a deep-thinking individual with a heartfelt and say-it-as-it-is approach that is both inspiring and deserving of gratitude.
We’re most proud of the fact that Tongsai is greener than when it first opened. If you compare Google Earth images from 1987 and 2017 you can see the difference. Since 2000, Goya has planted more trees to provide natural shade and make the ground cooler.
We offer a safe haven for many animals, including squirrels, monitor lizards, slow loris, tree shrews and more than 60 species of birds. In our grounds, the fact that animals co-exist alive, free and in peace with humans is probably our proudest achievement.
Were you brought up with a love for the environment?
I wasn’t taught by example to be honest. Although my father cared about nature, sparing all the trees where the resort’s cottage suites stand, it wasn’t his focus. It was Goya and me who developed our own belief about nature being best left alone with the least amount of human intervention since humans are far more naturally corrupt than any animals or plants put together.
If anyone influenced me it was my aunt, Anong, who took me on trips to see rural Thailand as a boy. On one of those expeditions, to Khao Yai National Park, I remember seeing a photography exhibition showing how a deer had died from eating plastics and non-biodegradable waste that humans had left behind. That had a big impact.
My mother, Chompunute was always more on the spiritual side of things and taught me about Karma and how one shouldn’t hurt or take a life. Ultimately, it was Tongsai that taught Goya and me that humans are nature’s worst enemy and that we should be conscious of this fact and live life as least destructively as possible.
Do you adopt a simple ‘love-the-planet’ philosophy or see environmentalism as needing a more regulatory approach?
Since we humans do not accept that we all are part of the acceleration of the destruction of Earth and life on the Planet, we need to be controlled and regulated. However, Thailand is one of the weakest countries when it comes to regulation and control. Yes, there’s a lot of red tape and regulations that merely waste time and money, but law enforcement is not impartial and not always enforced depending on so many circumstances. Those who believe in sustainability continue as an example, but that’s all you can do sometimes.
I think we need better law enforcement, but opinions like mine often fall on deaf ears. For example, checking if all restaurants and hotels have a water treatment system at least once a year. You never see any place closed-down because they don’t have this in place, do you? It should be easy to check as you either have a system of you don’t.
Are your green ideas part of a life philosophy?
They have to be. We don’t take plastic bags when we go to the shop. We carry water containers to avoid buying plastic bottles. We use pinto to take home leftovers from restaurants. We’re vegetarian four months of the year. We try to reduce our impact on the Earth, but trying to influence those close to you is probably the most difficult task. In order to stay sane, we have to let go and not be so strict on other people. In the end, we are one equal voice and our beliefs may not be shared by others. That’s part of being human.
What has been a defining moment or experience for you?
Green Project, (our code of conduct and environmental guidelines at Tongsai), was born out of a complaint letter from a foreign neighbor to the management about black smoke and a foul smell from our land back in 2001. Goya went to investigate and found some of our staff burning paint tins amongst other waste because there were no guidelines from the management and they didn’t know what else to do. She sorted garbage into six categories and we take dangerous waste such as ink cartridges, foam and batteries to Genco (an industrial waste management plant in Rayong Province) at our own cost. We try to reduce it at the source too, at the purchasing level.
We think about bio-degradable and non-bio-degradable as principles. Basically, if it’s bio-degradable you can be more wasteful or extravagant, but if it’s non-biodegradable we consume the least amount as possible. Thinking about substitution became part of the fun. What can you replace plastic bottled water with? Glass or gallon containers which can be refilled. What can you substitute plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles with? Ceramic ones.
Lately, we’ve been thinking about the use of wood too, because in Thailand commercially grown wood’s still expensive and partly over-regulated to the point that there’s no point growing hardwood. You need to ask for permission every time you want to cut down a teak tree even if it’s on your own land and you grew it from a seed. Every time you ask a timber merchant where their wood comes from, they never give you an answer that’s backed up with proof. We could be buying wood that was felled as part of illegal deforestation somewhere in Myanmar, Laos or even Thailand.
Wildlife is close to your heart. How have you been involved in protecting animals?
We support those who do great work on a national scale like the Seub Nakasathien Foundation protecting a forest complex in western Thailand which covers six provinces. I’m a volunteer in a vice chairman capacity. Goya volunteers for Green World Foundation which deals more with nature conservation education. We personally help the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai who let elephants live free and semi wild.
We help Dog and Cat Rescue Samui, Soi Dogs in Phuket and PACS in Koh Phangan. They all neuter dogs and cats to help solve the problem of strays, but it’s not easy when culturally, Thais still don’t take responsibility for the lives that they “own”. Those who do good deeds need financial and moral support so that they can continue doing what they believe in. So, we support these projects financially too.
What have you seen happening on Samui over the years that threaten the environment?
No regulation on anything. Construction has spread to the top of mountains where it’s illegal to do so in most cases. There’s no adequate water treatment plant for an island with up to 100-200,000 tourists and residents on any given day. How much waste do we collectively produce? How do we deal with it? By landfill? Or should we use an incinerator? Should there be a limit on the number of hotel rooms? Should Samui grow indefinitely? Where’s the limit?
I think Koh Phangan is better at conserving what natural resources they have and perhaps the locals are more together in protecting their treasures. Fly over Koh Phangan and you see the difference.
Samui has many ‘dead’ beaches with virtually no life there. It’d be interesting to know which beaches are ‘alive’ and which are ‘near death’. There’s no effort to prevent residue or soil that washes off from construction sites into the sea. No wonder the corals are dying. Koh Mudlang used to have an abundance of corals that rivaled that of Angthong National Marine Park? I wonder if it’s still as intact. The news isn’t that great from what I’ve heard.
Are you involved in any type of marine conservation?
We support local fisherman and despise trawlers period. It’s difficult to track each supplier. It’s best if you know fishermen you can trust. Coral reefs can also be damaged beyond repair by tourists stepping on them or intentionally breaking them for souvenirs or catching reef fish for aquariums. We openly oppose these activities.
What do you see happening in marine ecosystems in Thailand?
I think it depends on which part of the country you go to. We went to Koh Kood in the east 2-3 years ago and I found it was still as fresh as can be. It was unbelievable. That’s because this destination is not as developed yet, but when it is I’m sure it’ll end up pretty similar to Samui or Phuket. It’s basic math, the more people there is the more money we make and the more we destroy our resources. It doesn’t take long either
Some Thai islands are being closed to prevent coral destruction, is this something that concerns you as an environmentalist and businessman?
What stands in the way of sustainable tourism do you think?
It’s greed and inequality before the law that makes nothing sustainable. We need justice in a society to lead to better equality, not just in monetary terms. Then individuals can exercise their rights and we can stand up to protect our resources.
Is the industry embracing greener development and operations?
More people understand and are acting, even on the surface, to do something for nature. Even those who do it for PR are better than those who do nothing. I think many hotel operators are more responsible environmentally and it would be great If restaurants could do the same. The new generation of construction contractors, architects and engineers need to embrace these notions more readily too.
If the tourism industry doesn’t protect destinations then who will?
Some things are too large for the private sector to do so I’d say it’s the state’s turn to put tax money to good use and protect our natural resources. The tourism industry is doing a lot already, but they don’t have the power or authority to regulate. We need regulations. Don’t turn to the Tourism Authority of Thailand to protect destinations, they are a PR and marketing machine. They advertise and promote.
What emphasis do you put on tourist behavior in effecting change?
Tourists opinions mean a lot to the tourism industry. You tell a restaurant that you won’t go there because they sell shark fins and if there are enough voices the restaurant will think twice before adding this to their menu. If tourists refuse foam containers as lunch boxes then soon enough the boat operators will have to change to something more creative. We Thais are good at that, at being creative and funny with ideas and solutions. Thai’s care so much about their image that to be shunned or condemned sparks reactions – especially in the private sector.
The issue doesn’t lie with the tourists from the West so much. They seem ready to try and sustain nature even if comes with the price of sacrificing their comforts and conveniences. Tourists in Asia are different because a lot of us were born to rich bio-diversity and we never appreciate it until we’ve lost it. Europeans are more willing to protect it.
Today’s generation knows about ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ and does a lot more volunteer work.
What was the green island inspection of Koh Paluay you did in 2014 about?
We took some heads of departments and some staff interested in the environment along with us and a group of young activists called the ‘Baima group’ from Bangkok who leads children’s camps around Khao Yai, Kanchanaburi, and Rachburi. We heard a lot about how Koh Paluay doesn’t have mains electricity and only uses alternative energy such as wind, solar and bio-diesel.
We were curious as it’s so close to Koh Samui yet we’d never been. It seems some of the locals were more interested in selling land than living a life with little impact to the Earth though. Understandable, eh? The haves and the have-nots, always see things differently and who can blame either side?
Whilst no tree was felled to create Tongsai Bay, isn’t it inevitable development will leave a footprint and harm the environment?
I said in 2000 that we will not grow the business in size and expand physically. It’s not very business-like to do what we vowed to do. I think it’s feasible but difficult. We’re experiencing the competitiveness and how size does matter, from recruitment to buying in bulk. But yet we’ve survived for 30 years. Personally, I don’t believe in infinite growth. I believe in limits and regulations. For a tourist destination to survive long term – you need both.
The GoGreen Credits Impact Fund (GCIF) is part of the GoGreen Portals Group one of its portfolio companies, AquaBlue, is concerned with aquaculture. Do you see fish farming as a viable solution?
Yes, fish farming in the right location will reduce the impact on natural populations of marine life. This is also another example of how humans try to solve their problem of unlimited ‘want’ and the reality of scarcity. Economics 101. If the human population doubles what do we do?
Do you see yourself as a sustainability ambassador?
I’m still human and addicted to the conveniences and securities in life, but I can cut out a few desires in order to leave as little impact on the Earth as possible. My sacrifice is little compared to so many people working in the field of environment protection full time. The forest rangers who risk their lives everyday sacrifice much more and perhaps they should be heard more.
Sustainable tourism is…
Tourism that respects nature. Often it starts with everyday life. If you respect nature and If you value nature any efforts will come naturally.
How would you describe your perfect moments in Samui?
As a 20-year-old, in 1994, going out to clubs by night and snorkeling at Koh Mudlang or windsurfing at Tongsai Bay in the afternoons.