A true global citizen, the GM of Bangkok’s renowned Rembrandt Hotel, Eric Hallin, was born in Stockholm yet grew up in Greece, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. Educated in Sweden, France and Malawi, Eric moved to Thailand in the ’70s and bought into a tour company that led him to a glittering hospitality career spanning the world from Europe to Africa and Southeast Asia.
Composed, thoughtful and a hands-on host who greets each guest personally as befitting an independent hotel that is as high-profile as the Rembrandt, Eric has a distinct Euro-Asian approach to the world that is both deep and whimsical. As head of several important tourist organizations, both locally and internationally, he takes his commitments to the industry seriously.
His most recently adopted role is as the President of the Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce and he is also the Chairman of the Tourism Committee of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand (JFCCT), as well as President of the Bangkok SKAL Club and VP of the National Committee of SKAL Clubs in Thailand and Director of the PATA Tourism Committee. He is a Director of both the Mexican and the South African Chambers of Commerce in Thailand.
Eric was the GM of what is now the Sampran Riverside Resort & Organic Market, an eco-cultural destination an hour outside of Bangkok, over 30 years ago. Some 18 years later, he spent four years at the helm of the Six Senses Hideaway Samui at the time the resort was honored with the Condé Nast Best Hotel in the World Award 2008.
GoGreen Portals sat down with Eric to talk about sustainable tourism, sustainability, marine pollution and how ambassadors for change and individuals can protect the planet for the future.
How do you see the development that has happened around you since first settling in Thailand?
I’ve been here for some 40 years. You can’t compare the Bangkok today with when I arrived. There were only about five tall buildings then and few expats. Everyone knew everyone and we mixed with Thai society more. How the urban landscape has changed never ceases to amaze me.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much planning involved, but I don’t look back. You can’t stop development and this is true of every city. It’s inevitable. As land prices rise the new generation are more tempted to sell-off land that has been passed down to them.
You have a strong connection with Thailand’s Koh Samui too. What changes have you seen there?
Yes, I’ve been going to Samui since 1983 and I first traveled there by boat since they didn’t have an airport.One of the main issues on the island has always been the lack of an adequate sewage plant. It really has been a case of people doing what they want. You know Thailand has always been a ‘land of the free’ where unless you upset your neighbor you could just carry on doing what you wanted.
In those days, the beaches of Chaweng and Lamai were pristine. Today, I would think twice before swimming in certain places in Samui. The pollution in the water also brings greater number of undesirables such as jellyfish closer to the shore.
Do hoteliers need to be held more accountable?
I don’t think you can blame the hospitality industry. Many hotels in Thailand are Thai-owned and Thais are by nature real entrepreneurs and on Samui they are often local island people. There are bigger players moving into the island, bringing in more money and more people so many environmental problems are worsening.
What about tourists?
I don’t think it’s easy for tourists to judge what is happening in locations. For example, out of around 2000 hotels in Bangkok listed on a popular online booking platform, I think only around a quarter are licensed and so there are a lot of businesses that are not following the rules. Part of my role as Chairman of the JFCCT is to try and influence legislation; protecting the environment by dealing with security issues and principles within the industry.
How do you see change being made then?
Helping out is really up to each individual and it really depends on your heart. Payback is not always visible, such as Karma. At the same time, sometimes we can see real payback with profits to ourselves and to other people.
Many hotels are doing a lot of good. For example, in Samui there are many people who really try to and look after the island such as Gob and his wife Goya at their green resort, Tongsai Bay. His father was amongst the first to develop tourism on Samui by building the Boathouse and what was once the Sheraton.
People should think about their own beach and city destinations and how to make tourists come back. Sustainability is about sewage plants, water treatment, access to fresh water, schools and the environment we are living in. We have to safeguard the natural resources people come here for in the first place.
Do you think that education is the key to making a difference?
Absolutely. We just had five teachers from Myanmar leave who work with hill-tribes in Mae Sot at a school run by a French NGO. This training is to help hill-tribe kids get into the hotel business and earn a better life. It’s an ideal industry as you can start at the bottom and work your way up the ladder with the right opportunities and education. We have 13 teachers from 13 provinces in Laos, including from hotel schools, learning more about the hotel industry so that they can teach vocational training locally from an International perspective.
We also work with a UN organization in Laos to help give vulnerable kids the learning opportunities they need. In Thailand, we work with the Population & Community Development Association (PDA) which has worked in social care in Thailand for over 40 years and is behind the renowned Cabbages & Condoms restaurant and hotel. They have set up the Bamboo School in Buriram in the north-east of Thailand, providing education that is paid for with community hours spent growing rice. We then pay the market rate for this rice which is used at the Rembrandt and help pay to run the school. We are also involved with the Mechai Viravaidya Foundation who are behind the Mechai Pattana School which is linked to the PDA and the Bamboo School.
Meanwhile, In Bangkok’s Khlong Toey slums, we sponsor about 35 kids and support Sister Louise and the Good Shepherd Sisters organization, who work with families in need.
Creating change is not just about giving out money. We often offer free room nights and food vouchers to charities holding events in Bangkok, such as the Sisters On Samui, the Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation and many others both in Thailand and regionally.
What are some specific sustainability policies you have adopted at the Rembrandt?
We changed our chillers so they don’t use Freon and got rid of boilers to create a more efficient heat exchange for our hot water needs. Of course there are ROIs for us, but it also benefits the environment. We send the cooking oil we use to an orphanage in Nakhon Nayok to create bio-fuel. We create cleaning products and plant feed here at the Rembrandt by fermenting citrus water and sugar to create effective microorganisms (EM). We also offer a 5% discount as an incentive to guests to not keep changing their towels and to save water and energy. We are part of community action.
Industry stakeholders want to spread their message of sustainability through GCIF Ambassadors. What are your thoughts on this and what is your message?
I think it’s great to have ambassadors if they really are leaders. I try and do good and I would say to others that anything you can do, any small thing, do it, and that the more you can do the better. It’s easy not to join in and just be a bystander, but if you then complain nothing is going to happen.
I think confidence is important if you want to effect change. We are all making decisions all the time and I think you might as well try and influence in a way that is beneficial, if you can. People have to understand that tourist destinations such as the Maldives and Thailand are not for one generation to enjoy. They are our heritage.
What is your view about aquaculture as a viable solution to producing sustainable seafood?
Chemicals from agriculture mean that anything we eat is full of garbage. There is garbage in the seafood and what we consume every day. More and more people are paying for organic food and sustainable seafood.
There is nothing wrong with fish farming provided it’s done in the right way. Fishing over the last 30-40 years in places like Samui has just not been sustainable and all kinds of fishing methods are depleting the fish from the seas and oceans. Something needs to be done.
What has your worldly experience taught you about how to approach issues?
To take a holistic approach. In the Maldives in the early 2000s, the government at the time made sure that the islands had an incinerator and sewage treatment plants. At the same time, people were encouraged to move from smaller islands to larger islands, to group them together for schooling etcetera, thus uprooting around a quarter of a million inhabitants.
Whilst this might have been well-meant, sometimes we don’t think about things holistically. Instead, issues are treated as if they are a spreadsheet, that if you increase so-and-so you get such-and-such. Life is not always like this and in the case of the Maldives these changes changed people’s whole lives.
What is your motive for leading change within the tourism industry?
I get involved with various organizations because I care about my industry and I also care about the environment. I care about people getting into the industry. I suppose I do it because it’s my way of giving back to the community.
I believe every day shapes us for tomorrow. Anything we can do within our scope of industry for the environment and people we should do, as much as we can.
I grew up in Africa and I was surrounded by natural beauty as well as poverty. My family has always been concerned with local communities and I think this compassionate attitude and approach has stayed with me. I hope so. Being here in Thailand with a similar philosophy grounded in Buddhism, with fabulous people who are just great for the tourism industry, I hope we can all together work to keep tourism sustainable for generations to come.