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Phuket: Enough talk, more action

PHUKET: Part shock tactic, part stark warning, environmental organisation SEEK has decided upon artwork for its manifesto of 26 indicators designed to rescue the island – five dystopian images of a Phuket beset with pollution, ruin and devastation. An island in peril, circa 20 years hence.

By Jody Houton

Tuesday 19 February 2013, 03:21PM

And the general consensus of the 30 or so attendees at the most recent SEEK meeting on February 13 was that the worst case scenario for Phuket actually wouldn’t take that much imagining...

But enough derision and jokes and literary equivalents of shrugs of shoulders. Enough “Well what can we, as foreigners, do?” type questions posed in rhetorical manners. The answer is, actually, rather a lot, as long as we work together. Yes, together.

As well as the aforementioned cynicism that seems to affect too many expatriate Phuket gentlemen of a certain age, there was, perhaps for the first time at the SEEK meeting – the eighth since its inception in January, 2012 – lights of comprehension at the end of the tunnel. Or at least an indication of a glimmer.

“SEEK is all about creating a buzz by private businesses in order to approach the government,” said founding member of SEEK, Sean Panton.

“The ultimate aim is that we get these 26 indicators printed out [complete with the dystopian Phuket images], and get logos and signatures and pledges from hotels. Then we can assign each indicator and each necessary action to individuals who will be responsible for them.

“We can then take that to the government and be able to say, look, this is who is on-board. This is the help we need, this is what needs to change.”

The latest SEEK event, held at JW Marriot Phuket, was billed as an opportunity to showcase the final 26 indicators, or rather 26 elements of Phuket society and infrastructure, which need to be addressed and assigned working models of implemented sustainability.

Before the unveiling of the indicators by Robert Steele, director of Systainability Asia, Richard Welford, the chairman of Hong Kong-based CSR Asia took to the podium and stated his admiration for SEEK, what it has done and is actually doing.

“Phuket is facing a lot of huge risks at the moment, but there are also a lot of opportunities,” he said.

He added that based on certain unfortunate parallels with southern Spanish seaside tourist areas of the 1990s, unless certain changes were made, and infrastructure was implemented, Phuket too would face a similar fate.

“The problem with Spain 20 years ago was a complete lack of planning. We need to get to grips with how to plan and it needs to be inclusive – a plan that is not only good for the wealthy Westerners or the overcharging taxi driver but everyone, so that everyone benefits. How that is achieved is up to you.

“Mass development in the south of Spain destroyed the tourist industry. This is what we need to be aware of in Phuket,” he said.

Mr Welford also touted the benefits of eco-tourism, “Biodiversity is very important for the tourist experience, they want to see nature,” he said, adding that there was no reason that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a great tourist experience and environmental sustainability could not be combined, referencing the Mangroves for the Future NGO.

Mr Welford, in his capacity as CEO of CSR Asia, provides information, training, research and consultancy services on sustainable business practices in Asia.

As such, he suggests hotels in Phuket should do three things:
Develop their own CSR strategies. He said that he recognised global brands are globally driven but that they need to be localised and look at community contexts.

Hotels need to work with partners and NGOs to figure out how changes can happen.

Think beyond business and what is good for Phuket.

Mr Welford admitted that there was only so much that could be done, “A problem obviously is that a lot of guests have certain expectations when it comes to their holiday experience.

“Towels are sometimes changed three times a day and overconsumption at the buffet is part of the holiday experience,” he joked.

He suggested with seriousness however that just because something was environmentally sound and sustainable didn’t mean it wasn’t financially viable. He gave an example of a hotel in Hong Kong that invites divers to come for a week a year and help clean the seabed. They are also paying customers.

Altogether, it was a lively and involved SEEK meeting, with tensions and emotions running high. The necessity to take care of migrants was mentioned and added to the list, as was addressing issues associated with Dengue fever. Taking care of staff, so that they felt like they were gaining an experience and not only a salary, was also added to the list.

Mr Welford said that he was often concerned when hotels played around with ‘picturesque poverty’, for example visiting orphanages, and advised caution upon choosing NGO and other alliances.

In all, much was added to the list of indicators, from the assembled group of concerned residents and business owners, as well as representatives from Tesco-Lotus and Phuket International Hospital.

Cynics will say that it is just a list and question what is actually being done, but the important thing is that there is a list now. A list that will soon make it incredibly useful to track accountability.

The next meeting will be exclusively with prominent Thai members of society in March. The one after that, Sean tells The Phuket News will, hopefully, be with the GM of every 5-star hotel on the island.

“We’ve got to keep momentum,” said Sean, “We’ve got to get logos, sponsorship and signatures and then take it to the government.”

There is a real sense that the SEEK meetings are getting somewhere now. That they have managed to scratch away at the surface of ignorant apathy, marketing showboating and politically-motivated drivel.

Now we know what can be done, there is enough buzz that has blasted away indifference, the indicators have laid out areas that need to be addressed. In sum, it’s now manageable.

The 26 indicators show what needs to be done. What are you going to do it?

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