Instead, let’s envision a cleaner, better Phuket whose future is not solely dependent on the capriciousness of mass tourism or the vicissitudes of the real estate market.
The fact is, we couldn’t go back to the world we lived in pre-COVID-19 even if we wanted to, because it no longer exists.
Out of necessity Phuket will need to reinvent itself. Instead of clinging to industries that destroy the land, pollute the air and poison the water, let’s invest in ones that remediate the environment, employ Thais, and ensure a long-term future. Because over-development and mass tourism on an island with limited resources is not a sustainable business model.
We need to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that COVID-19 will be with us for several years to come for two reasons. One, there has never been a successful vaccine for a coronavirus made. Two, the quickest one ever approved was for mumps and that took four years. Even if scientists can successfully formulate a vaccine in the predicted 12-18 months, it will still take time to test for safety, mass-produce and administer it.
So, for the foreseeable future, travellers won’t want to be on crowded beaches, or in packed bars, nightclubs and shopping malls. Rather than catering to high volumes of low budget tourists, Phuket will need to focus on attracting a lower number of quality tourists. The fitness, health, wellness and medical industries already on the island are well-positioned to help those suffering from COVID-19 related alcoholism, addiction, weight gain, and mental illness.
We can also rethink existing industries and invest in new ones that solve environmental problems rather than creates them.
Repurposing Agricultural Waste
Phuket has a robust agriculture sector that produces rice, bananas, coconuts, pineapples and cashews. These businesses generate waste, much of which is disposed of in landfills, by burning or sold as animal feed.
Instead, we can repurpose these materials into useful items that supplant more polluting ones. For example, a UK-based company named Pinatex turns pineapple leaves into synthetic leather that can be made into shoes, clothes, bags and furniture.
At Mahidol University in Bangkok, Associate Professor Taweechai Amornsakchai is using the leaves to create a plastic composite called Zuppar that has similar characteristics to fibre-glass.
Now consider that we can turn banana harvests into a thread similar to silk, that can be used in clothing, textiles, handicrafts and paper. We can use the waste from coconut for floor tiles, wood products, furniture and disposable packaging. While we can combine waste from rice farming with plastic and turn it into a composite.
We can repurpose agricultural waste to make leather, textiles and plastic composites and then combine them with CAD (computer aided design) and 3D printing. Add a few designers, architects, engineers and entrepreneurs and we can create vertically integrated industries for construction, shoes, clothing, yachting, furniture, interior design, manufacturing and other consumer goods, that are less harmful to the environment, provide jobs and greater economic stability.
Seaweed and Shellfish Farming
Thailand is the third-largest seafood exporter in the world. However, in recent years it has received criticism for overfishing, poor working conditions and human trafficking. The waters off Koh Siray Island, where Phuket’s principal fishing ports are located are polluted with smelly klong (canal) water flowing into the ocean. Not to mention that 50% of ocean plastic comes from abandoned fishing gear.
Rather than continuing unsustainable practices, Phuket could introduce new forms of aquaculture that would help clean and repair the ocean. For example, the Billion Oyster Project was introduced to New York Harbor in 2014 and has since built 13 oyster reefs that create bio-diverse habitats where fish and other marine life thrive. The project has also produced 30 million oysters, each one capable of filtering up to 190 litres of water per day. This has led to measurably cleaner waters and the return of large marine life like dolphins and whales, which hadn’t been seen in decades.
GreenWave is a New England-based company that trains people to be seaweed and shellfish farmers. These farms clean the ocean by removing CO2 and other contaminants from the water, provide habitats for marine life and offer fisherman a way to make a living without polluting. Seaweed has dozens of uses including food, beauty products, medicine and bio-fuels.
Oysters are already being grown on Phuket for pearls and there are seaweed farms in neighbouring Phang Nga so it would not be difficult to transfer knowledge and scale up production. We could also use discarded shells from existing shrimp farms to create bio-plastics that degrade in about a month and can be used as fertiliser.
Besides rethinking existing industries, Phuket can introduce new ones that aren’t costly to start, are scalable, and monetizes unused spaces like rooftops and vacant lots.
Bamboo is the material of the future. It’s the fastest-growing terrestrial plant on the planet, is similar in strength to steel, and can be used for building, as food, textiles, furniture and packaging. It cleans the air, sequesters CO2, reduces soil erosion and flooding. It also grows well in Phuket’s tropical climate.
Bamboo Living is a Hawaiian-based company that builds beautiful prefabricated, reasonably priced houses, commercial developments, condos and resorts from bamboo that are hurricane resistant. There is no reason that another entrepreneur on Phuket couldn’t adopt their business model.
Mushrooms and their root system, mycelium can be grown in temperature and climate-controlled rooms. There are already a few such operations on the island. In addition to food, it can be used for building materials, insulation, furniture, medicine and as a biodegradable styrofoam substitute.
Algae is one of the most versatile materials. You can grow it in barrels on empty rooftops, or in ponds, and it sequesters CO2 and cleans the air. Algae can be used as food, bio-plastic, fuels and textiles.
Vertical farming is another advent to be explored. To promote food independence we can build vertical farms on rooftops and walls. Besides providing fresh vegetables, they beautify and cool the surrounding area and can reduce air-conditioning costs. We could also focus on high-margin spices like vanilla, which provide a healthy profit and grow well in the tropics.
The lack of affordable public transportation on this island is the reason that roads are so congested. A light-rail system is supposed to start construction in 2024 and was approved at a cost of US$1.2 billion. For a fraction of the price, the government could subsidise a fleet of electric or biodiesel buses and minivans. This will be far cheaper than the rail system, less destructive to the environment, more flexible, provide jobs and require less maintenance. Public transportation would reduce air and noise pollution, traffic, driving fatalities, and improve the quality of life on Phuket.
Entrepreneurs, Investors and Government
The government and investors can help subsidise entrepreneurs to build these new industries, which can be thoughtfully designed to provide jobs, build a sustainable economy while maintaining Phuket’s natural beauty and biodiversity that makes this island a special place to live. Doing this will also reduce reliance on mass tourism and help prevent over development.
The next few years will be rough economically, and there’s no way around that. While rethinking existing industries and introducing new ones won’t fix all the issues, it is a step toward a brighter future. It gets us asking the right questions and solving problems rather than lamenting a world that is now gone. This pandemic is an opportunity to build a better, cleaner, more sustainable Phuket. Because the old “normal” is not coming back.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.