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An idyl­lic re­treat in Phuket

No one said eco­tourism was easy. Apart from the un­de­ni­ably thorny is­sue of the car­bon foot­print of air travel, in or­der for tourism to sup­port its claim to con­trib­ute to the com­mu­nity, a mar­gin has to be added, which must then be re­dis­tributed to the lo­cal econ­omy. And mar­gins are more eas­ily added at the lux­ury end of the mar­ket rather than the bud­get. Ar­riv­ing at the Six Senses Yao Noi on the is­land of Ko Yao Noi via a 40-minute speed­boat ride from Ao Po Grand Ma­rina on Phuket, you’d be for­given for see­ing the wooden dwellings and lush plant­ings as su­per­fi­cial win­dow-dress­ing. Spend some time at the re­sort, how­ever, and you might change your mind. Yes, the in­fin­ity pools, chilled drinks, cold tow­els by the pool and well­ness pavil­ion equipped with aerial yoga ham­mocks are un­de­ni­ably five-star lux­ury, but Six Senses has eco tourism at its heart.

TO­TALLY TROPICAL

Six Senses Yao Noi is built on the site of a for­mer rub­ber plan­ta­tion, with some ma­ture trees re­tained to cre­ate shade and pre­vent soil ero­sion. Ad­di­tional plant­ing that took place be­fore and af­ter the re­sort opened in 2007 has cre­ated dense tropical veg­e­ta­tion that, while nat­u­ral look­ing, is scrupu­lously planned to have a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fect. Lo­cal fauna has been en­cour­aged to give the im­pres­sion of a pris­tine tropical is­land, with flora at­tract­ing wildlife such as horn­bills. Gather­ings

The re­sort says it uses its pur­chas­ing power “to in­flu­ence sup­pli­ers in re­spon­si­ble prac­tices” by “favour­ing lo­cally sourced and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound prod­ucts”

of lo­cal star­lings give vir­tu­oso per­for­mances from thatched roofs, while pocket-sized geckos and larger lizards – shy of hu­mans, thank good­ness – brown squir­rels, frogs and but­ter­flies en­sure it feels very back to na­ture.

To one side of the beach is a man­grove for­est, which has been re­ju­ve­nated with a fur­ther 3,000 man­grove seedlings. A 500-me­tre wooden walk­way with maps and sketches of the most fre­quently seen flora and fauna runs through it, with guided tours of­fered. An­other path leads to some steps and a hid­den yoga plat­form over­look­ing the An­daman Sea.

LO­CAL ECON­OMY

Ko Yao Noi is about ten miles long with a hilly in­te­rior. It is home to around 5,000 lo­cal res­i­dents, mostly Mus­lim, whose in­come comes from fish­ing, and co­conut and rub­ber plan­ta­tions; though the low price of rub­ber means it is a mar­ginal ex­is­tence that needs to be sup­ple­mented.

The main vil­lage of Ban Tha Kai shows how, with its laid-back gift shops, as do the small guest­houses along the is­land’s beaches, mostly cater­ing to Thais or back­pack­ers. In­land are paddy fields of rice and close to the re­sort is a mod­ern pier where sup­plies are brought into the is­land. Late one af­ter­noon we watched wooden columns for a build­ing project and two car­tons of Coca Cola ar­rive. The lat­ter was swiftly col­lected by a young man on a moped with a child in a side­car. The child left with the two car­tons on his lap and a big smile on his face.

By the pier is a stu­dio where the Women’s Club of Ko Yao Noi pro­vides batik-paint­ing lessons, with sup­port from Six Senses. Lo­cal goods and crafts are avail­able here, act­ing as sou­venirs of the is­land’s indige­nous cul­ture, while also boost­ing the in­come of the lo­cal com­mu­nity. On a wider scale, the re­sort says it uses its pur­chas­ing power “to in­flu­ence sup­pli­ers in re­spon­si­ble prac­tices” by “con­sid­er­ing a sup­plier’s en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mit­ment” and, wher­ever pos­si­ble, “favour­ing lo­cally sourced and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound prod­ucts”.

GIV­ING BACK

Of course, sim­ple ini­tia­tives, such as pay­ing the 300-plus staff above av­er­age, are part of the an­swer. Gen­eral man­ager Gra­ham Grant says the brand pays well, and that those

mem­bers of staff not re­cruited from the lo­cal com­mu­nity are housed close to the re­sort with bed and board pro­vided. Re­fresh­ingly, the ten per cent ser­vice charge added to the ho­tel’s bills goes to the staff, while all Six Senses re­sorts give 0.5 per cent of to­tal rev­enue back to the lo­cal com­mu­nity – de­tails of where the money goes and an ap­peal for a fur­ther do­na­tion is pro­vided in the de­par­ture in­for­ma­tion given to guests at the end of their stay. Op­tions in­clude Ko Yao Noi Hospi­tal, Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion and the Child’s Wel­fare and Ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices on the is­lands, with Six Senses Yao Noi do­nat­ing 30,000 baht ev­ery month to its English Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram.

For th­ese mea­sures to work, em­ploy­ees need to share the com­pany’s en­thu­si­asm. Grant is one of only ten ex­pats out of a staff of more than 300. He has lived on the is­land for sev­eral years, along with his young fam­ily, and you get the sense that the sus­tain­abil­ity of the re­sort is more im­por­tant to him than merely be­ing in the mar­ket­ing DNA of Six Senses. A story of in­ge­nu­ity re­gard­ing can­dles is a case in point. Guests love can­dles, but they were be­ing im­ported from the main­land – nei­ther eco­log­i­cally friendly nor eco­nom­i­cally smart. In­stead, Grant in­sti­gated a sys­tem whereby they melt hal­fused ones and re­cast them. The re­sort didn’t have to buy can­dles for nine months and it now spends far less by bulk-buy­ing wax and fash­ion­ing its own, with can­dle-mak­ing added to the ros­ter of chil­dren’s ac­tiv­i­ties.

TIME TO INDULGE

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, guests don’t come here to be preached at. A huge range of di­ver­sions are on of­fer, from morn­ing yoga or evening films on a gi­ant screen at the beach – with staff pro­vid­ing pop­corn and ice-cold wa­ter for view­ers lying on loungers – to more ex­clu­sive trips, such as a pri­vate yacht char­ter to ex­plore the stun­ning lime­stone out­crops of the bay. Some guests rarely leave their vil­las, each of which has its own plunge pool, and opt for com­plete seclu­sion and in-villa din­ing. But plenty more en­joy the re­sort’s four restau­rants – the Liv­ing Room, the Din­ing Room, the Den and the Hill­top Re­serve.

Ex­ec­u­tive chef Wal­ter Butti, who takes great pride in us­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents – and chefs – where pos­si­ble, ad­mits most peo­ple don’t choose the re­sort for the food. It’s some­thing he smiles at as he in­tro­duces his de­li­cious Farm to Ta­ble menu at the Hill­top Re­serve restau­rant, with its out­stand­ing view of Phuket’s Phang Nga Bay.

Close to the Six Senses spa, where treat­ments range from a 45-minute man­i­cure to a three-day Pu­riti detox, you can find the re­sort’s small­hold­ing. Goats act as eco dis­posal units, turn­ing waste food into use­ful ma­nure, and chick­ens pro­vide eggs for sig­na­ture dishes on the re­sort’s menus. Th­ese aren’t just any chick­ens, though. Fed by or­ganic agri­cul­tural kitchen by-prod­ucts in­clud­ing car­rot pulp, veg­etable trim­mings, or­ganic rice bran and EM (an “ef­fec­tive mi­cro-or­gan­ism” so­lu­tion), no chem­i­cals or pro­cessed chicken food are used. The re­sult is that the eggs pro­duced con­tain one-third less choles­terol, onequar­ter less sat­u­rated fat, more vi­ta­mins and twice the omega-3 fatty acids when com­pared to eggs from caged chick­ens. Guests are given a bas­ket, if they wish, to col­lect their own eggs and bring them to break­fast to be cooked in any way they like. From farm to ta­ble, in­deed.

How the idyl­lic Six Senses Yao Noi re­sort in Thai­land is giv­ing back to the lo­cal com­mu­nity

LEFT: Im­pres­sive views at the re­sort’s Liv­ing Room restau­rant

The Hide­away Pool Villa fea­tures its own in­fin­ity pool; a host of ac­tiv­i­ties in­cludes yoga classes, which take place look­ing out to sea from the well­ness pavil­ion; guests can col­lect their own or­ganic eggs in the morn­ing from the re­sort’s happy brood of hens FROM FAR LEFT:

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