RE EN PARADISE
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.
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.
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”.
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: