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“Help save the environment. Please reuse the towels.”
I can’t think of the last time I checked into a hotel that didn’t have some politely worded variation of that message, as if doing our small part is really even optional. And when I see such a message, I think about Koh Yao Noi.
Out in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay — on the edge of an incredible natural aquatic preserve between tourist hotspots Phuket and Krabi — Koh Yao Noi (Little Long Island) is still largely a locals’ island, more focused on agriculture than becoming a bucket-list travel destination. There is no welcome center, nor scooters for hire awaiting visitors upon arrival; for that matter, the island is still only accessible by boat.
Tourism has tiptoed in over the years, yet the chic hotels and luxury resorts here largely share a like-minded, sustainability-focused goal to tread lightly on this sublime southern Thai edge of the Andaman Sea.
From immersive, eco-minded guest excursions and activities to the myriad ways these properties strive for sustainability — including recycling, waste management, water conservation, growing food onsite and working with local producers — Koh Yao Noi demonstrates that earth-friendly tourism doesn’t have to be a proverbial island.
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Get Your Hands Dirty (and Grab Eggs for Breakfast Too)
Thanks to the past few pandemic years, we’ve all become more aware of the concept of a global supply chain. Imagine what an island’s supply chain looks like when it involves operating full-service hotels and resorts with anywhere from half a dozen to 70 rooms, including family options and honeymoon suites.
This makes it remarkable that ecolodge The Hideout has found a way to source some 90% of its food from Koh Yao Noi itself. Because the island is so agriculturally rich, the properties on the island have close working relationships with local producers, and several grow their own food.
At the onsite farm at Six Senses Yao Noi, guests can meet the resident chickens, ducks and goats, and visit the mushroom hut and raised garden beds. And the farm at Paradise Koh Yao Resort and TreeHouse Villas, which are sister properties on the same land, grows everything from morning glory — a spinach-like Thai speciality that’s delicious stir-fried — to other seasonal fruits and vegetables, including watermelons, bananas, papayas and staple Thai herbs and spices.
Guests love that they get to collect eggs, mushrooms and herbs from the gardens to bring to the chefs at breakfast, says Khun Thanattha (Van), sustainability director at Six Senses Yao Noi.
But shortening the supply chain isn’t just about incoming goods — it’s also about minimizing outgoing goods. This setup requires resourceful self-reliance. It also provides opportunities for guests, especially young guests, to get their hands dirty.
“Kids love to take the leftover vegetable seeds and pieces from a meal — such as from hot peppers, shallots and coriander roots — and help replant them in our garden,” says Khun Supaporn (Sue) Potpradit, executive assistant manager at Paradise Koh Yao and TreeHouse Villas. Natural fertilizer is made from eggshells, coffee grounds and coconut husks, she adds.
Nothing is wasted: An earthworm farm at Six Senses’ Earth Lab turns food scraps into nutrient-rich soil for landscaping and gardening, and even the compost wastewater is used as a fertilizer. Also in the Earth Lab, a glass-crushing machine turns wine and beer bottles into small glass pieces for projects around the property, including laying pavement and decorating planters. Leftover candles are melted down and repoured, and a proprietary herbal mosquito repellent is produced and used around the resort.
Khun Van cites the repellent as one of her favorite Earth Lab projects, along with the reverse osmosis drinking water produced onsite. “All the water used within the resort and host compound comes from our own water reservoir, which makes us entirely self-sufficient,” she adds.
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Community Is at the Heart
UNESCO’s Sustainable Travel Pledge cites five signs of sustainable tourism: reduced single-use plastics, reduced waste, water conservation, energy conservation and community engagement. The immersive experiences and eco-activities on Koh Yao Noi take these principles to heart. Visitors can traipse through a rice paddy, visit a working rubber tree farm, track down a few of the island’s protected oriental pied hornbills and visit the protected “grandfather tree” within the lush national park on the island’s north shore. “It’s a great way to support area businesses and show our guests the true Koh Yao way of life and culture,” says Khun Sue.
Cape Kudu Hotel offers a full-day excursion that taps into local life: island-hopping in Phang Nga Bay in a traditional longtail boat, with stops that include Roi Island and a magical, sheltered bay on Koh Kudu, with a chance for swimming and a short guided hike. Then it’s off to collect what local fishermen caught for lunch, which is cooked over open flames, Thai-style, on Toh Baut Cave Island.
A sustainable ethos is unattainable without reciprocal community connection. The handful of hotels and resorts on Koh Yao Noi — which is less than 1/10th the size of Phuket, with 1/100th of the population — employs mostly local staff, and many venues offer ongoing professional training. Funds generated from Cape Kudu’s boat excursions helped purchase the island community’s first fire truck. Six Senses, in conjunction with Clean Water Projects and the Imagine Thailand Foundation, has installed 35 reverse osmosis water systems in communities throughout the region. The resorts also work with Trash Hero, an organization seeking to reduce single-use plastic waste.
The conservation projects for the local hornbill species, which is considered critically endangered, are jewels in the island’s sustainability crown. “Being monogamous, the species has significantly dwindled in numbers over the years,” Khun Van explains. Several of the resorts have built nests for the birds using repurposed timber from around the island.
For all the measurable sustainability initiatives by the island’s hotels and resorts, Koh Yao Noi — and Thailand in general — has a lot of challenges when it comes to a greener, more sustainable future. Single-use plastics and the resulting trash and marine plastic waste is still a massive issue throughout the country and its islands, although there are signs the tide is turning in the right direction.
As one example, Thailand has started rolling out bans on certain types of single-use plastics, such as plastic shopping bags and styrofoam takeout containers, with an eye to removing plastic waste from landfills by 2027. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts on Koh Yao Noi have, over the last five years, led to recycling more than 600 tons of plastics and other materials, the sale of which goes directly back into community initiatives. Renewable energy projects are also in development at some of the island’s hotels and resorts, as well as throughout the country.
The efforts on Koh Yao Noi might not be replicable in urban hotspots or regions with less natural abundance. But there’s a blueprint here that inspires. Think about that the next time you spot a sign requesting you to please hang up your towel.
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