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How Thailand is becoming a leader in eco-friendly tourism

Thailand is fast becoming a leader in eco-friendly tourism, providing visitors with a wide range of sustainable attractions, activities, and accommodation offerings. Deborah Dickson-Smith looks at how the kingdom has reinvented itself as an eco-warrior, making travel in Thailand more appealing than ever.

From lush mountain rainforests to limestone karst islands and white sandy beaches, there’s no denying the beauty of Thailand. But like many popular tourist destinations, the country’s resources for protecting this bounty have been stretched in decades past. Visitors to popular holiday destinations such as Koh Samui, Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao now have more choice than ever to travel with purpose, with the tourist hotspots boasting carbon-neutral hotels, conservation initiatives that give back to the community, and paddock-to-plate fine dining.

Elephant attractions re-imagined

Thailand’s special relationship with the Asian elephant has, for many decades, been a cornerstone of its tourism industry. With visitors always keen for an encounter with one of its gentle giants. These days, wildlife sanctuaries take a more ‘hands-off’ approach. With elephant riding in Thailand largely replaced with the joy of watching these grand animals in their natural habitat. There are many ethical retreats throughout Thailand where the wellbeing of the elephant is paramount. These retreats provide a happier experience for both the animals and their admirers.

Samui Elephant Sanctuary

Koh Samui’s tourism operators and local communities are committed to low-impact, eco-tourism experiences, providing many ways for travellers to witness the natural beauty of this region sustainably. A great example of this is the Samui Elephant Sanctuary. The sanctuary opened at Bo Phut in 2018 and is so popular that a second location has since opened in Chaweng Noi. Both venues are set amid forests, creating a safe retirement home for elephants that have served in the logging and tourism industries. Visitors can feed and walk with the elephants – or simply enjoy watching them socialise and romp in the pools.

Two elephants eating at Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Samui Elephant Sanctuary

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation

In northern Thailand, witness the work of the trendsetting Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), which is co-funded by the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. For more than a decade, the sanctuary has promoted the ethical treatment of elephants. The pachyderms co-exist alongside their mahouts (handlers) in a safe, peaceful and natural setting.

Jungle bubbles at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort
Anantara’s Jungle Bubbles give you a front-row seat to rehabilitated elephants

Eco-friendly tourism in Koh Tao

Community gardens, organic composting, solar panel installations, and the natural production of biogas are just a few strategies local businesses in Koh Tao are using to decrease their consumption levels and work towards more sustainable practices. The island now celebrates its world-famous marine environment with an annual festival, Spotlight Koh Tao. The festival spotlights local marine and land-based conservation issues and has a program of immersive events. Visitors to the festival can choose from a selection of revitalisation activities, everything from beach clean-ups to zero-waste Thai cooking classes. Koh Tao’s diving community was among the first to witness the effects of over-tourism, pollution and climate change on local reefs. The community has now united to monitor reef health, manage regular underwater clean-ups and nurture coral restoration projects. Black Turtle Dive has taken this eco-friendly tourism a step further with the development of marine conservation courses, internships, and workshops for visiting divers. The islands Coco Tie Dye offers another sustainable activity for visitors. Tie-dyeing is a zero-waste endeavour and cottage industry that provides income for locals. The workshop provides guests with an understanding of the island’s natural resources, combining education with a fun and focused artistic activity.

Diver for Black Turtle Dive conservation and coral reef with fish swimming amongst coral
Black Turtle Dive offers diving and marine conservation courses © Jayne Jenkins / Ko Nang Yuan is as pretty above water as below, with reefs just off the beach.

Local communities in Koh Pha-Ngan

Nestled between Koh Samui and Koh Tao, Koh Pha-Ngan is famous for its wild full moon parties. But it is now becoming better known as a hub for alternative thinking and eco-friendly tourism. A great example of this is Indigo Coral House – a craft workshop and guest house run by passionate duo Fatima and Matteo. The property was built using sustainable bamboo, with construction methods refined to minimise the use of non-renewable resources. The house is also a haven for Burmese refugees who live there and learn craft techniques such as leaf printing and weaving so they can create their own pieces and sell them at the markets to make an income. Don’t miss one of the workshops where you can immerse in the local culture and learn how to do leaf printing, composting, and building with bamboo.

Indigo Coral House craft workshop
Indigo Coral House craft workshop

Community tourism experiences

Thailand’s renewed focus on sustainability has also seen the rise of community tourism experiences. These are key to supporting local economies and conserving age-old traditions.

Food has a way of not only uniting people but also revealing cultural nuances, as the team at Courageous Kitchen know all too well. The group’s outings and events are fun and informative tourism, while also helping marginalised youth in Bangkok. This is done through market visits, street food tours, family cooking classes and noodle-making demonstrations,

Go one step further and help grow your meal with award-winning responsible tourism company, Nutty’s Adventures. You can work alongside farmers in rice paddies in Nakhon Pathom. Or sign up for other community-based tours in Thailand, like going off the beaten track in Phayao Province in Northern Thailand.

Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has a free electric boat service to explore the Padung Krungkasem Canal. The boats depart from Hua Lampong Pier near Hua Lampong MRT from 6 to 9am and 4 to 7pm on weekdays (departing every 20 minutes) and from 8am to 7pm on weekends and public holidays (departing every hour).

Hands Across the Water

There are many organisations that exist to provide awareness of, and funds to, communities in need. Like Hands Across the Water, and their annual Ride to Provide: an epic long-distance bike ride covering 800 scenic kilometres along the Gulf of Thailand in eight days. Money raised provides critical funding for this remarkable charity, providing a future for impoverished orphans. Socialgiver also donates profits to community-driven projects throughout Thailand, bridging the gap between local business owners, consumer and social programs by providing a shopping platform that sells everything from homewares and baked goods to resort stays and tours.

Funds from cycling tours with Hands Across the Water provide a future for impoverished orphans
Funds from cycling tours with Hands Across the Water provide a future for impoverished orphans

Sustainable hotels in Thailand

Thailand has some of the world’s most progressive hotels when it comes to leaving a minimal footprint. Which means you can sleep soundly across the country in hotels that unite style and sustainability.

In 2019, as part of Thailand’s commitment to sustainable tourism development, the kingdom formed a partnership with UNESCO and Expedia Group to launch the first chapter of the UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge, which has so far attracted pledges from around 600 Thai hotels.

In Phuket, a collaboration between JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Minor Hotels (Anantara, Avani) is working to fund environmental programs that support fragile marine life, such as the foundation’s Nesting Beach Patrols. This program works to protect leatherback turtles returning to nest on the sands of Mai Khao.

Also in Phuket, one of Thailand’s eco resorts, the five-star Keemala, has a strong commitment to environmental and ethical practices. From the villa design to the landscaping, garden-to-table culinary approach, plastic-waste-free policy and ethically sourced materials, everything has been carefully considered to help ensure a greener (yet oh-so-sleek) future.

Perhaps they took their cues from AKARYN Hotel Group, one of the hospitality pioneers in Thailand to nix single-use plastics, as well as several other sustainable initiatives. The group now invests in solar panels and has started an organic farmers market at its Aleenta Phuket resort.

Conscious dining with minimal environmental impact

Paddock-to-plate, farm-to-table… the concept of minimal-footprint dining is one that many five-star restaurants now adhere to across the world. Thailand takes it a step further with many establishments adopting a ‘hyper-local’ ethos. Sourcing ingredients from neighbouring communities, growing and farming their own produce. While also creating a sustainable supply chain that supports both the eatery and its partners.

TAAN sits on the top of the Siam@Siam Design Hotel Bangkok. It was one of the first restaurants to dish up Thai cuisine with a modern twist, largely using organic ingredients. Think northern-style fermented pork sausage with betel leaves and toasted rice crackers, all with a city view. Also in the Thai capital, Haoma calls itself an ‘urban farm restaurant’, serving neo-Indian cuisine using the kitchen’s own vegetables and herbs and following a zero-waste policy.

Zero waste dining is also a priority at Jampa in Phuket, where menus change daily depending on what’s in season and currently growing in the garden. Not far away, PRU Restaurant at Trisara Resort has been awarded a Michelin star for its innovative, yet sustainable, culinary approach. The result? Moreish dishes like black crab with wild mushrooms, or sunchoke with fig.

PRU head chef Jimmy Ophorst tends the restaurant’s organic kitchen garden
PRU head chef Jimmy Ophorst tends the restaurant’s organic kitchen garden

The Tourism Authority of Thailand

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is taking the protection of its natural assets seriously. To promote low-carbon tourism TAT has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organisation and Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association.

For more information on innovative developments and sustainable travel in Thailand see

Several Phuket hotels contribute to Nesting Beach Patrols to protect nesting turtles
Several Phuket hotels contribute to Nesting Beach Patrols to protect nesting turtles © Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in volume 40 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.

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