From tourist spot to green plot

Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, co-founder and president of the Sustainable Tourism Development Foundation, delves into the interplay between thriving tourism and environmental stewardship in Phuket

What is your background like, and what led you to this role? Were you always so passionate about tourism?
As a native of Phuket, I have held diverse roles within the travel industry, including managing resorts and property businesses. My involvement with the Phuket Tourism Association began at a young age, starting when I was 27. I have served in multiple capacities, ranging from committee member to vice president and finally president of the association. During my tenure as president – which coincided with Covid – I spearheaded initiatives like the Phuket Sandbox and had the opportunity to present plans for the Expo 2028 Phuket event in France. Close to the end of my four-year term, I convened with some associates to discuss the intersections of tourism and sustainability.

Recognising the intricate relationship between these two facets, we established the Sustainable Tourism Development Foundation (STDF) in 2022, with support from various partners, including the Phuket Hotels Association, Phuket Tourism Foundation, Phuket Chamber of Commerce, and Phuket City Development Co. Limited.

The foundation’s strategic focus for the next two to three years encompasses four key initiatives: Food (Before) Waste, the Phuket Tourism Carbon Learning Center, the Phuket Big Trees initiative, and the provision of green financing tailored for SMEs, particularly small hospitality businesses, through a pivotal fund that is the first of its kind.

Currently, I hold the position of president within the foundation and serve as an advisor to the Phuket Tourism Association.

What experiences have been pivotal in shaping your views on sustainability?
Having worked in tourism means I’ve worked closely with natural elements, including sun, sea and sand – all tourism products that are very big drivers in Phuket. Even though it seems like Phuket has experienced diminished impact when it comes to climate change, there have been notable consequences, including sudden, significant flooding last October. We’ve experienced how the tourism sector grapples with the repercussions of climate change from many dimensions. For example, increased rainfall affects tour boat operators, limiting their ability to operate. Additionally, rising sea temperatures lead to coral degradation, diminishing the appeal for divers.

In a world wrestling with “global boiling”, climate change exerts adverse effects on every facet of tourism, all the way from the supply chain to consumer demand.

My generation recognises that our livelihoods have long been intertwined with nature. Failing to address these environmental challenges leaves a grim legacy for our children. Our aspiration is to create a Better Phuket for future generations, shaped by climate demands.

Although our vision extends beyond Phuket, we currently lack the requisite resources to fully realise such broader objectives.

Over the past few years, Phuket has witnessed immense changes in its tourism landscape. What has changed the most from 2019 till now?
We’ve experienced both successes and setbacks. Success in the Phuket Sandbox occurred from strong partnership between the Public, People and Private sectors. If we didn’t have these, we couldn’t have succeeded. We had a very understanding public & support from the people and private sectors.

Our key takeaways encompass the three D’s: Digital, Data, and Deregulation.

Digitalisation is pivotal in every aspect of our work, encompassing communication, workflow, and platform utilisation.

The Phuket Sandbox initiative also underscored the fragmented state of Thai data. However, it was during the Sandbox that we encountered the Big Data Institute – an excellent government agency that tracks information such as visitor arrivals, number of vaccinations, and more. All this data, once synchronised, offered us a very comprehensive strategic overview.

The deregulation aspect involves urging the government to eliminate outdated legislation while modernising long-unreviewed regulations.

Another excellent takeaway is the exceptional spirit of Phuket. During the Sandbox there was so much unity among the people of Phuket – their forward-thinking approach showed that Phuket always accompanies problems with solutions.

One of the notable setbacks was our failed bid for the Expo 2028 Phuket, which surpassed our capabilities. Nevertheless, this experience afforded us a broader international perspective, enabling us to gain insights into global feedback mechanisms and operational standards.

As president of the Sustainable Tourism Development Foundation, what are the most significant challenges you’ve faced so far, and which achievements are you most proud of?
The primary challenge lies in the vast scope of sustainability, which demands the collective responsibility of all stakeholders.

Another issue is that even though more and more people are working in sustainability, they’re not necessarily talking or collaborating – this exacerbates redundancy and creates overlap.

In terms of achievements, we have successfully implemented organic waste composting.

Recently, we also conducted training on underground water banks in anticipation of potential water shortages. Although we have existing dams, inadequacy of rainfall in the coming year could pose challenges. To address this, we are exploring the establishment of additional reservoirs and expanding the water pipe network.

It is imperative that we continually seek new sources of freshwater through governmental efforts. Simultaneously, private initiatives, such as the creation of underground water banks, are tapping into local wisdom by considering the natural flow of underground water. This approach is characterised by its simplicity and reliance on local know-how.

Furthermore, the recycling of water, particularly at the individual level, is another avenue that warrants attention in our sustainability efforts.

With the rapid advancement of technology in recent years, in what ways do you believe technology can further aid the goals of sustainable tourism?
It’s simple; every agency and institution has useful data, if they can all talk.

Technology plays a pivotal role in data integration. If every agency can share and consolidate their data, it will really streamline our sustainability initiatives.

Do you believe that Southern Thailand – particularly the Andaman side – can evolve into a tourism hub like greater Honolulu over the next decade?
Today, Phuket serves as a vital gateway to neighbouring destinations like Krabi and Phang Nga. Travellers arriving in Phuket often explore beyond the island, and two key factors are crucial for managing tourist flow.

The first revolves around diversity of transportation options. Currently, road transport is the sole means of reaching Krabi, Phang Nga, or Khao Lak from Phuket, which requires a three hours’ drive. The absence of a comprehensive rail network underscores the urgent need for improved land transport options. Furthermore, sea routes to nearby islands primarily rely on boats.

Diversifying transportation modes, such as introducing a land-based rail system and seaplanes, can significantly enhance connectivity among popular tourist destinations.

I’m confident that Phuket will welcome around eight million visitors this year, achieving at least 80 per cent of its 2019 tourism figures, despite geopolitical challenges. Additionally, I anticipate a full recovery to 100 per cent of pre-pandemic tourism levels by 2024.

The future course of Phuket relies on government policies. Follow through with promises on the Phang Nga Airport and substantial enhancements to the region’s transportation infrastructure have the potential to accelerate Phuket’s growth.

Currently, Phuket still has a lot of pain points in terms of connectivity and transportation, which demand government attention. Addressing these concerns, especially those pertaining to transportation, is imperative to unlock Phuket’s true potential.

Another issue is the limitations of Phuket International Airport, which is already operating at maximum capacity. One major factor that contributes to flight delays is the lack of available runways.

The airport has only one runway. With only one runway, no matter how many terminals you add, it doesn’t make a difference. The runway issue needs to be resolved first.

One challenge for travellers in Phuket is getting around the island, as things are quite spread out. Can you comment briefly on the Phuket light rail project?
The monorail has been postponed several times by the current government, so this brings me back to my original question: How committed is the government to ensuring Phuket’s successful future? If the government lends its unwavering support, Phuket can easily take off.

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