By Kanda Yaemboonruang
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, famed resort island Koh Samui, which is one of the most popular destinations in Thailand for international tourists, has been in a difficult state of limbo. Businesses have been closing down temporarily as tourists have virtually vanished from the island’s shores.
Facing a critical halt to their main sources of income, some Samui residents decided to turn the crisis into an opportunity to reconsider their true purpose on the island and unite to achieve more sustainable means of income.
Eco-tourism is seen by some as a pathway for the island to move away from mass tourism towards more community-based tourism. Many islanders agree that through eco-tourism, businesses can better preserve the environment and focus more on waste management to address the chronic waste problems on the island.
The Asian Institute of Technology and Thai PBS (Thai Public Broadcast Service), one of the major mass media organizations in Thailand, joined forces on Koh Samui in September and October 2020 to carry out a project called “AIT and Thai PBS Making Samui Green and Sustainable”. It’s a quest to help the island residents build a foundation for green economy and sustainable community-based tourism, officials from both organizations said.
To start the collaboration, Thai PBS invited every sector on the island to work together and journalists provided media training and communication activities for the island businesses, while AIT initiated research on the domestic waste situation, disseminated information on methods of waste segregation, and introduced the idea of waste upcycling. The AIT study covers the entire island and will be one of the most comprehensive studies on waste during the COVID-19 period.
The AIT research associate team from the Marine Plastics Abatement (MPA) program and the Environmental Engineering and Management (EEM) program, School of Environment, Resources and Development (SERD) – consisting of Ms. Nichakul Phosirikul, Ms. Kesirin Jinda, Mr. Thanapat Jansakoo, Mr. Peerawit Janta, and Mr. Sittikorn Kamngam – landed in southern Thailand on 14 October 2020 to begin the first phase of primary research on Samui’s waste situation.
They collected data on the most common types of waste found in different areas of the island, such as at local markets, tourist and business areas, residential areas and agricultural areas. The team also studied the residents’ ways of living, and household waste management practices. All data will be used to design specific tools to fight waste problems in each area and to conduct a feasibility study to create a green economy in the project’s next phase, officials said.
“For our research, we are focusing on the raw data of the waste from land use. It will help us to have a clear picture of the amount and the types of waste produced in each area of the island. For example, we found that most waste produced at local markets was organic, while most produced at tourist attraction sites was plastic. One silver lining in this COVID-19 crisis is that because the number of tourists is at a minimum, we can accurately determine the amount of waste generated by local residents. The next phase is to analyze this data, comparing the figures with those pre-COVID-19 to make sure our research effort will be efficient,” the AIT research team explained.
Approximately 200 tons of waste is produced per day on the island during the regular tourism high season, with around 100-150 tons produced daily during the low season. However, during COVID-19 period, these numbers have reduced to 90 tons. The research team added that Samui is a great case study area, because it is now a closed island with almost one hundred percent of its waste produced by island residents. All data collected and analyzed to support a project proposal to the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) for research funding for this project.
Mr. Nititorn Thongteerakul, Manager of Community Relations, Thai PBS, said this tie-up is a good chance for a media major such as Thai PBS to work together with an international higher education institution like AIT, which can provide expertise and effective knowledge on waste management for successful community-based tourism. The new research from AIT will help raise the awareness of the local residents on the waste problems and help them design and manage their own version of zero-waste tourism.
“Some Samui residents are already practicing waste management such as the well-known couple ‘Aunty Nui and Uncle Jade,’ who everyday collect food waste to make organic fertilizers. A local restaurant named The Nature also uses 100 percent natural products. All of these can be great selling points for eco-tourism, and if people have more choices and learn more about waste management that can be combined with their normal life, it will be very good. Another good point is the research will be a tool for local people to see their own problems and find solutions,” the Thai PBS Manager of Community Relations added.
Local resident, Ms. Sama Boonsa, said that she is now aware of the waste problem and has noticed its impact on villagers’ health. “Some information found is information that Samui residents have no knowledge of. We never separate waste types in different areas or determine the amount of waste produced in different zones of the island. The research results will be very useful for us to find the right way to solve the waste problem, and also to turn waste into income. Even though it may not give us much profit, during a pandemic like this when people are losing jobs, this will be attractive to some people," Ms. Sama said.
"This is a great time to revive Samui and rescue our beloved island from the long-standing waste problems. Because we are still seeing a low number of tourists, and since most people now on the island are local residents, it can be a good start for us to build a better environment in our home area with our own hands,” Ms. Sama added.