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Quiet achiever 'greens' Thailand's unsustainable travel industry

Ecotourism pioneer Richard Sandler's resorts show how to reduce numbers

Richard Sandler inspects organic vegetables grown for his guests at his resorts at Khao Sok, in southern Thailand. (Courtesy of Marius Herrmann)

KHAO SOK, Thailand -- "I often ask myself why a kid raised in New York City became a jungle fanatic," says Richard Sandler, a pioneer of ecotourism in Thailand who has been offering benign alternatives to the destructive travel industry for more than half a century.

It is a long way from the concrete and high-rises of Sandler's youth to the sites of some of his Thai projects: the sands of Golden Buddha Beach on Phra Thong Island in the Andaman Sea, the languorous River Kwai in Thailand's west, the soaring cliffs of Khao Sok in the south.

However, 55 years after first arriving in Thailand, Sandler is still trying to set an example to the traditional travel industry, which largely opts for quick profits over sustainability, and for overwhelming tourist volume over numbers that would leave a lighter footprint on the environment.

"As a small developer, I cannot claim to have a major impact on this huge industry, but hope that I have shown developers that you can respect the environment and still make a good return on investment," he says.

One proof of Sandler's success lies in his adjoining Khao Sok properties -- Our Jungle Camp-Eco Resort and Our Jungle House -- which have weathered the dearth of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic better, he says, than any of some 50 other accommodations in the area. He hopes that some developers will take note of his motto: "Low density, high value."

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the beaches of Railay are free of the normal crowds of tourists. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

Sandler is also proud of the Golden Buddha Beach Resort. Built in 1988, it hosted a turtle conservation project, which included teaching children about conservation. "When a local parent once told me her kids warned her that she shouldn't eat turtle eggs, I felt we were really having an impact," says Sandler, adding that "simply exposing guests, staff, and local children to nature is the best way to build long-term advocates for the environment."

Phra Thong maintains its tranquil ambiance, although Sandler sold his resort there after the 2004 tsunami, which took 15 lives on the island.

Going back to his roots, Sandler says that many parents in mid-20th century New York City dispatched their children to summer camps in wilderness areas. He spent 13 summers in the northeastern state of Vermont climbing mountains, growing vegetables, canoeing and taking part in other nature-based activities -- experiences that he brought with him to Thailand.

A boatman steers his craft among the wonders of Khao Sok National Park, a haven for wildlife. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

His first connection with the country came through a Thai language teacher at Yale University. A scholarship researching aspects of the Thai economy at Bangkok's Thammasat University followed, and after a short period in the United States he returned as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Thailand had become his home.

Seeking diversion from his Bangkok-based assignment, he and some friends bought 10 hectares of land along the River Kwai. The plan was to grow vegetables, but while Sandler earned the title of "Mushroom King of Thailand," the scheme lost lots of money.

While tending his vegetables, Sandler slept in a thatch and bamboo raft tethered to the shore, diving into the serenely flowing Kwai for morning swims against a backdrop of pristine riverbanks. At a friend's suggestion, and as the losses piled up, he began taking paying guests attracted to what became a no-frills, nature-oriented resort enlivened by a whiff of adventure. This was 1976, the year Sandler set a determined course for the rest of his life.

"Ecotourism -- the word wouldn't be invented for another 10 or so years, but we were doing it,' he says. "Thus we became an early example of an ecotourist resort well before it became a much-coveted and abused term in the travel industry."

When Sandler came to the Railay Peninsula in 1986, he found only six stilt-propped fishermen's houses, one backpacker hut and three spectacular beaches. (Courtesy of Marius Herrmann)

Also working for the United Nations and the World Bank, designing rural development projects, Sandler traveled to some of Thailand's remotest areas, stumbling upon spots of exceptional allure. In 1986, he came to the Railay Peninsula, finding only six stilt-propped fishermen's houses, one backpacker hut and three spectacular beaches. There he planted the Railay Beach Club, built in traditional Thai style and so deeply embedded amid dense vegetation that it is barely visible to outsiders.

Two years later, his Lost Horizon company purchased land abutting the Khao Sok National Park at what Sandler describes as "one of the most beautiful places in Thailand." To reach it he had to hack his way through the bush and cross a river on a bridge consisting of two cables, one to walk on and the other to grip. What he discovered was lush, old-growth forest along a clear stream, below 200-meter-high cliffs.

This sanctuary encompasses one of the world's oldest rainforests, abundant wildlife -- including some 200 elephants -- and a vast lake ringed by dramatic towers of limestone karst that rose up some 66 million years ago. A prehistoric majesty reigns.

One of several floating hotels on Cheow Lan Lake, ringed by dramatic limestone cliffs. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

From a few simple tree houses, his twin resorts have expanded, while maintaining their harmonious ties to nature. On check-in, guests are warned that troops of roaming macaques may raid belongings if doors are left open.

Our Jungle House is managed by Gonthong Lourdesamy, a dynamic Thai with two decades of experience in the environmental field. British environmental educator Michael Horrocks takes children from local schools on field trips to learn about wildlife and conservation, hoping to make them proud protectors of the park. About 10% of resort income is funneled into these classes, which are offered free even though the properties are earning no profit during the pandemic.

Khao Sok has preserved much of its natural beauty, but Sandler says that over the years friends have blamed him for "spoiling" those places by paving the way for mass tourism. He counters that had it not been for his efforts some might have been even more degraded by the ever-mounting onrush of tourists, both domestic and foreign. In the year before COVID-19 struck, Thailand attracted nearly 40 million foreign visitors, up from 9.5 million at the turn of the century.

Top: Sandler’s twin resorts are embedded in an old-growth tropical forest and feature treehouses as well as other accommodation. Bottom: Gonthong Lourdesamy, the dynamic manager of Our Jungle House, was hired after working for two decades in the environmental field. (Photos by Denis D. Gray)

The Railay beaches on the Andaman Sea, often rated among the finest in the world, are overrun by bars, massage and tattoo parlors and boatloads of day trippers ferried in aboard earsplitting, motor-propelled boats. Outsize rafts blaring disco music ply the River Kwai, site of the "Death Railway" built by Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave laborers during World War II.

"One important principle is low-density use of places of natural beauty, which usually means sacrificing some potential profit," he says. "Sadly, most people in the Thai tourism industry are profit-maximizers."

A compromise, he says, must be achieved: Ecotourism cannot be sustainable unless it makes a profit, while the profit-oriented must sacrifice some income for environmental ideals. The ultimate solution lies with regulatory authorities, local communities and tourist organizations with a long-term vision.

A macaque makes itself at home in one of Sandler’s Khao Sok resorts. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

To date, whatever regulations exist to minimize the impact of large-scale tourism have been mostly flouted. The mantra has been "the more the better." Yet, Sandler expresses a degree of optimism, saying that Thais in the tourism industry have gradually absorbed environmental values over the years because they have seen how serious his Western guests were about it. And the private sector has been aggressive -- for better and worse -- in responding to market demand.

"It's reasonable to believe that post-COVID, there will be an increased demand for low-density resorts and open spaces like we have at Our Jungle House," he says. "We can expect that demand is shifting, however, slowly, toward nature and adventure travel."

Looking considerably younger than his 77 years, Sandler retains a boyish enthusiasm and an appetite for new ventures. He plans to expand his educational programs so that more Thai children will grow to love the jungle, and to train young people to become nature tour guides. That is the way, he says, to make the coming generations passionate advocates for the environment.

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