Phuket is best known for its beaches, nightlife and unbridled commercial development. The number of tourists continues to rise, reaching 9 million in 2012.
Such growth can undermine long-established ways of life, creating disruptions among local communities. In one locality in the island's northeast, however, residents have banded together in order to better manage the tourism industry – reaping its economic benefits while at the same time preserving their traditional lifestyle.
Leaders in Ban Bang Rong, a community that dates back more than 200 years, formed the Ban Bang Rong Agrotourism Association 13 years ago, recognising the risks of unregulated development. Inspired by Islamic teachings, the group aims to protect the area's environment and natural assets, while fostering harmonious relations with visitors.
"It's a new kind of tourism, one that focuses on local lifestyles, culture, history of the local people and environmental conservation," Prasert Ridraksa, the association's 38-year-old organiser, told Khabar Southeast Asia. "Some local communities in Phuket are somewhat anti-tourist, but not us. We are pleased to invite anyone to our community."
"Most local residents are involved with fishing or aquaculture, raising goats, rubber tapping or running restaurants, things like that. So this is just a part-time job for the people involved," he explained.
About 80% of tourists are Thais, including student groups on field trips or groups of government workers. Meanwhile, approximately 80% of the 400 families in Ban Bang Rong are Muslim, with the remainder Thai Buddhists or foreigners.
Halal food and kayak tours
Sanna Bannok, a 15-year-old waitress at Ban Bang Rong Community Restaurant, told Khabar, "There are a lot of tourists this time of year, so we come here to work on weekends and holidays to make extra money to help pay for our school tuition."
Prasert's wife, Saimai Ridraksa, who runs tours of the community, said the restaurant is one of the many co-operative efforts in the community. It serves delicious halal food, including a wide assortment of seafood dishes, which are kept in floating pens incorporated into the raft along the side of the main dining room.
"Profits are put into a collective social-security fund administered by the Government Savings Bank, which covers members' basic medical costs. Currently we have about 800 members out of over 1,000 in our community," she said.
Fisherman Bangbow Suchartwibong helps at the restaurant and gives kayak tours of the mangrove forests.
"I have been doing this for eight years now. I get about 50 baht ($1.65) per tour – it's up to the tourists how much they pay. This is a community service, not a private business and everyone in the community is able to take part."
The presence of the expansive and healthy mangrove in the area did much to minimize damage in the 2004 tsunami. Other parts of the island, especially on the west coast where mangroves and natural dune formations had been sacrificed for tourism development, suffered much greater damage and considerable loss of life.
Protecting the mangroves had been one of the primary reasons the association was established, Bangbow said.
"There had been earlier attempts to bring in backhoes and build prawn farms in the area, but the community opposed it as it is bad for the environment and illegal under Forestry Department regulations," he said.
Agrotourism "enough to live on"
Noot Nafarang, who has been raising goats and crops in the area for 35 years, runs the Ban Bang Rong Goat Co-op, which has about 70 goats. He said the community brings in more than enough money for residents to get by.
"It's enough to live on and keep up with the rising cost of living. In fact, it's a comfortable way of life and I don't have to borrow money from anyone and put myself in debt," he said.
Noot said the community made an agreement with the government to use some of the land for sustainable agriculture as long as they only grew on certain parts and didn't take down vegetation.
Before the deal, officials and villagers had regarded each other as enemies. The organic farmers have since become the eyes and ears of the government, reporting encroachment or illegal hunting in the area, which is home to a rehabilitation project for gibbons and a variety of wildlife not seen anywhere else on the island.
Like any community, Ban Bang Rong has its share of social issues. But the people work together to find solutions.
"It's inevitable that every community will have them to some degree. For the most part, when there are disputes or problems in the Bang Rong community we hold meetings and try to figure out a way to put those involved back on the right path," she said.
If youths get into trouble, the issue is initially taken up with a committee of youth leaders, who attend special leadership training camps.
"If we have any problems involving unruly youths, we tend to let their older peers sort them out," she said.