Thai Sea Village Fishes for Tourists, Traditionally

By Rolf Potts
National Geographic Traveler
Updated May 17, 2004
On June 8, 2004, at National Geographic's Washington, D.C.,
headquarters, Queen Noor of Jordan is scheduled to again present the
World Legacy Awards (WLA) for sustainable tourism—a joint
program of
National Geographic Traveler magazine and
Conservation International ( target="_new">

Queen Noor presided over the first WLA ceremony last year, announcing winners in three categories: Nature Travel, Heritage Tourism, and Destination Stewardship. Each winner works to protect the natural and cultural quality of the places we visit, supports local communities, and gives us lasting travel memories.

In anticipation of the 2004 ceremony, we present the winners of 2003 as described in
Traveler (September 2003). This week, the last of the 2003 categories, Destination Stewardship, awarded to the people of a place that is taking notably good care of itself:

Koh Yao Noi, Thailand

Cruising Phangnga Bay with a sun-browned Thai fisherman, Dusit Buttree, it's hard to believe that we're just an hour from some of the biggest mass-tourism destinations in Thailand.

Unlike nearby Phuket, with its souvenir vendors and go-go bars, Buttree's home island of Koh Yao Noi retains its fishing villages and mangrove forests. Gibbons still haunt the outlying islands here, sea eagles soar in the skies, and the seas yield enough fish to give Buttree's family a stable income.

It nearly wasn't this way.

Just over a decade ago, trawlers from the mainland were illegally overfishing these waters, and mass tourism from Phuket threatened to disrupt the cultural traditions of Koh Yao Noi's 4,500 mostly Muslim residents. Afraid of being overwhelmed by outsiders, villagers sought the help of the Responsible Ecological Social Tours project (REST), a Bangkok-based group that works with locals to develop community-based tourism, promote conservation, and develop a sustainable economy.

REST encouraged the Koh Yao Noi villagers to organize tour programs, host visitors in their homes, and share with them their traditional way of life. Buttree isn't just taking me on a tour of Phangnga Bay, after all—he's also fishing for his day's keep. He can host tourists on his own terms, while I can experience a slice of Thai life in a way that no beach resort could provide.

What's more, the REST arrangement has instilled Koh Yao Noi villagers with a sense of confidence and grassroots power that benefits the community long after tourists have gone home.

"We welcome our visitors like cousins," Buttree tells me as he hauls in his nets. "When they go home, our village has a face to the rest of Thailand and the rest of the world. That helps us resist those who want to overfish our waters and develop our island for their own interests."

Thanks to its empowered community, Koh Yao Noi should be able to offer visitors an authentic Thai travel experience for years to come.

That night, we return to Buttree's stilted wood house, where his wife, Busaba, prepares a sumptuous dinner of blue crab, red snapper, and lobsterlike mantis shrimp. As I dig in, I tell Buttree this is the freshest seafood I've ever eaten. I should know: I watched him catch it.

REST runs tours to Kao Yao Noh (www. If you're in Phuket, you can take one of the daily boats to Koh Yao Noi from the Bang Rong Pier on Phuket's northeast coast.

Watch for the announcement of the 2004 World Legacy winners on June 8.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.