Internships in Thailand and The Bahamas Offered Unique Adventures in Ecotourism

September 10, 2013
internships thailand the bahamas story michelle yuan
(Photo: Michelle Yuan)

By Sarah Gillig Sunu MEM '14

INTERNATIONAL VIEWPOINT

Summer internships: They are an opportunity for first-year Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry (MEM and MF) students to build networks, get experience and get
a start on their masters projects. For 13 students this year—with the help of Nicholas School grants and endowments—it also was a chance to learn about environmental issues outside of the United States.

Students interned this summer in Uganda, France, Peru, Thailand, Kenya, Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Namibia, Denmark, Kazakhstan, and the Bahamas.

Blogging from Thailand and the Bahamas, two Nicholas School students had the Bahamas very different adventures in international ecotourism:

Anna Flam MEM’14, was in Phang Nga province, Thailand, working with Andaman Discoveries, a community- based ecotourism company with a conservation bent. The money that Andaman makes giving tours is used to fund conservation efforts in the towns that the tours visit. “It might be replanting mangroves, or providing youth activities—but it’s whatever the community decides on. The villages have final say on what they think they need most from the Andaman funds,” Flam says.

Flam is consulting with the Andaman village liaisons about sustainability “from a triple-bottom-line perspective— economic, environmental, and social, as well as what they want for the future,”
she says. She has been interviewing people in the villages and will be using the data that she has gathered this summer for her masters project, in addition to creating guidelines and recommendations based on the interviews. The area has opened up to tourism only recently.

Michelle Yuan MEM’14, worked with a team of Duke students to design a solar-powered hot water system for Small Hope Bay Lodge, a family-run diving resort on Andros Island in the Bahamas. “Small Hope is one of the first dive resorts in the world, and it’s a very tight-knit community with a strong interest in environmental stewardship. Power is really expensive on Andros, and it all comes from imported diesel, which is bad for the local environment. It’s hard to cut back on the demand side of energy supply for the hospitality industry—people on vacation aren’t thinking about conserving energy, they’re thinking about having a good time—so we improved the supply side. This was a great project to improve both the business bottom line and overall sustainability,” Yuan says.

Small Hope Bay Lodge has been operating for over 50 years, while Andaman Discoveries grew out of a tsunami relief effort dating back to 2004.

For Yuan, a typical work day started with a morning briefing with the Duke team (Jake Vestal MEMP\MEM’13, Esi Waters MEM’13, and Kevin Kurkul MEM’14, who each were responsible for a different aspect of the project) and the hotel staff to go over tasks for the day. Yuan managed the coordination of the different components of the solar hot water project and acted as a liaison between the team and the hotel owner, Jeff Birch. Yuan also managed project logistics such as importing supplies and scheduling local labor. In the afternoons, the team had time to kayak and explore the island before acting as social ambassadors for the resort during evening activities. In her free time, Yuan took advantage of the dive sites of Andros, going as deep as 185 feet and even tagging along with world-renowned cave diver Brian Kakuk on a recent expedition.

thailand the bahamas story anna flam
(Photo: Anna Flam)

Anna Flam’s day started with break- fast at the market, where she stood out as a farang (Thai for anyone foreign and white in Thailand). “Local guys would come and sit near me so that they could stare at the farang. It happened a lot with the local cops. They would always pay for my coffee, but never said a word until I got up to leave,” Flam says. She then might visit a volunteer project or a school, and spend the rest of the day in the Andaman office, transcribing interviews from earlier in the summer, and later visiting the night market for a snack or dinner.

Flam organized her internship with Andaman Discoveries herself. Many e- mails and cover letters were exchanged, Flam says, before she found what she was looking for with Andaman Discoveries. “I was seeking something in a rapidly developing area with amazing environmental resources, and I loved where I wound up,” Flam says.

Flam also was surprised at the many ways her questions about the environment could be interpreted. “People didn’t always make the distinction between their personal environment and the natural environment. So I’d ask something like ‘how would you like to improve the environment’ and would receive answers like ‘We want air conditioning.”

One community thought that the cow dung in their streets was their worst environmental problem because it wasn’t very attractive, and yet in many places there was a lack of a good water supply, Flam says.

Michelle Yuan’s project came about through an inquiry from the resort owner to Dean William L. Chameides. Yuan recruited other Duke students to work with her, and was the project manager for her site.

“This has been a really great experience for me professionally, it’s a really big project for a young professional to lead. I’ve learned a lot about communicating expectations and compromising between what the client wants, what the technology is capable of, and what the team can deliver. At the end of the day we have a working system that will fulfill the needs of this family business, and that’s really satisfying,” Yuan says.

Both Yuan and Flam took away a new perspective on their future career plans. “Very few consulting jobs give you direct access to the decision maker, so it was wonderful to have that at Small Hope Bay. This project reaffirmed for me that I want to do consulting work and that I want to help organizations build their infrastructure,” Yuan says.

Flam is contemplating returning to Thailand after completing her MEM. “It’s a very interesting time to be in Thailand, because even the most isolated, middle-of-nowhere places that have no electricity are still very middle-class in terms of the quality of life of their residents. There are still amazing natural resources, but the people are starting to have disposable incomes, and that’s a time of environmental vulnerability,” Flam says.

Both Yuan and Flam have been recording their experiences as part of the Nicholas School Internship Blogs. More of Anna Flam’s adventures in Thailand can be found at ‘Ecotourism Sustainability in Phang Nga, Thailand’ blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/internshipblogs/ecotourism-thailand/, while Michelle Yuan’s time in the Bahamas is chronicled at ‘Sustainable Tourism in the Bahamas’ - blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/internshipblogs/sustainable-tourism-in-the-bahamas/.


Sarah Gillig Sunu MEM '14 is the leader of the Duke Environment blogging team.