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ASIA’S FUTURE CITIES: New buds of growth for Yangon's 'green movement'


YANGON: The notion of starting a “green” business in Myanmar is still an unconventional one in 2017.

Saw Jury Bo Han had to venture overseas to gain the expertise and confidence to try his hand at a solar energy venture, which he launched just a few months ago in Yangon.

Despite the high potential for renewable energy in the country, there are few specialised operators trying to spread solar technology – either to businesses or private citizens. 

“We are still in the very early stage because we lack knowledge,” said the general manager of TQSI (Technology, Quality & Sustainable Innovation). “We’re trying to do business while also training people at the same time.”

The showroom of sustainable lighting business Eco-Green Technologies.

Likewise, for the small team behind Eco-Green Technologies, it was Singapore and its advanced energy efficiency that triggered their push to design new lighting solutions for their own fast growing city

“It is still tough. But it’s good for the planet,” said Yin Htwe Thet, the group’s managing director.

After forming four years ago, Eco-Green now has 19 staff, mostly young engineers, and is embarking on trying to change local culture towards quality, sustainable products, in their case innovative LED lighting for use in projects from hotels to shopping malls.

“When we started we had to try really hard to educate our clients and persuade them to adopt these technologies. Many of the owners don’t want to spend much upfront,” said director Chan Myae Aung.

Where awareness and adaptation of green technologies has become more common in many developed nations, Myanmar has unsurprisingly lingered behind. But with Yangon rapidly expanding, opportunities abound for those willing to embrace the future.

Rooftop solar panels in Yangon is still a very new concept.

For TQSI, despite uncertainty about regulations, and a very limited market at present, starting this business was not a big gamble.

“From what I observe we have got a very good future in terms of renewable energy. Solar will play an important role in life,” Saw Jury Bo Han said.

“In the future, it will happen to most big developments, especially big businesses, banks and hospitals.

Eco-Green is also betting on Yangon following similar trends to other major metropolises. The city will also have to deal with the looming threat of climate change and more intense demands for cheap power.

“Energy is going to become very expensive in Myanmar in the future,” Yin Htwe Thet said. “For lighting, nowadays no one will enforce green technology. Right now price is a big disadvantage. But we are a part of this, we are driving it.”

Of course they are not alone; more willing pioneers are driving forward a green agenda. But exactly what that means for Yangon remains uncertain.

And whether those with power will join hands is an even bigger question.

Fast new housing developments still mostly do not include renewable technologies or green design.

‘YOU HAVE THE MONEY, YOU DO IT’

A lack of policy around the so-called green movement remains stifling, according to many working closely with the sector.

Aung Myint from the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar says regardless of the budding efforts by small businesses, their potential is still limited.

“The flow is ready, the people are ready to participate but there’s no policy. This is the bottleneck,” he said. “Technology is no problem but without regulation we can’t do anything.”

Saw Jury Bo Han, conversely, views what his business can do as “contributing something back to Myanmar” in lieu of strong government-driven initiatives.

“Our government is promoting renewable energy but the way they do it is ’you have the money, you do it’,” he said.

The counter argument is a lack of control is allowing unscrupulous or profit-chasing housing developers, for example, to take advantage.

A lack of government policy on green issues means related industries are still small. 

There is concern about the word “green” being falsely thrown around as a marketing tool in this emerging market. Without proper standards it is difficult to police.

Lack of incentives, particularly economic ones, also means, for now, many projects are going ahead in Yangon with little consideration to future needs of the city.

“As the drift to cities increases most of the building design is not doing anything to take into account what future buildings should be like,” said David Allan, the founder of Spectrum Sustainable Development Network. His office window view is one of contrasts; a longstanding pagoda and a rising skyline of steel and glass.

“They’re being built for a minimum cost, rather than a minimum operating cost. People don’t understand how to have an energy efficient way forward.”

He agrees that the national government is “keen” on green technologies but is still coming to terms with how to roll out policies in urban areas.

“Cities are a little bit harder for people to get their heads around than the rural environment at present,” he said.

“Nationally, there’s a lot of concern about agricultural productivity but in many ways this is entirely linked to the cities issue. Because agricultural productivity is so low, the migration to cities is higher because people think life is going to be better.

“The new administration is very malleable at the moment and accepting that change is required.”

Care for the local environment is still adversely affecting Yangon’s green spaces.

Some like Jean-Marc Brule from non-government organisation Green Lotus says any type of “green attitude” in Yangon is an improvement on the recent past.

“Nobody, until three years ago, was thinking urban. The argument against green activities is over. Decision makers just need to know it.”

He says the speed in which action is taken needs to increase significantly though, to avoid the same development mistakes made in Jakarta and Bangkok. While Yangon’s liveability is currently eroding, the trend is still reversible, he argues.

“Construction permits are being given faster than anything for a sustainable plan. But maybe the good thing is, the way Yangon is structured, it will make the disaster come quicker. The urgent solution will then be found.”

The green movement, of course, embodies more than just housing and energy. There are diverse voices within Yangon working on ideas to reclaim public space, beautify the riverfront, enhance public transport and empower local communities.

Some of those pushing it will admit some of the vision is utopian, but important to pursue anyway. “This is a question for everyone in the world,” Yin Htwe Thet said.

“We just have to start from day one.” 



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Former yoga missionary could bring Philippine mining industry to its knees


MANILA: The Philippines’ environment secretary, Gina Lopez, comes from one of the country’s wealthiest families, with business stakes in media empires, energy and manufacturing. But she herself had mostly stayed away from the limelight, choosing a life of travelling, spirituality and yoga.

When she returned to the Philippines, she became a passionate advocate for the environment using the charity arms of her family’s media company, ABS-CBN, to fund her projects.

That all changed when she was appointed environment secretary under the new Duterte administration and took on some of the country’s biggest businesses, despite little technical education.

Lopez has now threatened to shut down two-thirds of the country’s mining sites and cancel a further 75 mining contracts that were approved by her predecessor – a pipeline of mining investments worth about 1.1 trillion Philippine pesos (US$22 million).

THE PUSH-BACK

Her announcements shocked the mining community of the fifth most mineral-rich country in the world for gold, nickel, copper and chromite – the Philippines has US$840 billion worth of untapped mineral wealth, according to an estimate by the country’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau.

Many of the companies are now fighting back, appealing both to the president and to the courts.

Members from the pro-mining community watch Philippines’ environment secretary Gina Lopez on TV, booing her. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

A nine-page complaint was filed on Sunday (Mar 19) by the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP), charging Lopez with causing “undue injuries” to the mining industry.

The group lamented that as early as September last year, Lopez had already announced the suspension of about 20 mining firms even before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) mining audit was completed.

COMP said that most, if not all its members, have acquired International Standards Organization (ISO) 140001 certification, indicating that they have passed the highest environmental standards for mining.

There is also a lobby for a congressional committee to reject her nomination as environment secretary. Lopez was recently bypassed by the Commission on Appointments during her first round, only to be re-appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. She will face the committee again in May when congress resumes.

But despite the enemies she’s made, she said she will continue her mission with confidence, knowing she has the backing of the president, who has referred to her as a “crusader”.

In a press briefing in March, Duterte declared: “You think you can live with it (environmental degradation) because of the 70 billion (pesos) or because they contributed to campaign funds? Not me.”

He was referring to the estimated 70 billion pesos (US$1.39 billion) mining contributes a year in revenue.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

For Delta Dumay, who comes from a family of farmers, the mining industry has impacted her source of living.

Her family had always benefited from two good yearly harvests – until now. A river runs along the side of her house and it used to provide water for irrigation for her rice fields, but now it’s killing her crops. 

According to Dumay, her troubles started when a mining company set up in the mountains above the river. They began to notice heavier siltation in the river, increased flooding during rainy season and more dust during the dry season.

“Of course it really began to affect our farmlands. And there were no fish in our river and we couldn’t catch anything,” she said.

Dumay said she used to be able to harvest 300 sacks of rice each season, but now it’s been reduced to around 100 sacks.

Her town is located in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur in Mindanao, one of the country’s poorest regions, but also its most mineral-rich. There are 23 large-scale mines operating in the area.

One of the agricultural areas affected by siltation in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur, Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Lopez, the massive destruction of ecosystems in mining tenements – the massive cutting of trees, blasting of mountains, the digging and hauling to extract mineral ores – are to blame for the siltation of rivers, as well as degradation of coastal environments that affect agricultural and fishery production.

“It causes suffering if you are a fisherman or a farmer; it aggravates your quality of life,” she said. “Only 20 per cent of the labour force are people that come from the island. The ones that benefit are the local governments. It’s not a viable economy where some people benefit and everyone suffers. But the most grievous thing there is the fact that the place is beautiful and the continuous mining there is killing the economic potential of the place. It’s crazy.”

Dumay said that while she knows of other communities nearby who receive money from mining companies, there are many who don’t.

“They (the people from the mining company) came and did a test on the water and said there was no evidence we were affected so they didn’t offer compensation,” she said.

THE WARNING

Around 95 per cent of large-scale mining companies practice open-pit mining, and Lopez has mostly focused on these large-scale open-pit mines. Mining experts say it is the fastest, safest and most efficient way of extracting mineral ore, but according to Lopez, it causes massive destruction of forest ecosystems.

“The 15 that we closed are in watersheds and I feel that to even consider allowing them to continue mining in the watershed goes against the spirit of the mining law, which says you should not put at risk the lives of the present and future generations in a watershed,” said Lopez.

Miners dig for mineral ore inside a tunnel in Mt Diwata. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In her presentations, Lopez repeatedly cites the Tampakan Copper-Gold Project in Mindanao. She says forests, watersheds and highly productive agricultural areas the size of 700 football fields will be devastated once proponents of potentially the biggest gold-mining project begin commercial operation.

“That area is the food basket of Mindanao,” Lopez said. “There are rivers and farms in those areas.”

She said miners use dynamite to tear down mountains or dig holes to fast-track the extraction of mineral ore.

Said Jaybee Garbganera of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement: “By the nature of the industry itself, mining is going to introduce permanent changes in the physical landscape and the topography of the Philippines.

“When you start doing mining, your operations are going to cut trees, use water from the river, use the forests which are the same resources of indigenous people.

“An introduction of a mining site in any area in the Philippines will likely impact the local environmental and cultural life of the population. This is different from any continental country like Canada or Australia where they can do mining and the next community would be 100 km away.”

Gold separated from the rock, mined in the Philippines. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Garbganera, the introduction of mining operations in a locality increases the already existing risks of vulnerabilities of that community.

“The Philippines’ climate change and disaster risk reduction laws were passed in 2009, while the laws governing the mining industry were passed in 1995 so all the mining contracts we have right now do not factor in climate change and disaster risk,” he said.

EMOTIONS RATHER THAN FACTS

Lopez has stoked the anger of mining companies and scientists who believe she is addressing the issue with emotions rather than facts and due process.

They include Isidro Alcantara, CEO of publicly listed Marcventure Holdings, whose mine is currently being threatened with closure despite holding an ISO certification which confirms that the mine’s environment management systems are compliant with international standards.

“Perfection cannot be made the enemy of good,” he said. “When you disturb the earth, it will never be perfect; you will restore it 70 to 80 per cent but a lot of good would have come out of disturbing the earth; a lot of jobs, a lot of livelihoods including livelihoods that would be sustainable and that can be a catalyst for development, economic and social.”

Dr Carlo Arcila of the National Institute of Geological Sciences said differentiation needs to be made between the different types of mining in the country and that responsible mining can and does exist where minimal damage is done to the environment.

THE BENEFITS

It’s not just the mining companies who are up in arms over her decision. Communities located near mining sites are worried about job and income losses if the mines are shut, and they have also been protesting in front of the DENR office.

Junarlo Hunahunan owns an iPhone, motorbike and flat screen TV. This might seem normal for a 22-year-old, but he is from a small indigenous community in the remote mountains of Surigao del Sur, which until recently was only accessible via a six-hour hike from the nearest town of Pantukan.

Junarlo Hunahunan’s renovated house in the indigenous community of Pantukan. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In 2007, two mining companies set up nearby. He, along with his three siblings have been working with one of the companies for two years.

They used to live in a basic nipa or straw hut, surviving off the meagre incomes of their crops but from the money they earned they have been able to build a two-storey house, send their siblings to school and buy all the things they enjoy.

“Before, it was really hard. We didn’t have money. We couldn’t send our siblings to school or have pocket money for them,” says Junarlo.

It’s not only his household that’s seen a big change. The community of around 1,000 has gone from having no roads, electricity or health centres to having a gym, school and ambulance.

Mining companies are expected to give 1 per cent of their total income to the indigenous communities whose land they are operating on. Last year, Pantukan and six other communities received almost US$60,000 from just one company alone.

According to the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, Lopez’s order puts at risk around 67,000 jobs and at least 1.2 million people who depend on mining for their livelihood.

Lopez has said mining has failed to improve the lives of the people, and that people from Surigao del Sur remain poor despite mining. But Alfred Araneta, vice mayor of Carrascal, a town in Surigao del Sur disagrees.

He said taxes and royalties from mining companies have boosted the town’s income more than 55 times over a 10-year period.

Mining companies have to pay business and royalty taxes as well as a percentage of every tonne of ore taken out of the country to the local government. With that money, they’ve improved government buildings such as hospitals and schools and infrastructure.

“We are really dependent on the taxes we collect from the mining industry,” Araneta said. “If they do close down, Carrascal will go back again to what we were in 2006. That is what we are afraid of.”

A hospital in Carrascal that has been built from funds giving by mining companies. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

In 2006, Carrascal was a poor provincial town made up mostly of farmers and fishermen. Now, most of the people in town work either directly or indirectly for the mining companies and the number of registered businesses has shot up from 74 to nearly 400.

Lopez insists that she can replace these jobs by creating centres of eco-tourism in place of mining sites. She asked for the communities to give her two years to get the people out of poverty from various ecotourism activities.

“I just feel, in a country that is beautiful, the better approach is to keep the country beautiful for the benefit of anyone living there and my complaint with the mining law and mining operations is that you ravage what is there and you take out the wealth and leave them poor and give them tidbit scholarships and they’re totally dependent on you instead of developing the potential of the area to generate quality of life,” said Lopez.

But communities remain sceptical of this proposition, worried about the viability of bringing in enough tourists into these remote areas where infrastructure remains a big problem.

“If an eco-tourism project was to be implemented, it will take how many months – even a year, before it can start operations. How can we sustain those families that are eating right now and having their children studying?” said Araneta.

Dindo Manhit, managing director of Stratbase, argued that eco-tourism can’t exist in many mining areas. He cited mining in Palawan, a tourist hotspot located in the west of the Philippines as an example.

“There is mining in Palawan; there is also eco-tourism in Palawan. Why don’t we send tourists to those mining areas? Because it’s too rural and there’s lots of mosquitoes, lots of malaria,” he said.

SMALL-SCALE MINING

Many also question why Lopez in her crusade has ignored the small-scale miners. They make up 60 per cent of the total gold production, yet for the most part continue to flourish with little regulation from the main government.

There are around 400,000 small-scale miners operating in 40 mineral-rich provinces nationwide, building tunnels deep into mountainsides in search of their “jackpot” day.

It has provided wealth for the miners: Signs of prosperity dot the gold-rush town Diawata, where children who finish top of their class even get rewarded with a 15g pure gold medal worth around P19,500 or US$388.

But the gold rush doesn’t necessarily translate into prosperity for the government or environment.

Miners inside a small scale mine in Diwalwal dig for gold. (Photo: Aya Lowe)

According to Dr Carlo Arcilla of the National Institute of Geological Science, most of the small-scale mining is illegal and unregulated and certain practices are detrimental to the environment. According to him, practices such as using mercury when mining for gold is not only bad for the environment but for the miners as well.

“When you mine the gold content, it’s in the parts per million, so you have to grind very fine to get the gold out,” he said. “Many miners use mercury because mercury dissolves the gold. The problem is that the river will flow to the ocean – and the mercury, once it gets into the ocean, is poisonous by itself and it becomes integrated in the food chain and becomes metal mercury – one of the most poisonous substances known to human kind.”

In an attempt to stop this, in 2015, the department of environment issued new policies and guidelines for these mines to adhere to. Cooperatives were formed to allow for more regulation of mines.

Jose Anayo, the head of a mining cooperative in Compostela Valley said small-scale mining permits were issued by the provincial government. He added that there are regular check-ups on the mines for labour and environmental safety practices, but there are still a lot of mines that remain unregulated.

“Our cooperative consists of around 70 tunnels but that’s only from the registered tunnels, which make up only a small percentage of the total network of small-scale mines,” he said.

MINING CONTRIBUTION INSUFFICIENT: LOPEZ

Lopez has also argued that mining contribution to the Philippines is not enough to cover for the economic loss to the environment. Last year, mining’s contribution in terms of GDP was a mere 0.9 per cent. Mining export receipts were pegged at US$2.8 billion, or only 4.8 per cent of total exports, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

According to Credit Suisse, the mining ban could shave 0.2 per cent off the Philippines’ economic growth and hurt foreign investors’ sentiments. It could also reduce exports by around 2 per cent.

Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, Lopez acknowledged that she was stepping on “very big business interests and political interests”.

“But at the end of the day, I’m doing what the government has mandated for me to do – which is to take care of the people and make sure the land and resources of the area can benefit the people living here.”



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AIDAprima Cruise Ship Construction & Christening in 4K by MK timelapse



Witness the construction process of AIDA Cruises’ new flagship in Nagasaki: AIDAprima, which was recently christened on the Elbe on Saturday the 7th of May 2016, during the Hamburg Hafengeburtstag (harbour birthday) festival.

Four MKtimelapse camera systems were recording non-stop at the Koyagi Plant of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to deliver the world’s first cinematic quality time lapse film of a full cruise ship build.

A Timelapse Movie in UHD, 4K

The first piece of music is Space Canyon by tomh (http://audiojungle.net/user/tomh)
The second is Progressive Technology by LumenMedia (leonvmusic@gmail.com)

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Imagining libraries of the future


SINGAPORE: From the use of data analytics, to possibly even virtual reality in the future – public libraries in Singapore are undergoing a transformation in a bid to remain relevant in an increasingly digital world.

Just over a week old – the new Sengkang Public Library is home to more than 125,000 books, digital content and customised spaces for different age groups.

It is the first of four new libraries opening this year in what some may call next generation libraries – no longer just a place to read and borrow books, but also increasingly where the community can come together and learn together as well.

Nirmala Kumar, a 53-year-old who has been a librarian for more than 15 years, notes that not only are library users different, her job has changed considerably as well. 

“When I joined in NLB, the day starts with manual returning of returned books. We need to take each and every book and we need to check, sort it in the sorter and then we have to stack it in the compartments. Then again we have to put it in the trolley and shelve back. It is quite a tiring and tedious job,” said Ms Nirmala.

But Nirmala’s load has been lightened recently all thanks to a new machine, which automatically scans and separates returned books into different bins before they are shelved.

About 3,000 books are sorted everyday and this frees Nirmala up to do other tasks – like curating books and planning programmes at the library.

“We were so excited to see the machine sort itself, so we don’t need to bend down and take each and every book to sort,” she noted. “We can spend more time engaging with the patrons.”

CHANGING LIBRARIES A CONSTANT: LITERATURE PROFESSOR

But rewind to the library’s early beginnings and one would realise that change has been a constant.

From the opening of the National Library at Stamford Road in 1960, to the rolling out of mobile libraries and other permanent branches – libraries have constantly adapted to meet society’s evolving needs.

There are now 26 public libraries around the island.

“For many years there was only one library in Singapore and then the need was felt that as more people became literate, the demand for going to the library (increased), because most people couldn’t afford to buy the books,” said Associate Professor of English Literature Kirpal Singh, who teaches at the Singapore Management University.

“So the idea of decentralising and having branches of libraries took place. Then very soon, I think, the political leaders decided that the library was a very good place to try and build a nation … Now I think we feel that our nation is in fact quite built, even though it’s still evolving, the thinking again is what is the library now going to be used for?”

According to the National Library Board – there were 2.3 million members in 2015, up from 1.95 million in 2005, and about half a million in 1995.

But a study on adult reading habits last year –  found that while 69 per cent of respondents said they read at least one book in the past year, only 19 per cent read more than once a week.

Most also did not find reading as stimulating as audio-visual content and just over half read books borrowed from libraries.

“For me personally I don’t visit libraries anymore, it’s just a preference for me to purchase books from book stores like Kinokuniya,” said 24-year-old undergraduate Joshua Huang.

Jason Chia, 24, also agreed: “I don’t really visit public libraries anymore. I used to do so when I was young, to borrow books and read, but now not really because most of the stuff that we can read is actually online. There are many e-books as well, so there’s not really a need for a physical library anymore.”

REVAMPING EXISTING LIBRARIES

That is why a revamp of existing libraries is underway – in the hope of getting more to use the space.

“We want the library to remain relevant to Singaporeans and even to stay ahead by anticipating their needs. So we do this by engaging feedback from them, from the community when we design the libraries,” said Ms Tan Chui Peng, Acting Deputy Director of the Libraries of the Future department at NLB.

“It has evolved as we look at how each library can provide targeted services to cater to the community’s needs. For instance at Pasir Ris, we notice there’s a higher proportion of teens and young working adults, so we have designed teen space for public libraries at Pasir Ris. Over at Sengkang, there’s a higher proportion of younger families, so we created this “tween” space for growing up children.”

Other young Singaporeans Channel NewsAsia spoke to also had different ideas on how to transform the space.

“I would imagine there’s fewer books actually, maybe there’s fewer book shelves. More space. Maybe more bean bags,” said 24-year-old Ian Chow.

“Maybe virtual reality could be something that we could move towards because when we were young, we were always reading story books and someone would be reading to us,” noted 21-year-old Ong Yu Lin.

“But if we can wear the virtual reality gear and really see whatever is going on inside the story book, it would be really interesting for the kids and for the older people as well.”

BRINGING TECHNOLOGY INTO THE LIBRARY

Technology is indeed one key aspect public libraries are looking into.

For instance – NLB hopes to improve its mobile app, which already allows users to borrow books. It also intends to promote its e-books more aggressively and has started displaying real time data in some libraries of popular titles that are being borrowed.

The new Bukit Panjang Public Library will also feature an immersive storytelling area with lights, sound effects and interactive visual projections for children.

“Data analytics will continue to be used very heavily to analyse behaviour of our library users. The other one is virtual reality … especially in enhancing their experience when they visit exhibitions,” said Mr Lee Kee Siang, NLB’s Chief Information Officer.

“It must be seamless for them to be able to access the information, to retrieve them, as well as on the online platform and on the mobile. So it is the whole integrated experience that we’re looking at.”



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Sex tourism in Pattaya frustrates Thai government


PATTAYA, Thailand: With mascots dressed as smiling fish and a police rock band, Thai authorities launched a “Happy Zone” at the weekend to improve the image of a city notorious for sex tourism.

Stung by foreign headlines portraying the seaside resort of Pattaya as “Sin City” and “The World’s Sex Capital”, Thailand’s government has begun a new effort to re-brand it.

But the contradictions in Pattaya highlight Thailand’s challenge in tackling a side of its tourist industry that remains economically vital while being officially excoriated.

“I want people to see that we are not like what they say. We are not allowing prostitution in these entertainment places,” provincial governor Pakkaratorn Teianchai told reporters on the infamous Walking Street in Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok.

Less than 10 metres away, women accosted foreign men to offer sex for 2,000 baht (US$60). Others lined up with numbers so customers could take their pick. Masseuses in miniskirts offered “happy ending” massages whose euphemistic title has nothing to do with the Happy Zone of the authorities.

“Everyone is here to make a living,” said one 35-year-old woman who came originally from a village in central Thailand. Tagged with the number “136”, she declined to give her name.

“I would rather be a waitress, but then I couldn’t send my children to school and I want them to have a better future than this,” she said.

In fact, sex tourism is not growing as fast as other aspects of Thailand’s tourist industry – the only bright spot for an economy whose expansion has been by far the slowest among major Southeast Asian economies since the 2014 coup.

No official figures show its scale.

But there is an indication in the balance of male to female visitors. In 2012, there were nearly 6 men for every 4 women. In 2015, the numbers were pretty much even, according to figures provided to Reuters by the tourism ministry.

Sex tourism began in Pattaya when it became an R&R spot for US soldiers during the Vietnam War, though prostitution is just as evident in parts of Bangkok and other resorts.

The number of female sex workers in Thailand was put at over 120,000 in a 2014 UNAIDS report. Some estimates run to double that and not all the women who get paid for sex are full-time prostitutes.

Given a 305 baht (US$8.80) a day minimum wage, the chance of earning several times more is an obvious lure, particularly in poorer rural regions.

CRACKDOWN

The latest of many crackdowns in Pattaya happened after foreign newspaper reports last month, which drew an angry response from Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, for whom bringing order is a mantra.

A handful of bars were raided. Bar owners and working women were fined. Scared to venture out, tourists looking for sex stayed in hotels. Street vendors and shops saw sales tumble. The money which flows to all levels in the city – including law enforcement agencies – fell off.

The Happy Zone approach is a softer way to try to show that something is being done. If it works on Walking Street, the idea will be spread to the less sanitised side streets – the sois.

Businesses in the Happy Zone are asked to make the area feel safer, there are increased security patrols, police launched a mobile phone app for visitors to summon them in emergency.

“This is a pioneer project to organise a tourist destination and elevate it to promote Thailand’s quality tourism,” Apichai Krobpetch, chief of Pattaya city police, told Reuters. “We will also stamp out prostitution in the area.”

There was no sign of that at the weekend.

In fact, Pattaya’s sex industry has become an attraction in its own right for the millions of Chinese who make up about one in three visitors to Thailand.

Led by guides with pennants, the Chinese tour groups thread quickly along Walking Street, past the go-go bars and the beer bars where young Thai women sit down with foreign men.

They only pause to take pictures.

“We just came here to see. That’s all,” saleswoman Linda Sieng in a group of 11 tourists from Guaghzhou in southern China.



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24-hour gyms: Perfect fit for gym rats and night owls?


SINGAPORE: Exercising in the wee hours of the morning is the norm for 25-year-old Firdaus Ismail, who works shifts at a bank and has irregular days off. “I’ve already tried out other gyms previously and the reason I chose this gym is the environment which suits me,” said Firdaus on Gymmboxx Keat Hong.

“l’ll usually come down at about 2am and sometimes at 4am as well. Crowds at those hours are not as big, so you can use the equipment as much as you want.”

One of two chains in Singapore that offer 24-hour gym facilities, Gymmboxx recently opened its newest 24-hour club in Keat Hong Community Centre. The nearly four-month-old branch now has close to a thousand members.

 “Singaporeans are becoming more aware of the need to get fit. They don’t want to suffer from any illnesses in future and generally want a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their families,” said Shafiq, a gym manager at Gymmboxx Keat Hong.

“For now, we’ve got four Gymmboxx outlets that open 24 hours and they cater to those gym-goers who do not have the time to gym in the day. Our membership is also quite affordable, and we observe that people are willing to shell out the money if the price is right, to get healthy.”

Gymmboxx is the only 24-hour gym with staff at its premises both in the day and night, to monitor the needs of their clientele round the clock. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

MEETING A NICHE

Most gyms in Singapore operate regular hours, with some major chains opening as early as 6am and closing as late as 11pm. 

The owners of Gymmboxx decided it was time to meet the needs of night owls in 2014. “We had our first Gymmboxx at Bedok Reservoir Road on top of a multi-storey carpark, where we operated regular hours initially. At that point in time, Aljunied GRC wanted to build a gym where we were,” said Gymmboxx CEO Tan Tse Yong. “From there, we became really connected with the community (in Bedok) and felt that there could be a niche market we could explore, which was a heartland gym itself.”

“When we decided that there was indeed a market for a 24-hour gym in Singapore, that’s when we built Gymmboxx Bishan to test it out. We realised that (the concept) works like magic, as a lot of our gym-goers liked the flexibility of working out at any time.”

He added: “Singaporeans are very busy people and would like to have a gym that they can go to according to their schedule.”

The 24-hour gym in Bishan CC turned out to be a hit according to Tan, with about 500 gym-goers visiting the facility daily. “In Bishan, people would usually come in at about 1am, and the only lull period would be about 3am to about 4am, where people mostly choose to sleep,” said the Gymmboxx CEO.

“The next batch of people would come in at about 4am to about 5am, where they’d have a good workout before going to work. The success of the Bishan outlet soon gave us confidence to set-up more 24 hour gyms.”

SINGAPORE AS A TEST MARKET FOR ASIAN EXPANSION

Gymmboxx is however, not the first 24-hour gym franchise in Singapore. Anytime Fitness, a global gym chain with over 3,000 outlets in 20 countries, was first to tap the market.

Anytime Fitness Bukit Panjang, which is one of the 33 outlets for the franchise in Singapore. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

As it eyed Asia, Singapore was chosen as a testbed for its business model. “The Woodlands gym was the first one for us here back in 2013,” said Anytime Fitness Singapore director Andrea Bell. “We wanted to start in Singapore because it was considered the hardest market to enter.

“There were so many fitness clubs that are already here,” she explained. “If we started in Singapore and the concept succeeded, we would get approval to go to the rest of Asia, and it did. It’s the perfect market for Anytime Fitness.”

Even with 33 outlets in Singapore and an average of 850 members per gym, the company said it has no plans to slow down its expansion in Singapore. A few new outlets are slated to open this year. “In the first year we opened 14 gyms in Singapore. Last year alone, we opened 11, and that was our slowest year,” said Bell. “There are about 300 other regular gyms here in Singapore, which is a very big market for the fitness industry.”

“We have about 10 per cent of that market share and we’re growing. That was always our plan, which is to make sure we have a large market share.”

WORKING OUT AFTER HOURS

“Usually it’s quiet during lunch time,” said David Wee, a gym manager at Anytime Fitness Bukit Panjang. “Mornings and evenings will be the time that most of our clients will come, especially at night after 8pm or 9pm. That’s when office workers will start coming to work out. Past midnight, we have more tertiary students and shift-work guys exercising here.”

It also helps that the gyms are located in the heartlands, he said. “A lot of residents who signed up mostly come from around the area.”

For 23-year-old student Ben Goh, having a 24-hour gym near his home in Keat Hong motivates him to work out after his late-night study sessions. “I stay nearby and so it’s good for me,” said Goh. “It’s convenient for me, because as a student you can’t adjust your timetable as freely as you’d want it to.”

Having fewer people in the gym means less waiting time at the squat rack. (Photo: Noor Farhan)

THE EFFECTS OF EXERCISING IN THE WEE HOURS

But even if you get more time at the Smith machine or at the squat rack, is exercising overnight good for you? Sports science expert Danica Toh says no. 

“Exercising in the wee hours is not ideal, as it definitely affects your sleep cycle. Physical exertion causes one to be more awake and the likelihood of a person falling asleep afterwards is not very high,” said Toh, who has a Masters degree in Exercise and Sport Studies from Nanyang Technological University.

The Singapore Sports School coach added: “Even if one were to train with the same routine at say 3am for example, they would not get the full benefits of the exercise, as opposed to doing it at 6pm.

“In fact, you may get less benefits, as our bodies are meant to rest when the environment is dark, only to wake up when it’s bright.”

Damien Lee, a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic for the Sport and Wellness diploma programme agrees. “The main concern is that the increase in body core temperature for several hours and the release of endorphins may lead to difficulty sleeping,” he said.

But he said there is little evidence in research to show that the human body cannot exercise effectively late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. 

“As long as the individual has sufficient rest and calorie intake for the day, the health risk involved is relatively low,” he said. 

“However, everyone should be mindful not to exert themselves during exercise if they are already exhausted from a physically stressful day.”



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