In the broadest sense of the word, ‘ecotourism’ is a set of travel practices which support the natural environment. The concept of ecotourism aims to provide a fulfilling and positive experience for tourists while taking concerted efforts to reduce environmental impact which is commonly associated with conventional mass tourism.
Malaysia has long been able to count on its biodiversity-rich forests, coral reefs, geological monuments, and sandy beaches to attract international tourists in search of unforgettable travel experiences. The standstill in global travel we are now seeing has far-reaching impacts on businesses, employees, and households that are struggling to cope with the sudden and unprecedented drop in both Malaysian and international visitor numbers.
Visitors from overseas typically make up 50 percent or more of visitors to premier ecotourism destinations in Malaysia. Consequently, these business are particularly challenged at this time.
But, could there be a bright side to this story?
As the Movement Control Order in Malaysia eases, we will begin to see more local holidaymakers opting to visit places of interest in Malaysia. As tourism businesses, and the ecotourism sector specifically, begin to engage with domestic tourists, there is an opportunity to cultivate greater awareness and appreciation of Malaysia’s natural heritage, people and culture, and build a strong basis for a more resilient ecotourism sector and potentially awaken more concern for the environment and overdevelopment.
What is Ecotourism?
Understanding ecotourism and making a conscious decision to support nature on your next holiday is now more important than ever. Grasping what true ecotourism is can be difficult when many varying definitions of it exist. This one from the IUCN is fairly universal.
“Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Ecotourism is inherently linked to environmental conservation and local communities. Through sustainable travel to natural areas, tourists are either directly or indirectly providing funding for the conservation and preservation of these areas as well as the wildlife that live in it. Similarly, a thriving ecotourism sector means the involvement of local communities as hosts and private businesses, and a source of income from providing an authentic ecotourism experience for visitors.
Interpretation and educational elements are also vital in ecotourism. It is important for ecotourism sites to provide insight into how natural ecosystems work and the ways humans can enjoy them with minimal visitor impact. With this, respect and appreciation are built for the environment and the cultural features that accompany it, as opposed to tourism activities which are only seen as amusements.
Above all, responsibility is a central concern in ecotourism. Responsible travel essentially encompasses a tourist’s awareness of the potential negative impacts of travel and conscious choices to reduce these impacts at every step. This is necessary to limit damage to the natural environment and support conservation efforts and local communities. Together, responsible travel culminates in a better overall experience for the tourist and the preservation of the natural and cultural values which were the original draw.
Ecotourism with the advent of COVID-19
During lockdowns and MCOs all over the world from March onwards, numerous stories of nature ‘recovering’ made the headlines – from sea turtles returning to once-crowded beaches to sightings of dolphins in areas where they have hardly ever been seen. There is no denying that poorly regulated tourism or overtourism has exerted pressure on the natural environment in heavily-frequented sites. In addition, there are issues with waste disposal, pollution, depletion of natural resources and even habitat loss from new infrastructure and accommodation designed to cater to the mass influx of tourists. Tourism can be quite a profitable business after all and this lends itself to actions involving scaling up to optimize profits.
However, it does not have to be this way.
Ecotourism emerged in the 80s as an approach to capitalize on the conservation of natural values, while actively taking steps to preserve these values. Guidelines were developed to lower human impact, prioritise quality interpretation, and promote respectful interactions between visitors and locals and ensuring that local people benefit from tourism.
While, not all nature tourism offerings in Malaysia can be considered to be fully achieving these aims, the basic tenets of ecotourism are now more widely known to both consumers and service providers. Most tourism businesses attempt to fulfil some or all of the criteria for best practice within their means, but admittedly often this is an area which needs further improvement and regulation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious toll on the ecotourism sector worldwide. Here in Malaysia, the drop in international arrivals to our shores has impacted households and businesses where tourism is an important source of income.
From a conservation standpoint, while there are no detailed studies yet, the reduction in tourism income can potentially lead to greater reliance on harvesting natural resources for household needs and for supplementary income, accompanied by impacts of wildlife and biodiversity. Fewer visitors and limited activity also affects conservation in other ways – when roads and nature gateways become quieter, it becomes easier for illegal activities such as poaching and logging to occur unchecked.
How can we help?
Malaysia is immensely fortunate that it has been spared the worst ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reward for our disciplined compliance of social-distancing protocols is that it is now possible for us to move about within national borders. The weeks of being cooped up at home have made us restless. People are craving wide open spaces, the open road, and sandy shores. What if this impulse to wander was an opportunity to discover our own country while consciously supporting ecotourism businesses to weather the storm?
An increase in foot traffic to nature destinations does not always have to translate into increased human impact. We can control the impact that we have on a place by making better choices. Tourists can opt to reduce their impact on the environment, support conservation, and help create employment for local people. We can also help by raising awareness of potential ecotourism adventures to our network of friends and family.
Being in nature does not not make one green by default. It is important to avoid being duped by travel services or products which claim to be ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ but could in fact be degrading the environment.
People will need to educate themselves on how best to assess their ecotourism experiences and become vocal in advocating for best practices to be sustained. Tourism providers will be expected to uphold the objectives of protecting nature, avoiding the exploitation of wildlife for the amusement of tourists, and engaging local communities in meaningful ways will help us make more informed decisions.
Many helpful resources for Responsible Travel can be found online.
In the spirit of #kitajagakita, when you next cuti-cuti Malaysia, do your research and spend your travel ringgit in ways that support nature tourism and conservation.
The Habitat Foundation is organizing a web forum titled “Planning for a Resilient Responsible Tourism Sector that Supports Conservation”, where we take a look at the challenges and potentials facing nature-based tourism and conservation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The session is free and will be livestreamed on Facebook and Youtube. Click here to watch or visit our Facebook event page for more information.