The Habitat Foundation with the Society for Conservation Biology Malaysia Chapter broadcasted the second of a two-part webforum on ecotourism this past Thursday, 27 August 2020. Planning for a Resilient Responsible Tourism Sector expanded on the first session by taking a closer look at the research and stakeholder consultation that goes into effective ecotourism planning. This session looked into the effective planning needed to showcase the unique natural and cultural values of potential tourism clusters in ways that uphold responsible tourism standards while providing avenues for supportive synergies among local communities, businesses and enterprises. The webforum was moderated by Justine Vaz and Dr Jayaraj Vijaya Kumaran.
The session began with a presentation from Prof Amran Hamzah which honed in on the development of ecotourism in synergy with conservation using a current project as an applicable example, the case of one Kedah’s prominent peaks, Gunung Jerai! Prof Amran spoke about how the microcluster approach is being used in the development of the tourism cluster surrounding the Jerai Geopark. This is a strategically located region with rich potential as a sustainable alternative tourism sector. He also introduced the concept of ecotones and how they can be used as a tool to prioritise effective conservation measures in landscapes that have ecotourism potential.
Dato’ Haji Idros Yahya, talked about some of the challenges that Pahang’s tourism sector is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless MOTAC Pahang is taking pro-active steps to enable tourism in the state plans to rebound and recover as it trains its focus on the domestic market and builds upon its strong natural attractions. Expanding on the concept of ecotourism clusters, Dato’ Idros also delved into the benefits that Pahang has seen in the past years as a result of shifting tourism product management from an isolated destination approach to an interconnected clustered approach. This has led to greater synergies across regions with different businesses working together to provide visitors more opportunities to explore local offerings, extend their stays and spend locally.
Staying with the theme of Pahang, Laili Basir of HUGS Project provided an overview of the community-based ecotourism sector in Merapoh, Pahang. Merapoh is a biodiverse karst landscape bordering Taman Negara. It has seen many threats over the years from logging and cement production. Laili recounted how a committed grassroots movement emerged to defend Merapoh’s natural beauty and biodiversity and its importance as an archaeological site. Merapoh is an example of how ecotourism has provided avenues for local people to benefit from biodiversity. Tourism has also enabled local people to learn about the natural wonders of this area, and in some cases converted poachers and loggers into keen naturalists and conservationists.
Hymeir Kamarudin who operates Ulu Muda Earth Lodge which is located deep in the Ulu Muda Forest of Kedah. An avid conservationist, he has worked over the last decade to demonstrate how one of Malaysia’s distinctive natural sites can be managed to ensure high quality visitor experiences, provide benefits to local people, while ensuring minimal impact on the natural environment.
The presentations were followed by an interactive Q&A session with the viewers, which saw a multitude of thought-provoking and relevant questions from a diverse audience.
Many of those that participated in the chat were impressed with the detailed studies in Gunung Jerai that are going into the preparation of the ecotourism development plan and impressed with the new developments to energise and support nature-based tourism in Pahang, there was a level of discomfort and even scepticism on how the lofty ideas and idealistic plans can be matched with effective agencies and systems to ensure effective implementation. There was concern for environmental protection as well as ensuring the distribution of benefits among local people. In the discussion, the need for greater consistency and coordination among agencies and departments responsible for tourism development, regulation and promotion was an aspect that was raised by several.
In the case of the Merapoh Caves, although the local community has been successful in fending off threats to the limestone environment and are playing an active role in regulating the number of visitors to the caves, there are naturally concerns that the protection of this geological and biodiversity treasure is still not assured. Formalizing the protection of the caves and the surrounding forest, institutionalizing the stewardship of local community managers, and finally, strengthening capacity for the management of ecotourism would be important for this this heritage site to be sensitively developed.
In our journey to rebuild following this pandemic, in the ecotourism sector it is important to seek clarity on which stakeholders will be responsible for the implementation of conservation and whether the approaches being taken now can be sustained long-term. The success of ecotourism will ultimately depend on all parties working according to a common vision and blueprint in close consultation with one another.
In line with The Habitat Foundation’s firm belief that travel to natural areas can be a driver of conservation and environmental change, we have launched our Sustainable Tourism Grants aimed at funding initiatives to build capacity and strengthen the practice of ecotourism and conservation in Malaysia.