Balancing Economic Benefits and Environmental Damage: The case for Eco-Tourism in Malaysia

Article contributed by Julian Hyde, General Manager of Reef Check Malaysia


Introduction

Tourism is a key industry in Malaysia, accounting for some 15% of GDP statistics published by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MOTAC) suggest that nearly 26 million tourists visited Malaysia in 2018, bringing in receipts of some RM 84 billion.


While tourism is undoubtedly good for the nation’s pocket, the same cannot always be said of its impact on the nation’s ecosystems. There are different types of tourism, which can cause both positive and negative impacts on the environment.


If managed well, tourism has the potential to create beneficial effects, not only contributing to financial revenues but also to environmental conservation and raising awareness of environmental values. It can also serve to protect natural areas and increase their economic importance. However, tourism can also gradually destroy environmental resources if numbers, infrastructure and services are developed unsustainably. Recent examples of tourism gone wrong to include Boracay in the Philippines and Maya Bay in Thailand, both of which were forced to close due to excessive numbers of tourists causing harm to marine ecosystems.





Recent experience in Malaysia suggests we are on the same trajectory:

  • Mantanani Island is a popular day-trip destination for visitors to Sabah. However, numbers of visitors have increased from approximately 50 per day to as many as 1,000 per day – in just seven years!

  • In Perhentian island, the number of resorts increased from just 15 in 2000 to 35 in 2012 – and it has increased further since.

  • In 2006, Tioman had some 15 dive operators and 64 resorts. Today, those numbers stand at 36 dive operators and 81 resorts.


Perhaps it is time to reassess whether this can continue, or whether alternatives can bring greater benefits with fewer impacts.


Sustainable Tourism

So where is the balance between maximising revenues and minimising environmental harm? Perhaps the answer lies in “sustainable tourism”, which can itself be defined in different ways. Industry consensus agrees ecotourism is more focused on ecological conservation and educating travellers on local environments and natural surroundings, whereas sustainable tourism focuses on travel that has minimal impact on the environment and local communities


Tioman – A case study

So how sustainable is Malaysia?


Let’s take Tioman as an example. It has been a popular destination since the 1980s, and now attracts some 250,000 visitors per year. The value of this tourism has been estimated at RM 150 million per year – revenue which could be sustainable if tourism is managed well and numbers are maintained. However, there has been an increasing development of pressure on Tioman – new resorts are opening up and there are suggestions that a new airport should be constructed to allow an increase in tourism numbers from “hundreds of thousands” today to potentially “millions” in the future.


Can the ecosystems – both terrestrial and marine – on Tioman withstand such an increase? Problems already exist at today’s visitor numbers:

  • The island lacks sewage management infrastructure, and water quality testing and coral reef surveys indicate that there is significant sewage pollution in the waters surrounding the islands.

  • During the busy season, there are often water shortages due to inadequate supply

  • Waste management relies on transport from outlying villages to an incinerator in the main village; weather and system outages interfere with efficient waste management

  • Increasing numbers of divers and snorkelers are visiting the same number of diving and snorkelling sites; some popular sites are already showing signs of overcrowding.

What will happen if we increase the number of visitors by an order of magnitude? And what of the local islanders? What happens to their culture and lifestyle with such a huge increase in the number of visitors? Surveys are already indicating that villagers do not want to see further growth in tourism.


The solution for Malaysia

Malaysia is acknowledged as one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Compared to our neighbours, Indonesia and the Philippines, we have far fewer islands to cater for mass marine tourism. Perhaps an alternative for Malaysia would be to focus on low volume, high value tourism. Tioman has endemic species that are an ideal draw for eco-tourists; Mantanani has unique birds including the megapode, which lays its eggs in burrows on the ground, and the rare scops owl. Research suggests that eco-tourists are often prepared to pay a premium to visit undisturbed destinations, with intact ecosystems and cultures. Perhaps this is an alternative tourism model for Malaysia to contemplate in order to protect its fragile ecosystems and ensure they are sustainable for future generations.

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