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(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)
REBECCA PUTTOCK TIM WALLSGROVE
“Imagine the scene. You're sitting in the hot sunshine beside the swimming pool of your international luxury hotel, drinking your imported gin and tonic. In front of you is the beach, reserved for hotel guests with motor boats for hire. Behind you is an 18-hole golf course, which was cleared from the native forest and is kept green by hundreds of water sprinklers. Around the hotel are familiar international restaurant chains and the same shops that you have at home. You've seen some local people - some of them sell local handicrafts outside the hotel. You bought a small wooden statue and after arguing for half an hour you only paid a quarter of what the man was asking. Really cheap! Is this your idea of heaven or would you prefer something different?”
(British Council, 2000)
“Take nothing but photos. Leave nothing but footprints”…
It is fair say most people have heard this phrase before, but many do not realise it is the fundamental principle behind ecotourism. Ecological Tourism, to give it its full name, is hard to define as it covers a whole range of concepts, but it can be briefly summed up as an ‘environmentally conscious form of tourism that focuses on the appreciation and conservation of both places and people’. It is a common misconception that it simply involves a visit to an area where the attraction is outstanding natural beauty or cultural heritage, but this is not what ecotourism is really about. It is primarily about encouraging environmental responsibility from the tourists themselves and the businesses that profit from them. For this environmental responsibly to reach its full potential, anybody who is in the service of providing ecotourism should adhere to a number of principles. One of the most important of these is to operate services with as little as possible or preferably no detrimental impact to the environment. Programs should minimise the negative aspects of conventional tourism and encourage responsible environmental behaviour, whilst creating economic opportunities for the local communities. Unfortunately, the concept of ecotourism is very often used and abused as a promotional tool to increase business and revenue, where the actual actions of behaving in an environmentally responsible manner are neglected after the dollars have rolled in.
Forty Million Trampling Feet…
In Malaysia, the tourist industry is the second biggest contributor to the economy. A total of just over 20 million tourists arrived in 2007, bringing with them over RM46 billion (US$14 billion), (Tourism Malaysia, 2007). This figure has approximately doubled in a mere 5 years and the rise is predicted to continue as a result of factors such as the global increase in tourism, availability of low cost carrier airlines and initiatives from the Malaysian government. Ecotourism is also on the rise. It is considered the fastest growing market in the industry, with an annual growth rate of 5% worldwide, (World Tourism Organisation, 2008). In the Cameron Highlands, Pahang, ecotourism is not only financially beneficial but essential for sustainability. The sensitive environment of the surrounding rainforest is under threat from farmers, plant poachers, developers and irresponsible international and local tourists. At present, there is a mix of both agro and eco tourism within the area but the first must give way to the latter in order to ensure the ecosystems of the region and the health and wealth of the local people are all protected.
Holidays, Development and Devastation…
The Cameron Highlands has become an increasingly more popular tourist destination over the years and with the completion of a new highway from Ipoh, and a second under construction carving a path through the forests from Taman Negara, numbers are expected to increase even more. As a result of this, a substantial amount of hotels, bars and restaurants are being built. This would be less of an issue if they were being constructed legally, but laws that protect the land are being ignored or side stepped with bribery and in most cases not even Environmental Impact Assessments are being carried out on new buildings. Despite the fact the development is improving the infrastructure and creating jobs, it is also encroaching into the surrounding rainforests with considerable environmental consequences. If the degradation continues at its current rate, the very scenery and local wildlife that attracts the majority of tourists in the first place will cease to exist. Development pressure capitalising on the current visitors has already begun to seriously reduce the region’s aesthetic qualities and huge hotels, vast expanses of agricultural land and evidence of past landslides are now everywhere to be seen. All it takes is to look at an old photograph of the area, or even have a conversation with a taxi driver, both of which will tell you how different things used to be. The following picture was taken from the window of the office where this article was written. This just shows you don’t have to search far in the Cameron Highlands to see the destruction of the surrounding rainforest.
(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)
The opening of a Starbucks franchise in Tanah Rata, June 2008, highlights how quickly the local towns are being pulled into the global economy and away from the idyllic highland getaways that they once were. Without controlling development or implementing sustainable agriculture, the attraction for tourists will without doubt begin to decrease. It is essential for the Cameron Highlands to encourage and adhere to the principles of ecotourism, as it is the only realistic way of protecting the local environment, benefiting the local people, and ensuring the long term health of the regional tourism economy.
At present the development is causing not only deforestation but also soil erosion and landslides, sedimentation and pollution of waterways and destruction of water catchments. This is having a negative impact not only on the local communities, but also tourists are becoming more reluctant about choosing Cameron Highlands as a holiday destination. In 2004 as a result of media coverage on landslides and road closures in the area, there was a 20% drop in the number of tourists and a staggering 70% decline in business. This highlights how important it is for the region to maintain a pristine environment that it once was. “It is certain that all types of accommodation, cheap or expensive, would suffer if the environment of the Cameron Highlands becomes less attractive to tourists”.
(WWF Malaysia, 1995).
Due to its economic importance in the Cameron Highlands, tourism needs to be managed so it does not destroy the assets which first made it possible. This requires an understanding of the areas carrying capacity that is based on good research and environmental principles. If planned and managed properly, tourism development could be one of the least impacting economic gains for the region. Most developers are unfortunately not engaged by constructing tourist facilities in an aesthetically and culturally pleasing way and there is usually little concern for environmental consequences. Therefore if ecotourism targets are to be achieved they must be also supported by a strong legal framework. The laws that already exist need to be enforced and more suitable punishments should be introduced accordingly. Industry guidelines should also be applied that educate development agencies of the long term financial benefits of practiced ecotourism.
(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)
Photographs show the devastation caused by the construction of the new road currently being built to help increase tourist numbers.
Please Use the Bins Provided…
Another primary concern for the Cameron Highlands is the management of the impacts of tourists during their stay. Those who travel to Malaysia are primarily from their four immediate neighbors; Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei. They accounted for 77% of total tourist arrivals in 2006, (tourism.com, 2008). Unfortunately, it is common knowledge that some Asian countries in particular are not known for their sound environmental practices and their residents can often be unconcerned about things such as littering, localised pollution and stealing wild flowers. This is a particular problem for the Cameron Highlands where the ecosystems are delicate and easily damaged by irresponsible tourists. It should be a huge priority of tour companies and their guides to provide services that help all tourists to minimise their negative impacts. It is their responsibility to educate everyone who may be unaware of the damage they can cause. By offering briefings and literature, as well as leading by example and taking corrective actions, guides are able to have a positive influence on behaviour. The knowledge of tour guides can also be used to strengthen and promote environmental practices in the local community, ultimately raising awareness of a number of issues and encouraging appreciation of the environment.
(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)
The following is some advice from the British Council for tourists who wish to minimise any detrimental impact they may have as a result of their stay. “Choose your holiday carefully. Don't be afraid to ask the holiday company about what they do that is 'eco'. Remember that 'eco' is very fashionable today and a lot of holidays that are advertised as ecotourism are not much better than traditional tourism.” “Be prepared. Learn about the place that you're going to visit. Find out about its culture and history. Learn a little of the native language, at least basics like 'Please', 'Thank you', and 'Good Morning'. Think of your holiday as an opportunity to learn something.”
“Have respect for local culture. Wear clothes that will not offend people. Always ask permission before you take a photograph. Remember that you are a visitor.” “Don't waste resources. If the area doesn't have much water, don't take two showers every day.” “Take as much care of the places that you visit as you take of your own home. · Don't buy souvenirs made from endangered animals or plants.” “Walk or use other non-polluting forms of transport whenever you can.” “Be flexible and keep a sense of humour when things go wrong.” “Stay in local hotels and eat in local restaurants. Buy local products whenever possible and pay a fair price for what you buy.”
In order to cope with the expected increase of tourists (eco or otherwise), the facilities for them must also improve. Although plentiful in accommodation, the Cameron Highlands is lacking in well signposted walking trails and indigenous cultural information. Even the regional maps available at local retail outlets are inadequate and not to scale, and there have been many complaints from tourists getting lost while exploring the surrounding rainforest. This is discouraging for visitors and can often result in shorter stays and smaller expenditures, which is ultimately detrimental to the local economy. Once a better tourist infrastructure is in place, it is then possible to construct a calendar of events such as flower festivals, wildlife appreciation days and more conservation participation programs which would all bring benefits to the local economy. Ideally an improved information centre would be constructed to govern and manage all of these initiatives whilst promoting the history of the region, its diverse flora and fauna, and conducting excursions into the surrounding areas.
At present, the towns in the Cameron Highlands are mainly populated by Chinese business operators, Malay and Indian government officials, service industry employees and farm workers, (Weng, 2006). The co-operation between these ethnic communities in the Cameron Highlands is essential. They need to work together to teach, educate and unite a continuum in the way people value the local land. Education of ecotourism should technically begin at school where its benefits are promoted and the dangers of environmental degradation are clearly spelt out. Education can also come from government initiatives as well as advertising and campaigning from NGOs. Tuition and co-operation can give everybody the power to help maintain the Cameron Highlands as a premium holiday destination. The need for ecotourism is further complicated by the local indigenous communities that inhabit many of the surrounding villages. The Orang Asli, as they are known, are the people most likely to be affected by agro tourism due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle and deep cultural roots. Once dependant on the land and forests as their source of livelihood, they have now become incorporated into the global economy. Despite the fact that some of the newer generations of the Orang Asli communities choose to leave their local villages for employment and to live in more modern conditions, there are many who remain eager to hold on to their traditional way of life.
(Photography by Tim Wallsgrove)
Well managed ecotourism in the Cameron Highlands could be hugely beneficial for the Orang Asli. Not only would it help to protect the forests in which they live, but it could also provide them with an excellent and more reliable source of income, as many are categorised as ‘low-skilled’ workers and are employed in agriculture or as laborers and cleaners. Many local and foreign tourists have a huge interest in their lifestyle and wish to learn about the Orang Asli culture, thus providing a wealth of business opportunities. These could include a homestay program, evenings of traditional dance and music or the sale of handicrafts. Their incredible knowledge of the local flora and fauna means they would also make fantastic guides if obstacles such as official guide certification, language barriers and safety training could be overcome. The construction of an ‘Orang Asli visitor information and cultural centre’ in an area such as Tanah Rata would also be an excellent way of promoting these activities to tourists. However, at present these opportunities can only materialise with the aid of the government and local communities who would need to provide proper training and initial financial support. If successful, this could also engage the Orang Asli to get involved in the planning and development of sustainability.
A Global Challenge…
In today’s society where pollution, uncontrolled development, depletion of natural resources and poverty are high, it is essential that the world tourist market must look more towards ecotourism than ever before. Thankfully this is now happening on a multinational scale. In 2002, the United Nations declared the ‘International Year of Ecotourism’. With this, they announced the World Ecotourism Summit, which is now an annual conference. The primary objective of these initiatives was to unite ecotourism professionals, conservationists and regional and national associations from over 70 countries. They would then be able to assess previous achievements and discuss further challenges in regards to global ecotourism. This was a great success and from the most recent conference in 2007 at which over 90 countries attended, a number of recommendations were made for all those involved in the planning and delivery of ecotourism worldwide. They are relevant not just for the Cameron Highlands but for anywhere that needs or wants to engage in ecotourism.
1. “Recognize the valuable role that ecotourism plays in local sustainable development”. 2. “Maximize the potential of well managed ecotourism as a key economic force for the conservation of tangible and intangible natural and cultural heritage”. 3. “Support the viability and performance of ecotourism enterprises and activities through effective marketing, education and training”. 4. “Address some of the critical issues facing ecotourism in strengthening its sustainability”.
(Courtesy of www.ecotourism.org)
For these recommendations to be achieved, often the co-operation of governments, development agencies, local businessmen and tour companies is essential. There is a need to promote sustainable relationships between these groups in order to support the environmental and cultural heritage in the Cameron Highlands, so that everybody can better manage and profit from tourism as a whole. Despite occupying only three per cent of the Earth’s surface, the ten member States of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), host 20 per cent of the all known species. South-East Asia has one third of all coral reefs in the world. Forty-five per cent of the region is covered by forests. However, up to three quarters of the forest cover and up to 42 per cent of the biodiversity of the region may be lost by 2100 at current rates, (cbd.int, 2008). This is why ecotourism is so vital. Achieving sustainable development in the Cameron Highlands is easily possible. A healthy and competitive economy funded by ecotourism sets a foundation for sustainable growth and provides environmental security and a better way of life for everybody. In the quest for economic gain, it is critically important to ensure than environmental and social conditions are not neglected. “A better balance must be reached that deems environmental protection and social welfare on par with economic concerns”.
(WWF Malaysia, 2006).
Support is always welcome in the Cameron Highlands from tourists, volunteers, locals and the government. Please visit the REACH website for more details. www.reach.org.my
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