Taking care of Malaysian tourism

WHEN it comes to being more conscious about one's travel activities, a term that often comes up is sustainable tourism.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) refers to sustainable tourism as travel that considers "social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities".

The sub-components of sustainable tourism are responsible tourism, ecotourism, geotourism and voluntourism.

Closer to home, the Visit Malaysia 2020 (VM2020) campaign will focus on promoting the sustainability of tourism, arts and culture in the country.

Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry secretary-general Datuk Isham Ishak says the emphasis on sustainable tourism has to do with benefiting local communities.

"Sustainability in a destination generates more local jobs and improves the quality of work. It provides more opportunities for local people to start their own business, in tourism or tourism-related areas," he offers in an e-mail interview.

As part of VM2020, the ministry is looking at the National Ecotourism Plan 2016-2025. The roadmap was established to maximise the potential of ecotourism and ensure sustainability through 19 strategies and 86 action plans.

"It is geared towards developing the ecotourism sector in order to further increase the tourism industry's contribution to the economy.

"It also benefits locals by contributing to the existing supply chain via integrated development that complements each other," Isham says.

Working plan

The ministry will look into five areas under the plan:

Investment in ecotourism, tourism concessions in ecotourism sites, synergy between ecotourism and conservation, ecotourism marketing and ecotourism product development.

"Ecotourism initiatives can have long-term economic benefits for communities, and at the same time ensuring the environment stays healthy for future generations," Isham explains.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang has always been a huge proponent of sustainable tourism.

While he agrees that sustainable tourism creates a positive impact to the local society and economy, commercial considerations could be hindrance.

"In Malaysia, we are engrossed with increasing tourist arrivals for economic benefits and in danger of neglecting the environment and society," he says.

Continued tourism growth risks placing great stress to tourism ecosystems such as coastlines, beaches and national parks.

"Tourism activities, like any other activity, have both a negative as well as positive side. The Government should take the initiative to protect the local community by enforcing rules and licensing requirements on tourism activities and operators.

"A lot of damage to our sustainable tourism products arise from operators who are unlicensed. They often operate 'as-they-like' and without any regard for the law," says Tan.

In making travel more sustainable, Matta recommends limiting the number of tourist arrivals on sensitive tourism attraction products and preserving local culture and heritage.

"We have spoken up on issues affecting the environment and encouraged members to embark on sustainable tourism programmes such as market diversification into rural tourism, commercialising eco-tourism products and increasing tourism activities at ecological and cultural based destinations," he says.

At present, Tan says overtourism is something that needs serious attention.

"It is crucial for the Government to be reminded that tourism is not just about increasing tourist arrivals but also ensuring our natural assets are preserved for future generation and tourism receipts benefit all segments of the industry," he says.

Isham shares that the ministry is taking steps to minimise the effects of overtourism.

"We have increased our efforts to get travellers to secondary destinations by developing new routes and attractions, in addition to the main places.

"We also encourage travellers to support local sustainable tourism efforts. For example, support both the tour company that employs local, full-time staff as well as the farmers that harvest the produce. Also, interact with the country's culture and heritage," he explains.

Moving forward, the ministry will collaborate and work closely with international organisations such as UNWTO and Global Sustainable Tourism Council to educate and give awareness to tourists, industry players and local community on embracing and practising the sustainable tourism model.