Saturday, June 09, 2007

Is Tourism Killing Malaysia's Environment?

Fifteen years ago, nature guide Irshad Mobarak started bringing tourists to Langkawi’s mangrove area in Kilim River. As the boat glided across the mangrove channels, he could spot frolicking dolphins and playful otters or sneak up on the shy monitor lizard basking in the sun. He marvelled at the majestic 400 million-year-old limestone rocks fringing the shores, and the rock faces decked with ancient cycads and exotic slipper orchids.

“There wasn’t even a jetty then. Sometimes when we got stuck in the mud, my guests helped to push the boat,” says Irshad, a conservationist and resident naturalist at Datai Resort.

Only the cantankerous cries of the Brahminy kites or White-bellied sea eagles soaring in the skies shattered the tranquillity.

Now, during the peak season, the scene at Kilim is reminiscent of an F1 racetrack. Tourist-laden boats with loud, droning engines zip across the river trying to outdo each other. Dolphins and otters shy away from the noise, and most of the exotic flora and cycads have been poached. The biggest attraction is the sight of over 50 eagles swooping down to feed on chicken skins flung by tourists.

Litter washed ashore at one of the geo-sites.
Along the banks, some mangrove trees dangle precariously while others have toppled over.

“The speeding boats create big wakes that erode the soil (on the banks) that supports the trees,” explains Irshad who has trained a handful of nature guides on the island.

During low tide, you can see pink and blue plastic bags tangled in the claw-like tree roots. On a breezy day, you can smell the stench drifting from a landfill nearby.

But Kilim is just a mild example of destinations in Malaysia that lack sustainable tourism practices.

Simply put, a well-managed tourist destination must include studies on carrying capacity and the environmental, economic and social impacts. The goal is to ensure the place remains unspoilt and the tourism bucks benefit the local community, natural and cultural heritage for years to come.

Widen the focus

In Malaysia, too much emphasis is placed on promotions and nobody ensures the tourism product is maintained, according to Dr Reza Azmi, a biologist and founder of Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group, Wild Asia.

“With the huge increase in tourist numbers – if there is no control control, emphasis on education and the minimising of impact – the product will be degraded.”

Here, tourism is the second largest economic contributor, after manufacturing, with earnings of US$9.2bil (RM34bil) and tourists arrivals amounting to 16.4 million in 2005. Nature-based/ecotourism makes up more than one-third of local tourism. Yet, we constantly see litter-strewn parks and beaches, dead corals, dirty rivers, filthy toilets and garish building structures in natural areas.

“First, you need to identify what is your core product and values?” says Reza, who has been promoting responsible tourism practices in this region for the past four years.

Irshad Mobarak. — IBRAHIM MOHTAR & LAI VOON LOONG/The Star
“Then you have to look at how not to negatively impact these products.

“More people on the island means more environmental degradation. Somebody needs to do something and at what level? Who makes the decision and who’s involved?”

“If you do not understand these things, why are you in business?” asserts Reza. “Because the (tourism) business is going to fail. The degradation of the area would deter international tourists from coming here.”

Just like it takes a village to raise a child, managing a destination involves the whole “village” – from the local government and private operators to tourists and the forestry or wildlife department.

Take Kilim, the boat cruises are monopolised by local boat operators who are members of the Kilim Fishermen Economic Group. Tour operators or resorts have to hire these boats to take their guests on the cruise. In high tourist seasons, 50 boats ply the river in a day and some boats make two to three trips per day.

“We are even short of boats some days. But I always tell my members we need the mangroves to sustain the tourism business,” says the chairman Omar Ariffin.

The group has about 80 members, most of whom are boat owners or boatmen who depend on tourism as their main source of income.

“I’ve brought up issues like reducing the speed of the boats or providing rubbish bags and telling tourists not to litter.

“But all this talk has fallen on deaf ears. I think the local council, tourism or environment department has to cooperate with us to enforce some regulations,” suggests Omar.

“For starters, they can impose fines on speeding boats to protect the banks, avoid collisions and protect other fishing boats plying the same water.”

“WWF Malaysia approached me twice and we discussed how to work together to clean up the environment,” adds Omar. “But some of our members had a misunderstanding with one of the WWF officers.”

But all is not lost.

The Star photographer Ibrahim Mohtar and I took a short cruise in Kilim with Irshad one evening. Our boatman, Rosli, steered a four-stroke engine boat at a leisurely pace around the intricate maze of mangrove channels.

Brown-winged kingfisher and Racket-trailed drongo flitted about the trees while blue and orange crabs squabbled over territory on the mud banks. Eagles soared majestically in the skies with the craggy rocks as backdrop. Only a couple of boats were plying the river as the sun dipped into the horizon.

“This place has been feeding our families and enriching us, maybe it’s time to give back and care for it now,” Irshad sums up.

Source : STAR
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