The ecotourism dilemma... or how to leave only footprints behind

JULY 8 — These past few weeks, I can’t seem to shake off several haunting photographs. Scenes that include a long trail of people and huge piles of non-decomposable rubbish that they have left behind.

One would be forgiven for thinking such images were taken in one of the far-flung touristy islands or perhaps even the SS15 Bubble Tea Street. 

But sadly enough, they are from one of the most inaccessible places on Earth — Mount Everest. 

Heavy traffic on the “Roof of the World” resulted in delays to an already short survival window. Seasoned climbers say that aside from inexperience, the barrage of alpine tourism (record 381 permits issued this year) directly contributed to the 11 deaths this season, not to mention the heaps of refuse that include tents, climbing equipment and plastic bottles that are left behind.

While the deaths have been tragic, the impact of humans on sites of natural beauty has forced me to reflect on my own (and my generation’s) desire for travel.

How can one species wreak so much havoc in a place inaccessible barely 50 years ago? Can tourism (or rather ecotourism) be a force for good in an ever-burgeoning population? And if yes, how can a balance be found?

An unruly species

Malaysia is not short of sites similar to Mount Everest. 

Although not as vertically impressive, ecotourism sites like Taman Negara, Mulu National Park and Pulau Sipadan draw equal if not a greater amount of awe from local and foreign tourists alike. 

And with this comes millions of tourists to our shores; in search of insta-worthy pictures, unforgettable experiences and a souvenir or two to bring back home.

In fact, Tourism Malaysia reported 25.83 million tourist arrivals in 2018, contributing a combined total of RM84.1 billion—the highest ever in a single year—to our economy. 

With the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) forecasting 28.1 million visitors and spending of RM92.2 billion this year, it is evident that growth is expected in the tourism industry.

What is unclear, however, is whether such growth will be equalled with concern for the sites, especially by the tourists themselves.

As a scuba diver, I have seen corals being broken off and trampled on. As a hiker, I have seen wanton disposal of rubbish along trails. As a spelunker, I have seen graffiti scrawled across cave chamber walls. 

It doesn’t seem like some of us can enjoy nature without the tendency to destroy it.

Observed best practices

In light of these irresponsible behaviour, there are some good examples of how ecotourism can be sustainable with proper management.

For example, Pulau Sipadan and Mount Kinabalu impose strict daily quotas on the number of tourists (120 and 185 respectively). 

In essence, this practice limits the impact of visitors on sites of extreme natural beauty. Such protection should be extended for all identified areas of ecological significance.

Aside from this, I was pleasantly surprised by how hiking is managed in Gunung Ledang National Park. At the start of the climb, the Johor National Park Corporation officials had us fill in a form, declaring the exact number of items we would bring along to the peak. 

We then had to go through a rubbish audit at the end of the climb, before being refunded our deposit. This is to ensure that nothing is left behind along the trails.

But desperate times call for desperate measures in the case of Pulau Sembilan in Perak. Famous for the blue glowing plankton, visitors flocked to the site. 

Excessive pollution from overtourism meant it had to be closed indefinitely by the Perak State Park Corporation. This closure represents a loss in revenue but is indeed necessary for the ecosystem to regenerate.

From a management perspective, it makes sense to suffer small losses by limiting visitors, rather than losing income by having to close the entire site or spending money on clean-ups. 

I would argue that this move would also give an air of exclusivity to the site itself, enabling the managers to command higher entrance fees.

Ecotourism or not? 

Let’s face it, ecotourism is great. 

The industry fills state coffers, provides strong grounds for conservation and most importantly lifts communities out of poverty. 

But given that ecosystems are complex and often poorly understood, the wholesale purchase of this concept as a panacea is dangerous. 

In the age of the Anthropocene, it is impossible to prevent people from travelling. Hence, ecotourism must come hand in hand with proper regulations, the capacity to enforce them and the will to intervene when needed. 

In a more bottom-up approach, I urge fellow tourists and thrill-seekers out there to be more discerning when choosing your next destination. Demand environmentally conscious tourism products. Better yet, speak up when you see practices that damage the very reason why you are there.

Fail to do so and we will risk losing these sites forever. And that, my friends, is the ecotourism dilemma.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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