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Green Technology: Setting the limit for rural sustainability

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The Economic Transformation Programme that the government launched in October 2010, indicates that the economy of the country has to evolve from low yield to high yield if the nation is to succeed in becoming a fully developed country by 2020.

Tourism is regarded as one of the most important drivers for the economy in Malaysia. Hence, much scrutiny is needed for the industry to move up the value chain and move away from mass tourism to niche tourism. Nonetheless, as we continue to develop our fragile resources especially in the rural setting, we may be reaching the tipping point. What is the limit of the continuous sustainability of these resources if development exceeds conservation?

In Malaysia, the prefix, ‘eco’ which represents ‘being green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ may sound benign but there seems to be an over-use of this term to denote an idea of being ‘hip’, ‘cool’ and ‘friendly’ to the environment. 

This can lead some tourism businesses to abuse this label as a marketing tool, merely paying lip service to environmentalism by declaring they are green with no action taken to ensure they are.

Consequently, there are serious impacts to the expropriation of virgin territories, which include wildlife parks, national parks or other wilderness areas. Development of mega-resorts, hotels, condominiums, shopping malls and golf courses in natural areas in the name of green tourism or eco-tourism to attract mass tourist is indeed green-washing.

So, what is the limit of development that a rural destination can allow or the limit in the number of tourist or visitors to these sites? Finding the right balance in development that will not totally wipe out our natural resources is critical. That is indeed the essence of the ‘sustainable development’ concept. But realistically finding the ‘magic number’ for carrying capacity may sometime seem preposterous.

Thus, in the field of tourism, the concept of carrying capacity can be used when seeking and selecting ‘appropriate’ types of tourism developments in these eco-sensitive sites and to determine the limit in the number of tourists allowed before shutting down operations. The physical and socio-economic carrying capacity can be determined for environmental resources.

The concept of carrying capacity is one that exemplifies the need to maintain development and activities at a level that is both ecologically and socially sustainable. Primarily, it aims to avoid environmental degradation and thus evade social conflicts. Hence, carrying capacity would define limits on tourism development in a place, such as the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time without causing environmental destruction, resulting in an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors‘ satisfaction.

 

Hard-hit

Malaysia is blessed with breathtaking islands with white sandy beaches and clear waters, all of which generate significant tourism receipt for the nation. Tourism growth in Malaysia has been assisted, to an extent, by the abundant and rich coral reefs and shallow tropical marine resources in this region. Nonetheless, two years ago the impact of exceeding carrying capacity in some of the major dive sites in the country was reported in the local dailies.

The closure of nine dive sites on the tropical islands of Tioman and Redang during the peak of the coral bleaching incident at the end of 2010 was indeed a wake-up call for all stakeholders to play their part in an attempt to relieve stress on the fragile marine ecosystems.

These popular dive sites in the South China Sea were hit by coral bleaching and global warming was blamed. The closure gave the coral a chance to regenerate and remove stress caused by tourism-related activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling. If these dive sites are not serious in enforcing carrying capacity, Malaysia may lose the very thing that has attracted many eco-tourists to its diving sites that are considered top in the world.

Reports in green lifestyle magazine, EcoMalaysiain 2010 further highlighted that although Malaysia has a wide range of natural assets that make eco-tourism a highly beneficial, sustainable and long-term form of tourism, there are enormous concerns for the future of eco-tourism, as many of the well-known eco-tourism sites in Malaysia are now so over-used.

Some of the examples are Wang Kelian in Perlis (limestone, caves and forests), Kenyir Catchments in Trengganu (lake, boating, trekking and fishing), Pulau Kukup in Johor (mangroves, wildlife, and seafood), Lower Kinabatangan River in Sabah (proboscis monkeys and wildlife), Pulau Redang in Trengganu (fish, coral reefs and an attractive marine environment), Pulau Sipadan in Sabah (fish, coral reefs and an attractive marine environment).

Some of the best eco-tourism practices have been displayed in the Matang Mangroves Forest in Perak. However, there is still lack of best eco-tourism practices displayed in many of the marine parks in Malaysia.

 

Limiting and managing

So, how do we make amends to ensure the biggest industry of the world, tourism, does not destroy the ecosystem? One such approach is by understanding the concept of ‘responsible tourism’, where travel aims to reduce the disastrous trail by promoting sustainable management practices at the operational level.

As propagated by Wild Asia, a social-enterprise group based in Kuala Lumpur:

“…Today‘s tourists are people with a genuine interest about their holiday destination and are aware that their presence can have adverse effects on both the lifestyle of the locals and the environment. Responsible tourism provides this guarantee and assures the holidaymaker a guilt-free trip”.

Thus, limiting divers to 120 per day at diving destinations like Sipadan Island in Sabah as the carrying capacity point may seem scientific. But does that mean if you have 121 divers, you will get environmental degradation or if you have 119 divers, your corals are safe and sustainable? Certainly not. The weaknesses in finding this magic number that does not in reality exist.

Trailing from the idea of carrying capacity is another more acceptable visitor management concept called ‘limit of acceptable change’ (LAC) that is important in environmental resource management.

Determining the threshold number before a destination is destroyed is not as important as having a good management system to determine if the destination is negatively impacted. Hence, the LAC concept describes the level of allowable variations in the quality of the environment before irreversible degradation is likely to occur. Environmental management rather than development control is of much greater importance in managing the finite environmental resources.

The environment is the resource base for tourism; without protection, the natural attraction that brought the tourist in the first place will be lost. Greening tourism under the name of eco-tourism or any other synonym can have the same harmful effects as that of mass tourism if all the stakeholders in the tourism industry do not strictly adhere to the precepts of eco-tourism or responsible tourism.

When demand rises, further development implemented in the areas that were previously untouched could cause extensive damage. Once destinations become popular, there is often no way to control development activities. Thus, environmental destruction becomes irreversible and gradually destroys the natural resources on which the tourism industry actually depends.

In conclusion, finding the right equilibrium between development and sustaining environmental resources is critical for the survival of mankind. In years to come, the next world war will not be about who controls the oil but about who controls the energy, water and environmental resources. Hence, we need to set realistic limits for the utilisation of our resources before they are all gone by the time our grandchildren are born.

 

Associate Professor Dr Vikneswaran Nair is the Director of the Centre of Research and Development at Taylor‘s University. He is the lead researcher of an on-going project on responsible rural tourism.


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