Malaysia’s eco-tourism thrives with stakeholder participation

Malaysia’s eco-tourism thrives with stakeholder participation

Expert Reports  

The latest figures from Tourism Malaysia's data portal show that tourist arrivals fell from 26.76 million in 2016 to 25.95 million in 2017, and then down again to 25.83 million in 2018. The dip in 2018 compared to 2017 is mainly attributed to a 14.6% reduction in arrivals from Singapore. Only 10.62 million Singaporeans travelled to Malaysia last year, compared with 12.44 million in 2017. 

Also, the year 2018 saw concerns about tourist arrivals from China, as many tourism industry players claimed that there was a drop in arrivals from China.

However, Tourism Malaysia's figures show that the number of tourists from China to Malaysia grew in 2018 by 28.9%, from 2.28 million in 2017 to 2.94 million last year.

But, according to Datuk Tan Kok Liang, President Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA), the overall decline in tourist arrivals needs to be highlighted and urgent steps taken for Malaysia to make a comeback.

Tan pointed out that since many Singaporeans prefer to drive to Malaysia, more Immigration and Customs lanes should be set up at the Johor Causeway and Second Link checkpoints to facilitate and speed up their entry. He also believes that Malaysia needs to create new tourism products to compete with other countries that are also eager to lure tourists from Malaysia, including Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Tourism has always been the world’s largest and fastest-growing industries, creating jobs and generating income as well as protecting heritage, cultural and ecotourism sites. The tourism sector employed 277 million persons or 1 in 11 jobs and contributed 9% of the world’s GDP. As far as Malaysia is concerned, tourism’s contribution to the national economy is more significant compared to the global average. 

Globally, ecotourism is an increasingly popular tourism product. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), ecotourism, nature, heritage, cultural and adventure is expected to grow rapidly over the next two decades and global spending will increase at a higher rate than the overall growth of tourism. Based on the estimates of The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is projected to grow to 25% of the global tourism market shortly, and generate $470 billion in tourism receipts.

As for Malaysia, the data does not cater to a dedicated category on ecotourism. The departing visitor survey, however, provides information on the major activities engaged by tourists visiting Malaysia. In this regard, the survey findings indicated that 30.4% of tourists were engaged in walking/hiking and trekking-related activities, which can be viewed as a proxy to ecotourism. This implies that ecotourism is relatively popular among tourists to Malaysia. Besides, in line with the country’s philosophy tourism protects, preserves, and conserves mother nature, culture and heritage.

As an on-going initiative to develop the ecotourism segment, the National Ecotourism Plan (2016-2025) was formulated to maximize the potential of ecotourism and ensure sustainability. This Plan also embodies the spirit of the theme, uplifting communities, opportunities and economies. This theme focuses on the outputs, outcomes and benefits of ecotourism, which is the left-hand side of the equation. More importantly, the right-hand side variables involving the inputs of responsible tourism and sustainable development policy and practice are accorded due priority in the Plan.

Also, the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), a 5-year development plan, amongst others, is geared towards attracting high-yield tourists to further increase the industry’s contribution to the economy. The strategies include upgrading and development of ecotourism infrastructure, enhancement of offerings, capacity building and implementation of sustainable tourism development best practices as well as marketing and promotion.

To strengthen the country’s position as one of the leading destinations for ecotourism in the region, measures are being undertaken to position Perhentian Island in Terengganu as a premier tourism eco and adventure destination. Through this latest initiative, Malaysia aims to emulate the success of Langkawi Island, which is renowned as an ecotourism, geopark and island tourism destination in the world. 

In recognition of Malaysia’s eco-tourism initiatives, the country was awarded the “Best Eco- Vacation” at the 5th National Geographic Traveler Awards - Top Travel Destinations of 2015 by National Geographic Traveler Magazine.  The UNWTO also acknowledged Malaysia’s efforts in promoting community-based tourism through the Malaysian Homestay Experience Programme, which won the Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance by the UNWTO in 2012.

The Malaysian Homestay programme is a classic example of a rural ecotourism programme, which empowers the communities to uplift their income and quality of life. This programme allows tourists to live with a local family, thus enabling them to experience their local lifestyle, culture and tradition. In 2014, more than 370,000 tourists participated in the homestay programme, generating $7.1 million to the rural economy. 

The Homestay programme also underlines the importance of conservation and environmental management. The Tree Planting Programme at Homestays is a good example, where visitors are allowed to plant their tree to mark their visit to that particular Homestay. It also supports the idea of preserving the environment and further beautifying the landscape of the Homestays. To date, more than 16,733 trees have been planted by the homestay visitors. 

While Malaysia places importance on enhancing yield, it is also mindful of the important stakeholder of tourism – the people. Therefore, the country encourages local involvement, enhancement of local capabilities, sense of belonging and ownership, economic empowerment, including employment opportunities for developing and managing ecotourism in a sustainable manner to cater to the socio-economic needs of local communities, and also creates value innovation to enhance the ecotourism experience. 

For instance, Malaysia creates initiatives to improve the training of local and special-interest guides with better product knowledge and communication skills to provide better service to tourists that can further enrich the tourist experience and fetch a higher premium. 

Besides, the close collaboration between operators, local communities, NGOs and government and a holistic approach have helped develop and grow successful ecotourism clusters. The stakeholders have been mobilized through engagement, public education and awareness programmes, as well as effective implementation of the ecotourism plan of action. Today, Malaysian Ecotourism thrives with the participation of the entire value chain such as local communities and industry players.