Taman Negara: Sweating, Swimming and Sustainability

For many visitors to Peninsular Malaysia, Taman Negara (Pahang) is on the hot list, described by Rough Guides as “the most spectacular jungle scenery you’ll ever come across”. It’s easy to see why our largest national park is also our most popular with travellers from home and away.

But just how is the world’s oldest rainforest coping with high volumes of guests? Amy from Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Initiative (and writer of our Let’s Unravel Travel series) goes exploring through the national park to see what evidence there is of tourism related issues.

Tree-mendous Taman Negara?

It’s my first visit to Taman Negara and I’m very excited to see what nature the dense jungle has to offer. Travelling throughout Malaysia as a tourist, you are bombarded with imagery for Taman Negara’s adventure, its natural wonders and its greenery.

For those of you who have not yet visited, I’ll set the scene. Picture walking on a boulder strewn beach to a gurgling river, shadowed by an emerald jungle so tall and dense that at first it appears impenetrable. Tributaries of the chocolate coloured river meander through secret passages into the forest’s unknown, leading groups on boats of hollowed trees. Mysterious jungle sounds of exotic birds echo and the humidity and heat hit you like a wave. At first glance Taman Negara is everything it’s promised its leech-proof sock sporting guests it would be: a tropical paradise. Delve a little deeper and the scars of tourism begin to show.

My first disappointment is right at the entrance of this beautiful national park. It is swarming with jetskis and engine powered boats that buzz like mosquitoes. I doubt I’m alone in dreaming of a silent gliding canoe through the trees to reach the heart of the park. Yet the noise and commotion from what’s really populating the river has shattered me. Is this really necessary? Wouldn’t the visitor experience be enhanced if there was less river traffic?

Entering the park, however, I’m pleased to see some really positive initiatives. The onsite shop offers an inspiring scheme to reduce waste and litter, return your empty bottles and cans and get RM1 in return. The only in-park hotel has some really informative signs about Taman Negara’s visitor charter; what you should do and not do to look after this natural environment. Nature guides are advised to enhance your visit. Plant species are sometimes labeled, educating visitors about the rich biodiversity.

Yet…I can’t help but feel the negative experiences are outweighing the good work that’s clearly being done. I’m saddened to see extensive footpath erosion when efforts have been gone into building robust walkways (which are damaged and closed in places, forcing heavy booted tourists to trample on beaten earth or vegetation). I cringe at poorly maintained educational signs that are overgrown or covered with litter. I shudder at a traffic jam of chugging boats that dodge boys (yes, not buoys!) in a designated family swimming area. And I lose sleep over the unethical promotion and delivery of village safaris to Orang Asli (aboriginal) settlements.

Luckily, I’m not alone in these concerns. In 2010 the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management from the Universiti Teknologi MARA Shah Alam, performed a research project on the sustainability and visitor impacts within the national park. Their findings revealed that visitors themselves are disappointed with overcrowding, litter and soil erosion. Worryingly, these visitors also believe “that the environmental conditions are likely to worsen in the future if the management does not take immediate action”. (Othman, Anwar and Kian, 2010)

So what happens now?

Wild Asia is currently working on a consultancy project to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in some of Malaysia’s most important and breathtaking nature based tourism destinations. We’re on the lookout for things that need improving in some of our best natural assets and developing practical steps to improve the responsible tourism management of them. One of the ways is that we always recommend destinations follow the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s Criteria for Destinations. Wild Asia also offers bespoke training courses to any type of tourism operator to ensure an effective understanding of sound business practices are in place. If you are an operator and would like to know more about greening your business practices, get in touch.

References

Othman, Anwar and Kian, 2010. “Sustainability Analysis: Visitors Impact on Taman Negara, Pahang, Malaysia”. Journal of Tourism, Hospitality & Culinary Arts.

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