Time for tourism to 'step up to the mark'

While Malaysia clearly has an abundance to offer tourists seeking back-to-nature adventures or retreats,  it’s time tourism stepped up to the mark, to satisfy eco-conscious travellers and play a bigger part in reducing its impact on the environment and communities.

Amy McLoughlin and Reza Azmi write for Business Circle about responsible tourism in Malaysia.

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Sustainable Island Programme

Soft, white sandy beaches lining sparkling blue-green waters and coconut trees swaying in the background attract thousands of tourists every year. However, our marine ecosystem faces irreversible destruction due to the advent of industralisation. Learn about the Sustainable Island Programme (SIP) as an approach to coral reef conservation.

Sustainable Island Programme

In 2007, Reef Check Malaysia conducted 33 surveys, covering 21 sites around the islands off the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The results show that overall, the islands on the East coast face a number of pressures which are negatively impacting their coral reefs. These include rapid development of tourism facilities, principally resorts, which increases sewage pollution, leading to the spread of coral-smothering algae. Poor solid waste management adds to the problem.

Other development pressures (for example the recently completed marina and the ongoing beach replenishment project in Tioman Island) are resulting in increased siltation, which would suffocate the reefs. Furthermore, increasing visitor numbers are causing significant physical damage to the reefs.

Although some Reef Check surveys have been carried out in previous years, there is still insufficient data to accurately identify trends in the status of coral reefs in the East coast islands.

tiomanRealising that an extended survey programme is required to holistically address the environmental conundrum faced by the reefs, Wild Asia, together with Reef Check Malaysia, developed the Sustainable Island Programme (SIP), which was quickly mobilised into action in March 2008.

The SIP combines the strengths of Reef Check and Wild Asia in assessing the stresses faced by the reefs and coming up with a sound reef conservation management plan. This inevitably requires monitoring the condition of the marine ecosystem by surveying more dive sites and correlating it with what is happening on the islands itself.

Wild Asia’s strengths in Responsible Tourism and environmental/biodiversity conservation would come in handy as the effectiveness of reef conservation measures in the long-term would require improvements with regards to the practices and habits of dive operators, resort owners and local communities residing on the islands.

Operators committed to Responsible Tourism would have to ensure that they preserve their local environment and the people and cultures within it. They do this by careful management of all areas of their business, from the resources they buy to the care of their staff to the disposal of waste. They focus on maximising their guests’ holiday experience while minimising the impact this has on the area. Preserving our natural areas and the communities in them serves a dual purpose as it also protects the very things that so many tourists come to Asia to see, which will ultimately increase the all important revenue from the tourist trade.

OUR Reefs, OUR Heritage, OUR Responsibility

Currently only 4% of the world’s marine ecosystems is left undamaged by human impact. It is estimated that 42% of Malaysia’s coral reefs are facing high levels of risk of damage from coastal development, sedimentation, marine-based pollution, overfishing and destructive fishing. In addition to that, global warming is putting further stress on the reefs to survive as higher water temperatures for prolonged periods would result in coral bleaching and will eventually lead to the coral’s death.

With these statistics in mind, let us contribute towards highlighting the significance of coral reefs in sustaining the livelihood of millions of people dependent on fisheries, pharmaceuticals and tourism.

The Results

  • A total of 50 reef check surveys were conducted at selected coral reef sites on Redang, Perhentian, Tioman, Tenggol and Aur Islands. 
  • Islands are faced with too much stress from sewage and waste pollution, sedimentation from island development and over-capacity in terms of tourists and tourist facilities. While the increase in the number of tourists visiting the islands is desirable for economic reasons, this also brings pollution to the sea which can negatively affect the very thing tourists and visitors come to appreciate. 
  • Eco-checks on participating resorts have highlighted the obvious environmental issues the islands face and the main challenges they experience in dealing with implementing good practices. As resorts that participated in the SIP eco-checks this year are representative of operators throughout the respective islands i.e. Tioman and Perhentian, the main issues and challenges they have highlighted during the eco-checks would be applicable to almost all others. 
  • Island operators and Marine Park Officers are now switched on about the SIP and will take the lead where reef check surveys and water quality monitoring are concerned. They are able to play their role in coordinating and mobilizing people to continue the activities of the SIP.