Balancing the dangers of Malaysia’s push to eco-tourism

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Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) alongside other stakeholders successfully protested against the construction of a proposed new international airport on Tioman Island.

Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) alongside other stakeholders successfully protested against the construction of a proposed new international airport on Tioman Island.

By Yanika Liew

While the Malaysian government eagerly encourages tourist arrivals, multiple countries have reported environmental damage to their heritage sites and natural attractions. From the beaches of Bali to the temples of Angkor Wat, the combination of tourism and development can often be lethal to the surrounding environment and wildlife.

UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve sites such as Tasik Chini have reportedly been subject to illegal logging and mining, where the water is muddy and the iconic lotus flowers are far and few between. As developers seek to capitalise on the Malaysian pivot to tourism, sustainable initiatives have to go beyond passive greenwashing and into active and substantial efforts.

In 2023, it was reported that Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) alongside other stakeholders successfully protested against the construction of a proposed new international airport on Tioman Island. A biased Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was subsequently challenged by the public, revealing key weaknesses in the current EIA procedures.

“We started assessing hotels and resorts based on the ASEAN Green Hotels standards back in 2015. We conduct annual assessments and each time we would include three points for improvements. This could be as simple as having separate bins for recycling to more complex things such as ensuring policy is in place to hire staff from the local community. So as you can imagine the improvements were a process that took a lot of effort and time,” RCM chief programmes officer Alvin Chelliah said.

RCM chief operating officer Theresa Ng noted that RCM’s Green Hotel standards are based on the ASEAN Green Hotels but it had since been modified to suit the context and needs of the locally-owned establishments on Tioman Island. 

However, they have not been able to accredit them to ASEAN Green Hotel standards as that was solely under the purview of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture. 

“Coral reefs are sensitive ecosystems that do not like change. Developers need to ensure that during construction there will be minimal runoff and siltation into the sea. They must be very mindful that no chemical pollutants such as paint, petrol, and oil or pollutants such as sewage, wastewater and solid waste do not end up in the sea or the ground,” Chelliah said.

“Developers need to bear in mind how operations of the properties would also have minimal impact and strain on the natural environment. Things to consider would be in respect of the beach reserve where no construction should be done, be water efficient by reusing waste and harvesting rainwater, ensure all sewage is properly treated and minimise electricity consumption,” he added.

The biggest challenge in managing tourist spots is finding the balance between the number of tourists versus the health of the environment, Chelliah pointed out. 

“It is vital that sustainability is always the main objective, we don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Protecting the environment means many generations will be able to profit off the tourists that come to visit. High but short-term profit is unwise and detrimental in the long run,” he said.

“For the private sector, I would encourage them to step away from mass tourism and focus on low numbers but higher-paying tourists. A low number would mean less impact on the environment but also bring higher profits if marketed correctly, after all, no one wants to share their holidays with a hundred other people.

“For the public, I would encourage you to do some homework when planning your next holiday, look for environmentally friendly resorts, look for Green Fins-certified Dive Centres and support local certified nature guides. Your support would encourage them to keep doing their best to protect the environment that you enjoy visiting,”

During the 2015 National Seminar on Environmental Justice, Malaysia Federal Court Judge Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Embong noted that there was a lack of civil litigation in environmental cases. In Malaysia, only those who can demonstrate sufficient connection with or interest in the subject can seek a judicial remedy.

“In the Philippines, the courts are more proactive to welcome public interest litigation in which recognition of standing was given not only on behalf of persons whose constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology is violated but also on behalf of generations yet unborn,”

“It also provides a simplified, speedy and inexpensive procedure for the enforcement of environmental rights and duties. In June 2012, we saw the filing of a petition to stop the construction of a $1.3 billion coal-fired power plant in Subic Bay, with the petitioners which include environmentalists alleging that the plant will negatively impact the environment with acid rain, warming and acidification of Subic Bay’s seawater,” he was quoted to have written in his paper.

Greenpeace clean environment campaigner AnnJil Chong wrote recently that a method against environmental damage is a heavy penalty, with Malaysian laws being sorely lacking. One example is the Kim Kim River Case, with a fine of RM100,000 on the lorry driver guilty of illicit waste disposal and a measly RM320,000 penalty on the corporation responsible.

Malaysians might want to turn to more proactive methods of climate justice. The method of adaptation involves building or retrofitting infrastructure, from drainage systems to restoration of wetlands.

“Malaysia is truly blessed with some of the healthiest ecosystems in the world and many foreign tourists come just to experience Malaysia's natural beauty. I would strongly encourage Malaysians to travel within our country and visit these locations. From Mount Kinabalu to Pulau Tioman, Malaysia has so much to offer and we should experience it first-hand,” Chelliah said.

First published in Starbiz7 on 15 June 2024


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