IN many of the countries constituting Asean, tourism has come to mean ecotourism particularly because of the region’s richness in biodiversity. Those countries have learned to make use of their natural resources as a means of business, an income-generating livelihood for many people. Ecotourism has therefore come to mean not only admiring and enjoying the scenery of wild plants and animals and any existing cultural manifestation in an area but also integration of economic benefits derived from the same. That way, the satisfaction of visitors ensures a sustainable economic benefit flow accruing to the local community through the tourism service provided with the cooperation of the local government. Among natural ecosystems found in Asean countries, wetlands figure much in ecotourism.
Ha Long Bay is the most beautiful tourist destinations in Vietnam. It features limestone karsts and islands of various sizes and shape. Its waters host offshore coral reefs, freshwater swamp forests, small freshwater lakes and sandy beaches.
Management of Ha Long Bay is under the control of the Provincial People’s Committee which strives to raise the living standards of the population and the economic development of the bay area, including the lucrative tourism industry, balancing in the process tourism services with environmental protection in Halong Bay.
The Mt. Kinabalu ecotour is one of the greatest attractions of Sabah in Malaysia. Visitors come to enjoy its climatic, scenic, floral and faunal splendors. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia (located in the heart of Kinabalu National Park) attracts mountain- climbing enthusiasts around the world throughout the year assisted or serviced by local people from various communities along the way in their quest to conquer the famous peak.
Due to its uniqueness and richness in biodiversity, the Kinabalu National Park was the first site in Malaysia to be designated a World Heritage Park by Unesco. Within its confines are modern visitor facilities, including a center for accommodation with summit climb arrangements, picnic facilities, shelters and a hot spring/hot spa, to name a few.
Thailand’s ecotourism example illustrates corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model with nature conservation as its goal. One of PTT Thailand’s major projects is the rehabilitation of an abandoned fishpond farm into a mangrove forest and ended up with an ecotourism facility visited by schoolchildren, Thais and foreign tourists.
The Sirinath Rajini, a mangrove ecosystem learning center, offers visitors a wide array of information about how the CSR mission was realized as well as the benefits of the mangrove forest and the plants and animals found in the area. While the center provides a destination for ecotourists, it also serves as a venue for research and public activities.
In the management of the center, cooperation from every party concerned—landowners, national and local governments, private sector, educational institutions and temples surrounding the area—are given paramount consideration and importance.
People’s organizations in Palawan are now tapped to conserve protected forest and marine resource areas for sustainable ecotourism ventures. One such is an initiative for the protection of mangrove areas along the Barbacan River, known to be rich in biodiversity, spanning seven barangays in the municipality of Roxas. A new monitoring station is under construction for guards’ watch stand at night against poachers, allegedly seaweed farmers from a nearby island, who are known to cut down mangrove trees for their seaweed pens and poles. Women working for the construction of the new station had seen the potential of opening up a restaurant at the station as well as setting up a nighttime firefly tour along the river.
The project has the support of the local government of Roxas which has committed funds for the construction of a mangrove boardwalk. Even the Palawan provincial government has committed funds to buy kayaks and boats for waterspout activities.
The community initiative enjoys the support as well of UNDP, GEF, DENR-BMB and NGOs, i.e. the Palawan Conservation Corps and the Palawan Center for Appropriate Technology Inc.
A proposed 27 sq.km. conservation area between Teraja Protection Forest and Mendaram Conservation Area in Belait is aimed to be marketed for tourism purposes. Stakeholders in the area are led by the Teraja and Mendaram Longhouse chiefs as well as representatives from 13 government and non-government agencies.
The action plan has already been presented to the Ministry of Primary Resources and the Heart of Borneo National Council. The tourism department is in charge of training locals as “greenguides” and homestay hosts.
Ecotourism is not bereft of issues and concerns which include, but is not limited to: a) ecological impacts caused by visitors and tour operators in terms of damaged areas due to trampling, species collection, failure to properly dispose of litter or waste, or anchoring boats on corals, constructing shops and restaurants in or very close to sensitive areas; b) socio-economic problems which occur when outsiders bring in negative influences on the local community, e.g. changed local lifestyle, disturbed local culture, and introduction of drugs and crime; c) government mismanagement on account of lack of capability to manage ecotourism sites effectively; construction of an attractive visitors’ center at an ecotourism site may take precedence over more pressing environmental concerns like acquiring habitat, protecting endemic species and removing invasive ones. Worst is when economic benefits accrue to foreign investors or tour operators rather than local operators.
Effective environmental law implementation, enforcement and regulation are also key factors for the development of sound ecotourism coupled with impact management and mitigation, monitoring, reporting and adaptive management.
Despite success stories, ecotourism in the Asean region is still a work in progress. There are still many lessons to be learned and techniques to be improved in order to achieve harmony and balance. It would be most beneficial for Asean countries to share lessons and collaborate with each other on how to improve and better conserve areas for business and sustainable development.
The author served as Philippine Ambassador to Qatar.