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Mangroves And Ecotourism: Ecological Or Economical?

by Ahmad Mahdzan Ayob

1. Anatomy And Taxonomy Of Tourism

What is tourism?

Everyone attending this session should have a fair idea of what the term signifies. A simple definition which I think most people will agree is that tourism is any form of traveling from one’s home to visit another place solely for enjoyment or pleasure and not to work for monetary rewards. A more academic definition is given by Waver and Lawton (2002), who have expanded a definition given by Goeldner, Ritchie and McIntosh (2000): Tourism is the sum of the phenomena and relationships arising from the interaction among tourists, the tourism industry, host governments, host communities, origin governments, universities, community colleges, and non-governmental organizations, in the process of attracting, transporting, hosting and managing these tourists and other visitors.

Tourists may be of domestic origin or foreign origin. Both types contribute to the growth of the local economy directly and indirectly. Recall that the size of an economy is measured by the gross national income as given by the formula learned in Economics 101:

Y = C + I + G + (X – M)

where Y is the GNP, C is private consumption expenditure, I is private investment, G is government expenditure, X is value of exports and M is value of imports.

Thus, while domestic tourists collectively contribute towards C, i.e. private consumption expenditure, by spending on transportation, accommodation, food, entrance fees, etc., foreign tourists bring in much-valued foreign exchange earnings via X in the GNP equation. The government spends part of its revenue (via G) to provide the infrastructure to make the tourists more comfortable and enjoyable by building new airports, roads, highways, parks, and museums, and by restoring of historic buildings and sites, etc. The private sector, in anticipation of an influx of tourists, both domestic and foreign, invests (via I in the equation) in new hotels, lodges, restaurants, while residents near tourism sites may be encouraged by the government to spruce up their homes for added income via home-stays for those tourists who prefer to learn more about local culture and way of life.

All the four components (C, I, G, X) contribute positively to the growth of GNP. However, “imports” (M) tend to negate the size of the GNP; these include outflow of our own tourists to foreign destinations, imports of exotic foods and equipment by hotels, restaurants and other tourism-oriented establishments, materials for building such as steel, transportation equipment, etc., which all tend to drain foreign exchange. Added to these negative flows, and often ignored in conventional national income accounting, are the various negative “externalities” such as damage to the environment via air, soil, noise and water pollution, brought about by sudden increase in vehicular traffic, excessive land clearing and tree felling to make way for hotels, new airports, reduction in biodiversity, and other environmental degradation, unless there are legal provisions to mitigate the impacts of all these phenomena. If one is interested in the Net National Product, then one should incorporate these environmental losses into the calculation, which is referred to as “green accounting,” a very tedious process, to say the least.

The literature on tourism seems to distinguish two broad categories of tourism – mass tourism and nature tourism. The tourist arrival figures published by the Malaysian Tourism Board would best be described as mass tourism – that is the sum total of all visitors to our country regardless of their specific purpose of, or specific site for, coming here. Once they are in the country, if they decide to visit the National Park, then we could classify them as ecotourists or nature tourists. If they remain in Kuala Lumpur area, or move on to another city, like Penang, or Langkawi, for instance, I would regard them as general or “mass” tourists (Ayob, 2003). Thus, nature tourists are a subset of the mass tourists, and they possess special profiles, which we need not go into here.

The tourism sector in Malaysia ranks second as a generator of foreign exchange, and provides jobs to many people employed in the hotel and transportation industries, as well as those in the restaurant and other tourism-related businesses.

Tourism receipts in Malaysia totalled RM9174.9 million in 1995, and surged to RM25,781.1 million in 2002, growing at about 15.9% annually during that period. The 2003 receipts however dropped drastically to RM 21,292.1 million due to SARS. Despite the big drop, one can appreciate the rising importance of this industry’s contribution to foreign exchange earnings from the following figures: tourism’s share of the travel receipts in the services account of the balance of payment has increased from 20% in 1997 to 48% in 2002 (Public Bank 2003). Tourist arrivals in Malaysia are shown in Chart I, which indicate that tourist arrivals dropped by about 24% in 2003 due to the SARS scare. In 2003, about 56% of the tourists are from Singapore, which is not surprising as the island city is our closest neighbor.

Chart I: Tourist Arrivals in Malaysia 1981-2003

What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism has now become a buzzword in many circles (politicians, NGOs, businessmen, academics and environmentalists), and almost every country that has some natural resources and historical heritage has jumped on to the bandwagon to develop this sub-sector of the tourism industry. From Ecuador to Sulawesi (Indonesia), from India to Australia, people talk and write about ecotourism (particularly visits to mangrove areas). This is because ecotourism is perceived to be the solution to the adverse effects of mass tourism, which most people view as “unsustainable.” Therefore to push for ecotourism is to be “politically correct” and moving with the times. Tropical countries such as Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries see mangrove swamps (fashionably classified as wetlands nowadays) as another opportunity to develop ecotourism in their respective countries. This year the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, in celebrating its centennial anniversary of the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve, has included “mangrove and tourism” as one session in its present conference, which is the focus of my presentation. Happy centennial anniversary!

The Ecotourism Society (cited in Institute for Ecological Tourism website listed in Reference), defines Ecotourism as purposeful or responsible travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.

There is in this definition a certain element of ethics, morality and values involved in ecotourism, i.e. it is expected that people who take part in an ecotourism excursion are very responsible people who love the natural environment and would like to contribute towards its conservation. They want to minimize impacts to wildlife, soil, vegetation, water, and air quality, and emphasize respect for the cultural traditions and activities of local people. Said in another way, the environment benefits from visitors because they help to conserve the environment; they in turn benefit from their non-consumptive use of the resource (which economists refer to as use value) as they increase their knowledge about the site visited; and this raises their utility level. The local community too should benefit from both the resource (which has been sustaining their life) and the visitors who bring them new sources of income. There is, therefore, a symbiotic relationship among the three entities involved in ecotourism (Chart II).

Chart II: Three-way Symbiosis in Ecotourism

If ecotourism is to have minimal impact on the area and the local people, then the tours will have to be in small groups of 5-15 people because the tour normally involves an interpretative session; and it is easier to get people’s attention when groups are small. If groups are larger, there is also the danger that people will trample on each other and spoil the fun for everyone. They might also step on rare plants or frighten the wildlife there. Some may wander away from the main group and miss the educational part of the visit – the interpretation session.

“Mangrove ecotourism” is not a new “branch” of ecotourism; it merely indicates the nature of the site visited by the tourists. A mangrove is a woody forest area that lies at the interface between the land and the sea in tropical and subtropical latitudes where the condition is highly saline, tides are extremes, winds are strong, temperatures high and soils are muddy and anaerobic for most of the time. Dominant tree species include, but are not limited to, Rhizophora apiculata (bakau minyak) and R. mucronata (B. kurap) – the true bakau types, as understood by local Malays, and as typified by the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserves.

The development of mangroves as ecotourism sites is growing worldwide, at least within the subtropical regions of the world, which make up their habitat. Browsing the Internet, one is overwhelmed by websites that mention mangroves as potentially viable as ecotourism destinations; you just type “mangrove ecotourism” and you will understand what I mean!

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