Dr. Badaruddin Mohamed
School of Housing, Building & Planning, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang

Paper presented at International Year of Ecotourism 2002 
Regional Conference in Chiang Mai/Thailand, 3-7 March 2002: Community Based Ecotourism in Southeast Asia


Tourism is fast becoming the second most important sector for Malaysian economy.  Despite the scare of the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States and global economic downturn, over 12.7 million tourists visited Malaysia last year, generating over RM24 Billion revenue to the economy, an RM7 Billion jump compared to the figure of 2000.  Prior to this. Malaysian tourism had enjoyed quite an impressive average growth of 9.26% between 1981 and 2000. 

WWF Malaysia estimates that Malaysia gains RM655 million per year from ecotourism.  This figure is rather small compared to the estimated RM24 Billion tourism brings into the economy.   

As indicated in Figure 1, the number of international arrivals to Malaysia showed a significant growth before reaching its first climax in 1990.  Malaysia, in 1990 also recorded 54% increase in tourist arrivals from the previous year due to intense Visit Malaysia Year promotional blitz throughout the world. 

After taking a dip in 1997 and 1998, Malaysian tourism sector  recovers with a 53% increase in international tourist arrivals.  If the projection by the Economic Intelligence Unit is still relevant,  Malaysia can expect further annual growth of 8.5% until 2005. 










Figure 1:  International Arrivals in Malaysia, 1981-2000

The figure mentioned above is very significant but is still regarded as low compared to those of other Asean nations such as Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand which enjoy greater success in term of overall tourism development.  Statistics from Asean National Tourism Organization shows that Malaysia is number two in term of tourist arrivals after Thailand.

Table 1:  Tourist arrivals in Malaysia 1981-2001


Tourist Arrivals

% Growth































































Competition among Asean nations see continuous efforts to enhance and develop new tourism products.  As we can see, it is rather obvious, that many countries, including Malaysia gauge the success of tourism sector on the number of arrivals and the estimated income generated from the tourism sector. Malaysia for instance, is switching its focus to high spending tourists, regardless who they are. ‘Quality’ and ‘Responsible’ tourists are rarely become the target. 

And very seldom, the success of tourism is measured by the success of a destination in reducing the impacts of tourism or conservation of its environment.

Tourism in Malaysia, especially after 1990, continue to be popular and.  Most of the development, though are still focused on traditional resorts etc.  Despite the call for more local participation in the development and management of the tourist sites, I feel that tourism is being developed further and further away from the people.  The wave of alternative alternative tourism like eco, agro and nature tourism is spreading into the hearts of Malaysians. 

Ecotourism in Malaysia

Malaysia has 54 protected areas of more than 1,000 hectares, totaling 1, 483 million ha. Or about 4.5 % of the land surface of the country.  They include 28 district nature reserve, where 90,070 ha. Are not opened to tourism activity (Norizan, 2000).  Among main national parks are:


Kinabalu Park recently joined rank with other 630  sites worldwide as a Unesco’s World Heritage Site.

Peninsular Malaysia on the other hand, has over the years been establishing a network of protected areas for the conservation of biological diversity. Some of these national parks, wildlife reserves and sanctuaries, nature parks, birds’ sanctuaries and marine parks have been established since 1930's. Peninsular Malaysia's largest national park covering 434, 351 ha was gazeted as early as 1939, which comprises mainly virgin forests of various forest types according to altitudes and soils. Currently, Peninsular Malaysia has 0.74 million ha of conservation area protected by legislations. Of these, 0.55 million ha are located outside the Permanent Forest Estate, whilst another 0.19 million ha are within the Estate.

Ecotourism Development in Malaysia


Many researchers have defined ecotourism in various perspectives. It is often defined synonymously as nature tourism.   One of the more popular one is the definition by Hector Ceballos Luscarain (1987).  Malaysia on the other hand, adopted the definition by the World Conservation Union (IUCN):

“..Environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreaite nature (and any other accompanying cultural features).  One that promotes conservation, one that has low visitor impact and one that provides for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local populations..”

Ecotourism is regarded as travel that is:

At the governmental level, Malaysian government is very much committed to the concept of sustainability.  In the 50th PATA Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as a member of PATA endorsed five resolutions to ensure sustainable development. 

Role of Government in Promoting Sustainability. 

Evidence of the Government’s seriousness is the establishment of parks and protected areas as mentioned before.  The Tourism Ministry (Mocat) also has taken steps to introduce tourism as a core subject in local universities,, as well as introducing tourism in the schools.

The National Ecotourism Plan which has been prepared by the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism in 1997, consists of 25 guidelines among others things, cover the aspects of: 












Figure 2:  Departments Related to Ecotourism

Shown here is some important ministries and departments which are engaged in the planning, maintaining, and controlling ecotourism running in Malaysia.  The coordinator of the whole thing is the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism.  There are also Wildlife Department which has ecotourism division, also Forestry Department which manages the forests.  Problem arises here when forest is regarded as state matter, wherelse birds and animals are federal matter. 

The sincere involvement of the private sector is still limited.  While the Government takes the lead in term of legislation and planning of parks etc, the running of ecotourism in these areas are often privitized.  While the government talks about carrying capacity and sustainability, the private sector thinks of ways to increase the limit further and further. 

Payar Island

The coral island of Payar Island, off Langkawi—depicts what will happen if conventional tourism agency is allowed to run ecotourism site. Despite various studies (like ___) showed that the island has reached its carrying capacity, we never see any halt in the promotion of the island.  There is no measure taken to limit the number of visitors to this fragile island.  While dual-pricing is introduced, but this is done only to widen the domestic market, offering them special prices and not really to discourage visitations; let alone measure to only responsible tourists are welcome..but the real question here is how?

The local tourists

Recreation in ecotourism destinations for Malaysians mean real engagement with the nature.  Water related locations are more preferred than locations without waterbody.  While in many developed countries, places like popular waterfalls are panorama to be appreciated, in Malaysia people throng to lakes, rivers and waterfalls to picnic,  swim and bath.  Some even wash their vehicles in the river!  Environmental conscious is seem to be lacking still among the Malaysian public. 

Malaysians are more interested in the location, (scenic) views it offers, landscapes, closeness to water rather than on what the resort is doing to promote sustainability.  Due to this factor, places like Hosba Valley, Tekam Plantation and Tok Senik Resort fail to attract the desired segment.  

Ecotourism is certainly more popular among foreign tourists.

Local do seem to really care?.  In Bako National Park and Matang Wildlife Reserve, Sarawak for instances, survey showed that locals visited to these places to bath in the streams or picnic at the beach; while their foreign counterparts trek in the jungle.  This is the case of conducting conventional activities within ecosettings!

Establishing ecoresort does not really sell—yet!.  People are still looking at sun, sea and sand facilities.  Chalets developed along the Cenang Beach in Langkawi are far more popular than agroresorts like Tok Senik and Hosba Valley Resort build inside rubber plantations.  Resorts located near the beach will be quickly filled compared to those located elsewhere, even those located near lakes or rivers. 

The Agents

Characteristics of travel agencies offering ecotourism in Malaysia.

-         Most are young and new within 4-6 years

-         Travel guides into ecotourism sites lack proper training and education, many have generic license but operate within ecotourism spots;

-         Most of ecotourists in Malaysia are from the foreign countries, mainly from Europe.

-         Major client for eco travel agencies in Malaysia are from Europe, North America and South East Asia. 

-         Only 11.9% of the agencies give information regarding buying banned items when visiting ecotourism sites in Malaysia.  And the same percentage contributed their income towards conservation activities. 

-         Over 45% have close relationship with the local communities.

-         Over 30% have little relation with the government; another 30.8% admitted have no relation with the government.

-         10 out of 15 agencies do not really understand the principles and concepts of ecotourism

-         Almost 80% activities offered by the agencies tend to be fun-filled or adventurous but lacking in term of getting to know the nature

According to Ayala (  ) the rise of ecotourism is a result of a number of trends—including the gradual aging of the tourist population, the maturing of the "sun and fun" vacation segment, the general public's increasing environmental awareness, and the heightened concern with physical fitness and health demonstrated by consumers in the main tourism-generating markets. As a result of some or all of those factors, a number of major destinations now see ecotourism as a growing and important aspect of their travel product.

        ‘Eco’ as Products

Figure 3: Sea Shells

Eco sensitivity

According to Ayala ( 1996), 60% of tourists visiting Nepal willing to pay 5-10% more if they knew the money would be spent on conservation.

‘Eco’ Products?  Local Participation?

Despite the fact that ecotourism stresses the importance of strong community involvement in the tourist business, locals continue to be mere ‘objects’ or ‘products’ to be gazed by the visitors.  In Taman Negara Malaysia (Malaysia National Park), visiting aboriginal villages and observing their lifestyle have been prominent features in the tourism activities in the park.  Seldom, they become owners or run businesses related to tourists.  But this is also due to the fact that the aborigines are not realiable (as workers, according to one park’s managers) and their academic background is relatively lower. 

Note:  This research is funded by USM IRPA Short Term. 


Ayala, Hana (1996)  Resort ecotourism: A paradigm for the 21st century ,
Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly; Ithaca; Vol. 37, Issue No.5.

Norizan Md. Nor (2000) Nature Attractions in the Region. Paper presented at Seaceum 7 Seminar, 26-27 September 2000.