Can responsible tourism help Malaysia's travel sector recover from Covid-19?

(Left) The Orang Asli communities, with their vast knowledge of the forest, can be engaged to lead sustainable tourism efforts. — SS KANESAN/The Star

Malaysia should promote environmentally-friendly and socially-conscious tourism in its bid to revive the country’s travel industry.

Global communications expert Muddassar Ahmed said travellers will be looking forward to more sustainable holiday options once it’s safe to travel again in a post-pandemic world.

“Many travellers will use the pandemic as a warning in sustainability. They will reconsider their ecological footprint before deciding to travel, ” he said in an interview.

Muddassar, the founder of Britain-based Unitas Communications, has been advising the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) on how to revive and restructure tourism.

Having worked with top international NGOs, Muddassar said consumer consciousness around ecological issues and human rights is at an all-time high.

“That’s why it will be crucial for Malaysia to ensure that it addresses, and is seen to be addressing, global environmental concerns raised by the pandemic, and to demonstrate to foreign observers the country’s leadership on environmentally-friendly and socially- conscious tourism, ” he explained.

One of the country’s achievements in environmental conservation can be seen through efforts to protect rainforests and wildlife.

“More can be done to showcase this conservation work, which would not only help contribute to more accurate perceptions of Malaysia, but also to attract tourists to come and see for themselves, ” Muddassar said.

He highlighted the orang utan sanctuaries as a prime example of an environmentally-conscious tourism destination in Malaysia.

“The orang utan sanctuaries are not only a spectacular tourism destination, but by supporting them tourists would contribute to one of the world’s most important ecological initiatives, ” Muddassar said.

He added that tourists will also be looking at how their travels would impact the local community.

The UNWTO refers to sustainable tourism as travel that considers “social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

Sustainable tourism had been at the forefront of the country’s tourism initiatives in the lead-up to the Visit Malaysia 2020 (VM2020) campaign, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry – as part of VM2020 – had based their action plans on the National Ecotourism Plan 2016-2025.

The roadmap was established to maximise the potential of ecotourism and ensure sustainability through 19 strategies and 86 action plans.

VM2020 unfortunately was cancelled amid the pandemic as well as various phases of the movement control order that was implemented in the country. Malaysia’s borders remain closed as of today.

The most recent indication of the government’s push for sustainable tourism could be seen through Budget 2021.

As part of Budget 2021, employment opportunities will be provided to 500 people from the local community and Orang Asli as tourist guides in all national parks to boost the ecotourism segment.

On the global front, the UNWTO last year announced its new vision for tourism: To emerge from the Covid-19 crisis better and stronger, while balancing the needs of people and the planet.

The vision was part of the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme led by UNWTO.

UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili said sustainability is an important lesson that the travel sector needs to learn from the pandemic.

“Sustainability must no longer be a niche part of tourism but must be the new norm for every part of our sector. It is in our hands to transform tourism, and that emerging from Covid-19 becomes a turning point for sustainability, ” he said in a statement.

The One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme aims to enhance the sustainable development impacts of the tourism sector by 2030.

These would be done through developing, promoting and scaling up sustainable consumption and production practices that boost the efficient use of natural resources, while producing less waste and addressing the challenges of climate change and biodiversity.

According to the UNWTO, this initiative will underpin tourism’s resilience to be better prepared for future crises.

In the early stages of tourism recovery, Muddassar foresees travellers searching for more off-the-grid experiences.

“This can be seen as going hand-in-hand with eco-tourism and a chance to promote all that Malaysia is doing to benefit the environment, ” he said.

Tourism stakeholders, he said, should be especially mindful of how they can support local businesses and preservation initiatives.

On that note, Muddassar said there should be better communication and teamwork among all the relevant stakeholders in promoting sustainable tourism.

“This approach should be a holistic, collaborative framework, addressing deforestation and wildlife concerns but also considering how local people are often exploited by tourism.

“Governments should engage with private sector innovators and entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions and build a more sustainable tourism sector, ” he said.

Muddassar added that this period of travel restrictions should be used to make the tourism industry a better and more responsible one.

“Travel connects people by breaking down cultural stereotypes and stigmas, but it does so much more. Ultimately, it’s how we engage with new ideas and ways of thinking – a crucial part of connecting with our evolving world.

“Although now may seem like a time to stand still, it’s actually a perfect opportunity to propel forward, ” he concluded.

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