MAKE A DATE WITH NATURE - Tourism Turns Green with age

Developing Penang as a preferred destination for travellers requires a balance not only between the old and the new, but between built space and natural environs.


Lined by pristine sandy beaches and covered by flourishing forests overflowing with animals and plants, Penang National Park humbly occupies the north-western tip of Penang Island.

It is Malaysia’s smallest national park (and among the smallest in the world) and contains the country’s only meromictic lake (one of a handful in Asia). In this majestic woodland, two trails intertwine: one heading towards the historic Muka Head Lighthouse and the other towards the long-stretching Teluk Kampi. The latter passes Pantai Kerachut – a favourite among visiting locals – and houses the Penang Turtle Sanctuary, an establishment set up to aid the preservation of a variety of turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs in the area almost all year round.

Legally protected by the National Parks Act of 1980, the Penang National Park is without doubt the cornerstone of ecotourism and forest preservation in the state. And surrounded by lush and untouched greenery, the town of Teluk Bahang has become the destination for tourists wishing to immerse themselves in Mother Nature.

Laying the Foundation for Forest Reserves

It has been a matter of appreciating what is inherited. Penang Forestry Department director Rusli Tahir provides us with some history: “Both Penang and Malaysia have unique forests that have a history dating back to colonial times.”

In 1901, under the recommendation of Singapore Botanic Gardens director H.N. Ridley, a forestry department for the Federated Malay States was established and permanent forest reserves were gazetted all over Peninsular Malaysia. “Penang and Singapore were not only the administrative bases for the British during that time – we were also the bases for exploring natural resources and fields such as geology, mining and forestry. In the early days, very detailed studies were undertaken of vegetation, tree species, leaves, fruits and so on. It is largely because of their efforts that so much of the peninsula’s forests remain untouched till today,” he adds.

Penang Forestry Department director Rusli Tahir (left) discussing the upcoming hiking expedition with assistant district forest officer Mohd Nasri Mohd.

One of the wading pools at the Teluk Bahang Forest Park.

Rusli assumed leadership of the state forestry department five months ago and explains that the department manages 15 permanent forest reserves. “The territory that makes up Penang National Park had been under us, as was also what is now Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve. In 2003, the area was made a national park. Currently, the Penang Forestry Department is also in charge of four recreational forests, one of which is the Teluk Bahang Forest Park,” he says.

With five cascading wading pools, a camping ground, a scenic viewing platform and five forest trails, the 32sqha Teluk Bahang Forest Park nicely complements the national park located just five minutes down the road. The forest park has a fair share of specific gems, chief among which is the longest forest trail in the state: a 6km path through tropical rainforest to Penang Hill. “The Teluk Bahang Forest Park is also home to the Ansonia penangensis, a Bufonidae toad that can only be found on Penang Island,” Rusli says.

The site encompasses a landmark establishment – the country’s first forestry museum. It was once a very popular place to visit, housing forestry-related artefacts and equipped to educate visitors on the contributions of the forestry sector to the nation. Forester Zulkiflley Abd Rahman, 52, laments that those days are passed and lists the revival of the museum among the key challenges facing the Teluk Bahang Forest Park.

Falling visitor numbers to the museum echo his concerns. Last year, only 8,225 patrons passed through the doors. “The entrance fee is not an issue. It’s RM1 for adults and 50 sen for children, free for uniform-wearing students with an approval letter from this department. If you have a group of over 15, you even get a 20% discount for each adult! Other ecotourism attractions just down the road charge entrance fees that can hardly be considered cheap, and yet, people are joining long queues to get in,” Zulkiflley notes.

Rusli says that the Penang Forestry Museum’s difficulties take several forms. “When the museum first opened, there wasn’t much choice for entertainment. Now, we have a lot of competition and the approach of the forestry museum does not match current trends. We need to introduce new concepts and rebrand the museum to have any chance of attracting visitors back,” he says, adding that the state government has in recent times been supportive and injected money into the museum.

Rusli says there are “missing links” in the ecotourism supply chain connecting the Teluk Bahang Forest Park to potential visitors. “We need to do a better job in linking up with tour operators and transport providers. There are also other areas with potential, like our relationship with the Hop-On Hop-Off bus service that stops here and the iTourism Malaysia app that can help promote our forest parks better,” he says. Rusli adds that introducing full-time trained park rangers, akin to blue and green badge guides, or programmes to train locals to be in-house tourist guides would attract enthusiasts.

For the time being, Rusli and his department are looking inward for inspiration. “In conjunction with the International Day of Forests, celebrated on March 21, we are organising an eight-hour expedition to Penang Hill using the longest forest trail in the state. Usually, we organise several hikes yearly for department staff, but this year, we are planning to invite the heads of other government departments, government servants as well as elected representatives to join us on the trek. We want to give them an introduction to the different tree compositions, their names and characteristics.

“People tend to think that forests are all the same, but that is far from true. What our guests will be able to see are plants from the lowland and hill dipterocarp forests that cover this area,” Rusli says. The expedition will be headed by assistant district forest officer Mohd Nasri Mohd.

Rusli hopes that the expedition will get civil servants to treasure the natural inheritance the state possesses. “You can’t love what you don’t know. Hopefully, this will be an introduction for Penangites to visit and start to fall in love with the living museum we have here,” Rusli says.

The Penang Forestry Museum entrance.

Torch ginger found at TSG.

Spicing Up Teluk Bahang

While British settlers may have been forestry’s starting point for Rusli, Katharine Chua looks to something even older for inspiration: the spice trade that shaped so much of the country’s history. “The Tropical Spice Garden (TSG) was really the brainchild of entrepreneurs David and Rebecca Wilkinson, who used to live on the existing site. They knew about the importance of spices to Penang as a trading port and also of its agricultural importance to the state, so everything fell into place from there,” says Chua, TSG’s managing director.

According to her, the founders had an innate love for all things green and wild and saw a gap in Penang’s tourism industry. “The land here was already so beautifully formed with a natural source of water from the hills running through the central valley and with the existing terraces developed for rubber tree planting more than 50 years ago. There is, of course, also the amazing view of the sea.

“The Wilkinsons knew that conservation would be an important part of what they were creating and their footprint was only to enhance rather than transform the existing land – something they did perfectly in maintaining the natural beauty of the boulders, letting all the secondary forest trees remain and reusing the reservoirs found on site, among other things,” she notes. The 2003 endeavour became an award-winning ecotourism site for the state, which now houses over 500 varieties of exotic fauna and flora within a 3.2ha setting.

“Audio tours were developed in 2014 to benefit our guests even more. Apart from keeping abreast with the garden signage, we want to give a voice to the plants for guests who choose to wander the gardens on their own. The audio tours are designed to give the guest total freedom to walk wherever they like and to be informed at their own leisure,” Chua says. Such a tour takes two to three hours.

Night walks were started just last year with experts in various fields like herpetology, entomology and birds brought in to train guides. “Night tours are a very different kettle of fish in that guides have to really hone their observation skills, learn the night behaviours of the creatures and know where to expect to find them, provide information on the night plants and, added to this, keep guests safe and on track. It’s a challenge, but the result is worth it: night walks are an awesome little adventure for families and adult groups. Each guest is given a torch so they get to search for interesting creatures. Among those that have been spotted are sleeping bulbul birds, rare banded geckos, flying lemurs, vipers and a host of interesting spiders and insects,” she says.

Chua says the grounds need constant attention. “It’s one thing to create something beautiful and it’s really another to maintain it. We use a lot of wood, so wear and tear sets in for the buildings, the fittings, the signs, etc. You constantly need to stay on top of it,” she says.

TSG managing director Katharine Chua.

The Pinang Walk in TSG.

As TSG sits on the site of an abandoned rubber plantation, soil conditions are not always perfectly conducive to the growing of certain spices. Towering jungle trees intentionally left untouched to provide shade and relief during hot days also shut out the sunshine needed for the flowering and spice plants to bloom. “Pruning these trees is also very, very difficult! Understandably, no one wants to climb these giants, and the big lorries can’t come in to prune as our paths are narrow.

Moreover, old trees do fall and we never know when a tree will give way to termite rot or old age, or in which precise direction it will come crashing down!” Chua exclaims.

Chua hopes that TSG will continue to be a green lung that can be enjoyed for generations. “We want to see our gardens become a community centre where like-minded people can gather, learn, share and enjoy a beautiful space, and have their kids breathe good air and play in a safe jungle environment. I like to think of TSG as an outdoor classroom. Nature doesn’t need any props – on its own, it is already the best learning playground, classroom, textbook and gym all rolled into one. It’s absolutely essential for kids to have space to run around freely. And that’s the best way to use the spice gardens – dip your feet in the stream, climb over and under branches and have your feet touch the earth – be free!”

Jungle Play

Another person whose business is to put kids first is Sim Choo Kheng.

Sim helms ESCAPE on Jalan Teluk Bahang. He spent his childhood romping around Air Itam, and this inspired his design for the set-in-nature theme park. “Fun was what we experienced as children and it was a medium for learning life skills. My childhood was spent in Penang and it was the best that any kid could have. This does not mean my parents were rich – far from it – but the outdoor fun was great. The sense of sustainability was created in me through playing in the natural playground of the kampong and the jungle, and my family living within its means and farming only what we needed,” says Sim.

ESCAPE Adventureplay is a call to return to nature.

The adventure land, for him, is a stand against disconnection from nature. “ESCAPE, in one word, is ‘reconnecting’. The visitor does this through his or her own imagination, self-direction and fun. Here, growing up is optional,” he says.

It wasn’t all fun building ESCAPE, and it is hardly an understatement to say that the concept was first met with cautious resistance: environmentally friendly individuals and groups heard the words “theme park” and “Teluk Bahang dam” in the same sentence (ESCAPE sits on 12ha of leased Penang Water Corporation land downstream from the dam) and jumped to conclusions.

But Sim and his team pushed ahead and have won over many sceptics since opening ESCAPE’s doors in late 2012. With nonmotorised attractions, environmentally sustainable drainage and cooling systems and even a link-up with bus service Rapid Penang providing free rides to the park to reduce carbon monoxide emissions from visitors’ cars, ESCAPE has proven that it was never out to make a quick buck at the expense of the environment. Visitors who have shrieked with delight and laughter navigating the Monkey Business rope courses, Jumping Jack trampolines and Gecko Tower climbing structure, and let loose climbing and swinging from trees in Coco Climb and Jungle Swinger have given it their stamp of approval.

Go bananas on the Monkey Business attraction at ESCAPE Adventureplay.

The current ESCAPE Adventureplay will soon be complemented with the second phase of the park’s development – ESCAPE Waterplay. Slated for completion by the year’s end, the site will feature water activities of yesteryear. “There has certainly been a delay. I was very keen to open Waterplay but underestimated how unsupportive the financial institutions and ‘the system’ were of this unconventional project. The good news is that despite this challenging situation we are ready to move forward. We have been busy saving trees from other developments, where they would have been destroyed, and transplanting them into the area that will become Waterplay. It may seem a strange concept to be replanting trees and then building a waterpark around them, but unconventional thinking creates unbelievable things,” Sim says.

As for the current adventure park, exciting things are also in store: “The first is extended play into the night – an activity called the Base Camp. It is a call to the wild and an experience of sleeping in the jungle beneath the mottled moonlight from the tree canopy. The second addition is our new Greenie programme for school kids, which teaches children about love and respect for nature through creative activities. They make their own toys, show off their motor skills and cook their meals using non-chemically laced food grown by previous groups. Kids need to fall in love with nature in order to appreciate it and take action to protect it. The way ESCAPE approaches this is to bring the public closer to nature through fun,” he says.

Sim Choo Kheng.

Sim says the opportunities for ecotourism in Penang are tremendous, but balance and responsible decisions are crucial to its development. “I don’t see responsible development to be at odds with an ecotourism effort. In my opinion, ecotourism should be called ‘responsible tourism’ because many eco-products today are simply not eco. It is wrong to identify tourism as ecotourism just because there are trees and monkeys. When I was young, being ‘green’ was absolutely necessary and was never a buzzword. In those days, for example, without the shade provided by the trees the house would be like an oven. So, we coexisted with nature,” he says.

Sim concludes that it is necessary for us to make a break from tourist trends that have exploited nature and the environment. “There has been a revolution over the past few years, and the public is demanding change and taking action to make it happen. Zoos, parks and other places that ‘showcase’ living things that belong in the wild are facing extinction themselves.

"Now, if you like animals and nature you should go to their natural environment. If you’re scared that you may be eaten alive, then watch nature in HD on TV. The trend now is the realisation that you must look backwards and learn, so as to move forward,” he says.

Bringing Glamping to Penang

Another site looking to strike a balance between tourism and environmental protection is Boulders Valley Glamping Resort, the newest player in Teluk Bahang’s e c o t o u r i s m hub. Developed by Amazing Discovery, the upcoming “glamorous camping” attraction sits on the border of the Balik Pulau constituency, covering almost 10ha of rich foliage and 1.2 ha of formidable, rocky giants.

Executive director Lee Woon Poo says that to date, bringing the project to fruition has been an arduous journey. “We have gone through very tedious legalisation processes – a lot of presentations, explanations, counter proposals on how to preserve the environment, all the while complying with present authoritative guidelines without sacrificing our concept for the site.

We make efforts to comply with all technical requirements. Throughout the process, environmental preservation and public safety are always our priority,” she says. “The reason people come is to enjoy the natural environment. Therefore, it is the incentive for the landowner to preserve rather than destroy.”

An illustration of the upcoming Boulders Valley Glamping Resort.

The Penang Butterfly Farm has embarked on a major rebranding exercise and will soon reopen as Entopia.

Preserving, however, is not always the easiest task, especially when one is dealing with enormous, imposing rock formations. “There are technical difficulties in developing projects in remote locations, including the bioclimatic requirements of building in the tropics. Our design objective is to create an authentic eco-resort that maintains the environmental characteristic of the site, including the biological and geological aspects. We plan to achieve this through building elevated pathways, tented camps and structures on stilts, all minimising disturbance to the natural habitat, vegetation, waterways and earth. These structures can be easily relocated without affecting the original state,” Lee says.

Documentation has become a key process to achieve this eco-friendly development, with existing plants and boulders being precisely numbered. “We took one year to do a detailed survey and number the trees and boulders. This is to ensure that the existing characteristics will be well preserved and still be there at the end of the project. The sizes of some of the significant boulders and trees are also being pegged and they will be identified as features of the site, for example, Pride Rock and Cragged Egg. The site is also very big, so, the numbering helps us to recognise our location in the early stages and makes for easy planning,” she adds.

Amazing Discover executive director Lee Woon Poo.

Despite the rocky beginning, Boulders Valley Glamping Resort is finally being realised, with a projected opening by the year’s end. “It took two years for the conceptual planning and another two for the legal process. Work commenced in January this year and is expected to be completed within 12 months if everything goes smoothly,” says Lee.

Once it is completed, jungle enthusiasts can look forward to personally-tailored visits, with a variety of nature-related activities including bird watching, walks along the boulders, jungle drives, star gazing and treetop dining. The glamping resort also aims at linking up with other attractions along the Teluk Bahang ecotourism belt, proving that cooperation and mutual respect can go a long way.

Intellectual Tourists

One of the potential sites that Amazing Discovery can reach out to is the nearly completed Entopia on Jalan Teluk Bahang. Hardly a new player in Penang ecotourism, the establishment is actually a rebrand of the iconic Penang Butterfly Farm (PBF) that opened its doors in 1986.

CEO Joseph Goh explains that through hard work and passion over the last 15 years, PBF accumulated extensive knowledge and experience in entomology, specialising not only in Lepidoptera (an order of insects that includes both moths and butterflies), but also in other invertebrates. “We realised we had a limitation in sharing what we have encountered and learned. This led to our intention to rebrand PBF into a new image that focuses on education and learning. Thus, Entopia was born on August 5 last year,” he says.

He hopes that Entopia can become a reference point for like-minded farms, gardens, conservatories and museums all over the world. This, he says, is largely connected with the future of the tourism industry as a whole, as increased global connectivity spurs the development of intellectual-centred tourists. “In the future, tourism will be very much knowledge and experience-based as our world becomes highly and efficiently connected.

An artist impression of one of Entopia's new attractions.

“We hope that Entopia will add some value to the state’s ecotourism market, which is still a very young industry. There is still a lot to be done. Projects like the Tropical Spice Garden and Tropical Fruit Farm ventured into the ecotourism area some time back, and we hope new players and other unique concepts will further contribute to a more sustainable way of operating e c o t o u r i s m projects,” he says.

Outlook for Ecotourism

Entopia CEO Joseph Goh.

For the state a u t h o r i t i e s , optimism is strong among major actors in ecotourism at present. As state executive councillor Phee Boon Poh says, few places are blessed with the natural inheritance that Penang has. “Within one hour, you can go from the airport to the heart of a tropical jungle. Where else can you find this?” asks Phee, who helms the environment portfolio for the state.

He adds that sustainable and balanced development was always a key issue for the state, especially in green areas that are still left largely untouched. “What we are planning in Penang is urban-to-rural migration. To this end, rural areas need to be developed to a certain stage. We all feel that we cannot allow over-development in Teluk Bahang, but at the same time, we cannot deny Teluk Bahang some degree of development. What we need is something sustainable in terms of basic housing, industry and infrastructure,” he adds.
Danny Tan, the tourism promotion manager for state tourism bureau Penang Global Tourism, concurs, stressing that precise planning is important to maintain green areas. “From my point of view, reasonable development is inevitable. However, I don't think we should mix housing and retail development with ecotourism development. For instance, building a giant mall or 40-storey skyscraper next to an eco-park would be rather grotesque.”

On challenges to Penang’s ecotourism market, Tan says tourist patterns in the state remain largely city-centred. “Ecotourism in Penang is still at the development stage. There are a few projects coming up here and there, but most are still focused at or around the George Town World Heritage Site,” he says, adding that this has resulted in less funding and limited quality ecotourism products.

But no one can deny the potential the industry possesses. State tourism development executive councillor Danny Law Heng Kiang says that the state is working to improve and upgrade ecotourism attractions across Penang. “Penang Hill now has a viewing deck and many more interesting additions. Aside from that, the canopy walk at the Air Hitam Dalam Education Forest has also been upgraded and chalets at the Nibong Tebal Amenity Forest have been upgraded and added to. The state government is also very active in promoting homestay activities. These encourage villagers and the community to participate in the industry. There are currently 11 homestays in Penang and we're looking to add more,” Law says.

With ecotourism sites flourishing in Teluk Bahang and elsewhere around the state, the tourism industry in Penang is looking bright.
Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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