Tourism is Greener on the other side

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The Hidden Pearl of Penang - Seberang Perai - should soon become an ecotourism hotspot.

Cascading waterfalls at Bukit 300, Nibong Tebal.

Tourism contributes substantially to the national GDP of many countries in the world. Its extensive products and ancillary services generate job opportunities locally and exert a strong spillover and multiplier effect on the economy.

It is reported that the travel and tourism industry is responsible for a direct world GDP contribution1 of US$2,306bil (3.1% of total GDP) in 2016, and is forecast to rise by 3.8% in 2017.2 In South-East Asia, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to the GDP was US$119.7bil (4.7% of total GDP) and is expected to rise by 5.7% per annum from 2017 to 2027 - translating to US$222.8bil in 2027.3

Between 2000 and 2014, Malaysia’s travel and tourism exports expanded by 290%, outpacing the total export of goods and services.4 Its direct, indirect and induced GDP impact generated as much as 14.9% of the nation’s GDP in 2014 - twice of that created by the education sector, which reached 7.3%.

And just last year, the direct contribution to Malaysia’s GDP was US$14bil and is expected to rise by 4.2% in 2017. In the next decade, the projected direct contribution to Malaysia’s GDP by the travel and tourism industry would be as much as US$24.2bil in 2027 (5.4% of total GDP).5

While travel and tourism infrastructure and services continue to expand, holiday trends are shifting as well, especially among the young. A survey by Chase Marriott Rewards found that 84% of millennials (18-34 years old) are interested in taking volunteer vacations compared to a mere 18% of respondents from generation X (35-49 years old), and 17% of baby boomers (50-67 years old).6 Given that millennials are growing into their peak earning and spending years, their purchasing power should reshape the economy; thus, tourism should soon veer decidedly towards trips that can be classed under ecotourism.

Enter the Enjoyment of Nature

With its iconic tagline, “Malaysia Truly Asia”, Malaysia was recently listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as the second among nine South-East Asian nations in the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index 2017. Its impressive performance is mostly attributed to its price competitiveness, strong air connectivity and its beautiful natural resources; natural heritage sites such as the Mulu Caves in Sarawak, the impeccable marine parks of Sabah and the Belum Temenggor Forest Reserve in Perak are internationally heralded.

According to Nature Conservancy, ecotourism is defined through conscientious, low-impact visitor behaviour, sensitivity towards and appreciation of local cultures and biodiversity, support for local conservation efforts, sustainable benefits to local communities, local participation in decision-making, and educational components for both the travellers and local communities. Eco-farm stays, turtle-watch camps, river rafting, mountain climbing, snorkelling/scuba diving and birdwatching are among some of the popular ecotourism activities.

The industry is increasingly known for raking in lucrative profits; one natural environment is different from another. With the evident economic incentives, protecting the natural heritage becomes the most rational thing to do. However, proper policies are needed to ensure that ecotourism through malpractices does not instead have an adverse impact on the environment instead.

On the Island, Penang Hill is a popular ecotourism spot.

Air Itam Dalam Suspension Bridge.

Fireflies tour at Sungai Kerian.

Penang State’s Natural Wealth

While Penang Island has Penang Hill and other natural attractions apart from its Unesco World Heritage Site, it is Seberang Perai that harbours immense but untapped potential as an ecotourism hotspot.

“There is great promise here, what with great sites such as the Air Itam Dalam Educational Forest, the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coastal area, Pulau Burung, fireflies tour at Sungai Kerian, the whispering market at Kuala Muda, rice fields, fishing villages, and archaeological sites and relics at Guar Kepah, among others,” said Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, president of the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai (MPSP), during the Seberang Perai International Conference on Ecotourism and Conservation Efforts (SPICEC) 2016.

Fishermen returning to Kampung Sungai Udang with their prized catches.


The inaugural event, which attracted a large regional crowd plus attendees from the US and South Korea, was held at Seberang Jaya in November last year. SPICEC will be held biannually; the next is slotted for 2018 and will introduce more local attractions and eco-tourism spots in Seberang Perai through collaboration with Unit Butterworth Baharu. An example of a focus area is Sungai Perai, which can become a new exciting venue for dragon boat racing.

According to Dr Tiun Ling Ta, a councillor at the MPSP, if Penang Island is the Pearl of the Orient, then Seberang Perai is the Hidden Pearl. “Seberang Perai offers quite a different natural heritage,” says Tiun, “but there is a general lack of awareness of this among the people staying here and on the Island.”

Fresh, succulent udang galah for sale at Nibong Tebal.


In pursuing the industry, the MPSP at the same time strives to maintain control to ensure that ecotourism does not negatively affect the environment and the communities within. The idea of developing the ecotourism industry began with MPSP’s Strategic Plan 2014-2018, which is aligned with the municipal council’s vision of making Seberang Perai cleaner, more beautiful and more comfortable for living and working - as well as being an attractive place for investors and tourism - by 2018.

With that, efforts have been undertaken by the Tourism, Art and Heritage Unit of the MPSP to promote Seberang Perai locally and regionally as a centre of ecotourism. This includes improving the infrastructure facilities at several identified areas such as Pulau Burung, Pantai Robina and Air Itam Dalam.

At the same time, this calls for the MPSP to integrate the various agencies in providing the necessary services. Apart from that, documentaries and short videos on these areas will be produced and disseminated through social media to further raise awareness of these sites. In essence, the Tourism, Art and Heritage Unit will play a crucial part in moving the hinterland’s ecotourism industry forward. The Unit works closely with the Forestry Department, Drainage and Irrigation Department, and the district offices, and plays a supervisory role over the forest reserves and river areas within their jurisdiction.

Mangrove, Fireflies… and Fishermen?

So what has Seberang Perai got to offer? Plenty.

Approximately 25.7km north of Penang Bridge is an ecosystem of coastal mudflats and mangroves known as the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coast. It is one of the largest remaining coastal mangrove forest blocks that are still intact in Seberang Perai, and preserving this coastal zone is pertinent for its ecological services such as providing a buffer against tsunamis, carbon sequestration and storage, as well as a nursery ground for the breeding and spawning of fish stocks, which is key to the survival of the local fishing communities.

Birds of a Feather

Andrew Sebastian with Ted Floyd and Azhar Musyabri at a SPICEC 2016 field trip.

Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda is also where one can observe tens of thousands of water birds throughout the year. The 8km-stretch teems with biodiversity and has seen an impressive record of over 200 bird species at one time, including seven which are threatened, such as the spoon-billed sandpiper, Bordmann’s greenshank, far eastern curlew, great knot, Chinese egret and the lesser adjutant.7

With over 35 years of experience, Ted Floyd is considered a veteran birdwatcher, or birder. A speaker at SPICEC 2016, it was his first time in Penang and he comments that birding here is attractive thanks to the ease of accessibility to birding sites - unlike in some countries where one has to travel on the road, oftentimes off the beaten path, for hours on end. “It really makes a huge difference when you remove the long drive. In addition, the whole connectivity between different modes of transportation – from air travel, road, buses, rails and even signage – would have to be seamless too.”

Floyd, who is also the editor of Birding, a flagship publication of the American Birding Association, thinks that there are various economic opportunities for the local community should birdwatching be made into an ecotourism activity. “Hotels, transportation and guiding – these are all avenues that provide job opportunities and a source of livelihood for the local people. There is a demand for guides and homestays which locals can provide.”

The emergence of a global birding community connected to an extensive digital network facilitates knowledge exchange through websites such as eBird and Xeno-Canto. This has indirectly brought about an increasing emphasis on bird conservation while also promoting a more diverse birder community – thus expanding the interest group. Furthermore, the birdwatching community has generally transited from emphasising on keeping checklists and “chasing” birds to bird photography and the aesthetics that come with it.

On one of the tours, visitors are taken to a sea cage farm.

Andrew Sebastian, the co-founder and CEO of the Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (Ecomy) adds that social media has played a pivotal role by providing a platform for photo-sharing, enabling the unprecedented spread of awareness compared to past decades. Ecomy is a non-governmental organisation that champions sustainable ecotourism to ensure conservation values are a priority in the natural heritage sites of Malaysia. Sebastian has also served in the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) as a conservationist for 20 years. “Today, we have the eBird mobile application – an entire database which is globally connected and updated in real time – all in the palm of the hand. Technology has essentially transformed bird-watching.

“There are many resources and networks such as the East Asia Flyway Network and Birdlife International which we can benefit from, especially when Penang has bird sites that have the potential to be Ramsar sites,8” says Sebastian. Based on a study done by Ecomy, there were 3,150 foreign birders visiting Malaysia in 2015, with tourist receipts amounting to RM20.3mil. Given that about 46.3% of tourists surveyed9 were engaged in trekking, walking and hiking while 46% were engaged in sightseeing and countryside activities, Seberang Perai is poised to capture this demand if it projects itself internationally as a go-to place for nature enthusiasts.

The team at MNS and Birdlife International has been working relentlessly to bring about affirmative action to gazette the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coast as an Important Bird Area (IBA) and subsequently, as a Ramsar site. Various studies have been conducted to assess the economic value of the area to identify the range of its benefits to the people and communicate these findings to local stakeholders and decision makers.

Based on the MNS concept paper,10 the protection of the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coast would allow for the establishment of a wetland education centre in the area. It would provide a gateway into the IBA, and the local community could be engaged to develop grassroots activities such as organising biodiversity celebrations that could attract local and international visitors.

On top of that, protecting the mangrove stretch is not only beneficial to the ecotourism industry; it also ensures the viability for many people who rely on fishery as their source of livelihood. It ensures that the population in the area will continue to have access to an affordable and fresh source of protein, and it creates occupations such as nature guides, boatmen, homestay operators, food and beverage operators and others. As many as five fishing villages (Kuala Muda, Bakau Tua, Pulau Mertajam, Penaga and Teluk Ayer Tawar) are set to gain from this.11

Another popular place for birdwatchers is the Air Itam Dalam Educational Forest, located less than half an hour’s drive from Teluk Air Tawar. Tucked away in a protected wetland next to the Perai River, it is a sprawling freshwater swamp 11 hectares in size which is home to hundreds of species of wildlife. It is under the State Forestry Department and is considered one of the best-managed reserve parks in Malaysia, equipped with concrete-paved boardwalks, a suspension bridge, gazebo and observation towers.

Tourism Malaysia has been developing birdwatching packages for places such as Air Itam Dalam since last year; other birdwatching areas in Seberang Perai include the Bukit Panchor State Park (lowland forest, wetland) and the Byram Estate in Pulau Burung (wetland, mangrove forest)12.

Kelip-kelip and the Whispering Fishermen

Situated in Seberang Perai South, Nibong Tebal is closer to the borders of Perak than it is to Penang’s second bridge. It is rather known for its sprawling agricultural land, but little do people realise that it has more enthralling things to offer.

Tan Chin Hock has been in the travel and tourism business focusing on Nibong Tebal for the past 15 years. “I joined the Pai Teik Primary School Alumni’s committee that runs the Nibong Tebal Travelling Information body back in 2005. About four years later, I branched out and started my own company that organises eco-tours around Nibong Tebal,” says Tan.

All his full-day tours begin in the late afternoon with guests boarding a leisurely cruise along Kerian River during which they are enclosed by lush mangrove trees on both banks. At the mouth of the river, the guests visit one of the largest sea cage fish farms in Penang; apart from spreading public awareness on how an aquaculture farm functions, it also educates visitors on how important the aquaculture industry is in reducing the reliance on diminishing wild fish stocks and ensuring that the supply of fish meets the demand for affordable dietary protein across the nation.

View of Bukit Mertajam at sunset.

Misty sunrise at a Permatang Pauh paddy field.

This excursion is not unfamiliar to tourists who come from as far away as the US, Australia, China and, closer to home, Singapore. “One can opt for the full package where after the trip to the fish farm, guests will get back on the boat towards the second bridge to enjoy the sunset before they go to the nearby fishing village for a seafood dinner by the coast,” Tan explains.

After that comes the finale: guests then head upriver again to witness the mesmerising flicker of fireflies in the darkness of the night. “There used to be three spots along Sungai Kerian where you can see the fireflies. However, there is only one left today due to habitat loss,” says Tan.

It is also worth mentioning that the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda fishing community is unlike any other. It is not only popular for its abundant supply of fresh catches from the sea such as large prawns, flower crabs, mackerel, threadfins, anchovies, squid and many more; it is also known for its unusual tradition: the whispering bids.

Interested buyers have to take turns to whisper their bid into the ear of the seller. Unlike the typical boisterous fish market, the scene unfolds like a silent movie plot without a prompt. The seller will go from one bidder to another – all whispering their best offer and gauging each other’s prices through observing their body language. Although they are just whispering, one can sense the tension building up before it quickly unravels when the seller goes back to the buyer with the best offer. It all ends as fast as it began: the buyer quickly scoops up the catch of the day and walks away with a sense of victory. It is a unique tradition endemic to the area.

Conclusion

Most promisingly, the three-day SPICEC 2016 ended with a commitment to further develop ecotourism and conservation efforts in Seberang Perai. A key point mentioned in the resolution is that the ecotourism industry will be mainstreamed as part of the conserving of the natural heritage in Seberang Perai. It is also pledged that this will be done in such a way that it does not alter the originality or eco-sensitivity of the particular area.

The first of the flagship endeavours is the gazetting of Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda as a mangrove reserve and subsequently making it into the list of Ramsar sites. It should also be regarded as a move that not only further drives conservation efforts but also boosts and empowers the economy of the local communities.

The success and sustainability of any ecotourism venture depends largely on the strong sense of ownership and stewardship within the local community. This is something that has to be cultivated together with the state government, local councils, NGOs, academia, private businesses and members of the public. Each stakeholder plays a role in ensuring that the different facets of ecotourism merge on a sustainable path.

1 Direct Contribution to GDP in this case refers to the GDP generated by industries that deal directly with tourists, i.e. hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transport services, as well as the activities of restaurant and leisure industries that deal directly with tourists.
2 Travel, W. W., & Council, T. 2017. Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2017: World. 20pp.
3 World Travel and Tourism Council. 2016. Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2017: South East Asia. WTTC. United Kingdom. 24pp.
4 World Travel and Tourism Council. May 2015. Benchmark Report – Malaysia. 5pp.
5 World Travel and Tourism Council. 2016. Travel and Tourism Economic Impact 2017: Malaysia. WTTC. United Kingdom. 24pp.
6 Dalzell, R. 2015. The Young and the Charitable: Millennials Make More of Travel Experiences (Updated on January 12, 2017). JP Morgan Chase. Accessed on 1 May 2017.
7 “Mangroves, Waterbirds and Mee Udang. A highlight of the conservation and tourism potentials of the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda Coast Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA)”. Information Paper prepared by Malaysian Nature Society and Birdlife International. November 2016 (Revised). 9pp.
8 A Ramsar site is a wetlands site designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The convention on wetlands, known as the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO, and came into force in 1975.
9 Results derived from the Departing Visitors Survey (DVS) conducted by Tourism Malaysia, published in 2016.
10 A Concept Paper on the Proposed Establishment of a ‘Wetland Nature Reserve’ and Development of Nature-based Initiatives in the Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda Coast IBA. Prepared by Malaysian Nature Society and Birdlife International. December 2015. 62pp.
11 UPEN. 1999. Penang Coastal Profile. Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project. State Economic Planning Unit of Penang and DANCED. 88pp – as cited by A Pilot Rapid Assessment of Selected Ecosystem Services Provided by the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda Coast IBA in Pulau Pinang.
12 The Star Online. 2016. Bird watching packages to boost mainland’s eco-tourism. 22 August 2016. Accessed on 9 May 2017.

Evelyn Teh is a senior analyst in the Urban Studies section of Penang Institute. A graduate in Marine Biology and Environmental Management, she enjoys writing and reading non-fiction. She also dabbles in photography and her works can be found at evelynteh.com.



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