If we value tourism, we have to study it scientifically to make sure we can develop it, and not destroy it instead. USM’s Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster is at the forefront of tourism research.
Prof Badaruddin Mohamed remembers a time when few people were interested in the phenomenon of tourism, or at least tourism research.
“In 1990, the number of PhD holders in tourism was very, very small,” said the professor in Tourism Planning at USM’s School of Housing, Building and Planning. “Almost zero! That’s why I moved into tourism planning – nobody was doing it. Nobody recognised the value of it.”
How quickly things have changed. Tourism has seen a major boost in Penang in recent years, and since George Town’s inclusion in the Unesco World Heritage List, local and international tourists have been flocking to experience its unique architecture, culture and, naturally, food. New boutique hotels and cafes seem to be sprouting up every day, while the George Town Festival grows larger each year, drawing worldwide praise with it.
But as with any rapid development, sustainability has become a very real problem.
As head of USM’s Sustainable Tourism Research Cluster (STRC), this is Badaruddin’s prime concern.
“For the past 10 years, we’ve seen that there are a lot of issues with tourism planning,” he said. “Many things are done in an ad hoc manner, and areas are developed without the participation of the local people. They are basically top-down in nature. There are no specific policies dictating where tourism is to develop, what is to develop or what the scale of development is to be. There are so many projects that have become white elephants.”
STRC was formed precisely to help tackle such issues. Originally known as the Tourism Research Circle, it was set up under USM’s School of Housing, Building and Planning in 1998 as a virtual research group, playing a key role in supplying tourism development data to policymakers. As it gained ground in three short years, bigger grants began to roll in from the university as well as through consultancy works for government agencies such as Penang Global Tourism and Tourism Malaysia. It was also involved in the development of the Penang Homestay Program, conducting workshops to help locals develop specific tourism products that suited local communities.
In 2010, it became known as STRC, and with the name change came a paradigm shift: the key phrase was “sustainable tourism”, and STRC’s research would focus on sustaining the tourism economy as well as other aspects of sustainability such as the environment and local culture. With its reclassification as a research cluster came a sizeable grant from USM, allowing STRC to embark on its five-year sustainability-related research. It also obtained a Long Term Research Grant Scheme after joining the Taylor’s University Responsible Rural Tourism Network. All of this, said Badaruddin, demonstrates a major show of confidence in STRC’s research.
Welcoming tourism students to work with them as research officers, research assistants and graduate assistants, STRC routinely organises tourism-related conferences, including its annual International Conference on Tourism Development, most recently held at G Hotel in February this year.
A site visit to the Penan community in Long Lamai, Sarawak.
STRC is divided into four categories, each with its own specialised team. The Tourism Capacity and Impact Studies team, helmed by Badaruddin himself, focuses on tourism carrying capacity, defined as the point where development of a tourism area becomes excessive. “There has to be a limit to acceptable change,” he said, pointing to the polluted and overcrowded Pulau Payar as an example of how uncontrolled development can go badly wrong.
The Heritage Awareness and Interpretation team, concentrating on Lenggong Valley in Perak which was inscribed into the World Heritage list in 2012 for its archaeological importance, is responsible for engaging the local population in areas such as tourism product development and heritage interpretation. “We believe we can help them plan the whole tourism experience by inserting valuable academic information to help tourists understand the whole ecosystem (of the valley).”
The Tourism Planning team primarily works on tourism crisis management, i.e. how to respond to various natural or man-made catastrophes and the policies that local authorities should follow in such cases. Badaruddin explained that it is all policy-based research, looking at both environmental protection and governance.
The development of decision support systems to assist local authorities when it comes to decision-making comes under the responsibility of the Spatial and Digital Tourism team, whose duties include combining information from other projects to help local authorities decide whether to develop an area or not, assisting tourists on deciding where to visit, and so on.
STRC’s role in tourism development continues to grow, and Badaruddin has ambitious plans for his cluster: “In the next five years, we hope to become one of the centres of excellence for the country in tourism development. Our goal is to provide input to help make better policies and to give guidance on future developments.”