Responsible tourism is the latest catchphrase in this era of global-warming concerns. But just how easy is it to stick to the moral high road?
Everything moves very slowly in Langkawi. Even the cars, although there are only a handful, amble by at barely 40kph, while the animals languish in the sun, seemingly immobilised by the stunning scenery of padi fields in a patchwork of glittering green marked by rows of coconut trees.
As the only inhabited island in an archipelago of 99, Langkawi has a rustic sense of time.
The island never really loses its serenity, even on weekends when day-trippers from the city hop off ferries and planes to spend the day combing the beach and sightseeing. The number of tourist arrivals has been increasing, and in 2007 alone, more than three million visitors came.
According to Mahendra Dev, 45, co-founder of Dev’s Adventure Tours, the growing numbers have affected the island for both good and bad as development spreads in tandem.
“The last thing we want is to turn Langkawi into Penang,” says Mahendra.
“The ecology of this tourism-driven island is still intact, but not for long, especially if we keep up with this complacency. But if we prep Langkawi for the future by stressing on responsible tourism, it has the potential to be one of the best destinations in the world.”
For a three-day vacation, I decided to see if it was possible to leave as little a footprint as possible of my visit whilst having a good time.
Unfortunately, I was off to a shaky start. Due to time constraints, I flew instead of taking a bus or train.
Take public transport, preferably train. And don’t fly.
I comforted myself by staying at the Frangipani Langkawi, reputedly one of the greenest resorts on the island. The Frangipani bowled me over. The resort is made up of a string of roomy chalets, with possibly one of the best beachside views in Langkawi.
However, what is truly amazing is how committed owner Anthony Wong is in making the resort a model of eco-friendly practice. Apparently, Wong has incorporated over 100 “green” practices into his establishment to help minimise the impact on the environment, including regular environmental walks and an extraordinary waste management system.
Recycling is the name of the game here, as everything from food to water is collected, sorted and reused. There are recycling bins everywhere.
Look up WildAsia.net and ResponsibleTravel.com for a list of socially responsible hotels and tour operators.
Upon closer inspection, however, I learnt that it wasn’t perfect. The chalet, though nice, didn’t have windows. There was a fan in the room, but Langkawi’s scorching weather made it impossible to rely on that alone. I had to turn on the air-conditioner, hence contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Evening came and I found myself snacking by the beach. Within minutes, a few birds surrounded me, eyeing my food with their beady eyes.
There were signs everywhere telling me not to feed the birds. Yet all it took was a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s gory film, The Birds, to flash across my mind for me to aim some fries at these persistent creatures as peace offering.
Mahendra tells me later that this is a big no-no because people-food is not formulated for animal consumption. Also, these animals may become dependent on humans.
Feeding wild animals can do more harm than good.
Like many other tourists to Langkawi, I rented a car to take me around, as there weren’t any public rides. My first stop was a themed outdoor attraction boasting non-stop fun for kids and adults alike.
Upon entering, I spotted a distressed falcon chained by its claws, a large, noisy crowd gathered around it.
Its owner was a young man who made RM3 each time an overexcited tourist took a photograph with his prized pet.
I was horrified, and even more so later on when I came across a newly established elephant park that offers rides.
Do not participate in activities that exploit animals, especially if it is lacking in proper management.
Often, such animals are stressed by regular human contact. Some are badly treated, malnourished or even drugged to keep them docile.
Further around the corner, I came across a souvenir shop selling handicraft. I wanted to do a good deed by supporting the local crafts-people, but was told that most of the handiwork were from Thailand.
Mahendra tells me that this has hampered cultural development in Langkawi, as more and more skilled local craftsmen are discouraged by the influx of cheap souvenirs.
Another example of why it is necessary to know what you buy or consume is the detrimental effects the gamat industry has had on Langkawi’s sea.
This purported medicinal oil may be the driving force behind many small to medium-scale businesses in Langkawi, but it has led to an over-harvesting of sea cucumbers.
Do your homework before your trip, so that you’re able to make better choices.
After my less-than-pleasant encounter with distressed animals and dubious knick-knacks, I decided to soothe my nerves at Ishan Spa.
Perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Andaman Sea, it was the perfect place to hole up for a few hours, away from everything. Besides earning kudos for its breathtaking view, Ishan uses only locally grown ingredients like pandan leaves, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric.
There’s also a small organic herb garden there to educate guests on local herbs and spices.
Support and buy local.
Back at the hotel, I uncovered yet another blunder. Housekeeping had exchanged my day-old towel with fresh, new ones, despite their “green” towel-replacing policy. It’s the classic example of hotels that have the right policies, but are poor in implementing them.
Because instructions don’t always filter well from top to bottom, WildAsia founder Dr Reza Azmi says, it is crucial for customers to take matters up with the organisations involved, as well as relevant agencies like Lada and Tourism Malaysia.
Be pro-active in giving constructive feedback, in order to stimulate change.
I decided my trip wouldn’t be complete without going on a half-day tour in the great outdoors. After all, this island wasn’t awarded the Geopark status by Unesco in 2007 for nothing.
However, when my personal guide, Abu, raced me around the island in a little speedboat and rushed past majestic mangroves and oddly-shaped islands without saying a single word, I started feeling annoyed.
For starters, this was becoming more of a joyride than anything else. Secondly, Abu’s idea of fun was pushing me to feed the eagles and pat the monitor lizards.
Azmi tells me later that this is exactly the type of tour operator I should avoid while holidaying.
“Travelling is all about opting for activities that are educational. This includes learning all about the local customs or indigenous tribes, or going on eco-based tours, which not only emphasise ‘show’, but also ‘tell’,” says Azmi.
“For example, did you know that mangroves are highly sensitive ecological areas? The boat-ride would have been especially harmful if the vessel utilises a two-stroke engine. So always choose boats with four-stroke engines because they combust petrol much more efficiently, leaving less petro-chemical wastes in the water.”
Azmi then reminded me to write an official letter of complaint about what had happened. But because time is an issue, the half-written letter is still sitting on my desk.
Oh, and did I mention the eight plastic water bottles I used throughout the entire duration of my trip?
I had taken it for granted that Frangipani would deal with it appropriately, like they would with my towels. But even if they did, there was still Azmi’s advice to heed – that all inorganic materials eventually end up in a landfill, because it degrades even as it is being recycled.
Recycling can be tricky, so cut down instead of recycling.
On my way home, I wistfully wondered how much my ignorance had affected this little island that many people call home. What will Langkawi be like in another 10 years? Will tourists contribute to its ruin?
The line between helping and hurting isn’t always clear, and this can test even the strongest of wills. However, it was rewarding to do the right thing even if I failed. I emerged from the whole journey a little battered, but not the least bit dispirited.
Moreover, didn’t French author Marcel Proust write: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”?
Try to come away from a trip as enlightened as possible.