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Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Ecotourism – Conduit to a New Consciousness?

By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial, Penang Monthly,

June, 2017

Ecotourism sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

We do know that tourism brings benefits to a place, but we cannot deny the larger truth of what I like to call The Paradox of Observation – the more we look at something, the more we change it. Basically, neutral observation may not exist.

Analogically, that is one of the reasons why modern governments install cameras on as many street corners as they can afford to. These devices are not there to record; they are just as much there to change behaviour, to modify the social scene they ostensibly watch. (Pre-modern governments of course used snitches and spies and strategically placed soldiers instead).

But back to tourism… Some tourist destinations thrive on volume: the more tourists there are the better. They are absorbent to a larger extent, and the changes that are wrought simply and strangely become part of the general scene, part of the experience. Metropolises like London, Paris and New York – and perhaps the Klang Valley as well – come to mind.

And then there are places whose popularity among tourists forebodes their eventual demise. Delicate historical locations like Hoi An, Luang Prabang and even Angkor Wat are radically altered to ease public access and deliver security, to provide accommodation and sewerage facilities, and to supply food and water. Tourism changes them into something that tourists have little interest in.

At the bottom of it all, tourism is human curiosity about the world, accelerated by general affluence and travel technologies. There is always a difficult balance to keep, and many of the changes are unavoidably part of economic development and demographic growth. And so, shrewd and principled management becomes central to the sustainability of any tourist destination.

Sustainability is the key word of course, as it is in practically all human endeavours now that the global population has gone beyond 7.5 billion. (It reached that figure on April 24 this year, to be exact.) We are indeed in the Anthropocene Age. The magnitude of anything that humans now do cannot help but alter our environment and push us further along on a paradoxical “Achieve sustainability through ceaseless innovations” path.

We are really dealing with modern economics here, with capitalism’s essence. Growth, progress, advancement and development – all these encourage and condone change, connoting improvement and opportunity. The more we advance, the faster the changes we wrought on the planet. We consider this basically good. In any case, we can’t seem to stop it

But perhaps we can steer things in a corrective direction, in a more holistically fruitful way. And so, “Sustainability” becomes the catchword within which we can imagine both embracing change and exercising common sense.

What about ecotourism then? Is it really an oxymoronic notion? After all, the UN endorsed 2002 as Ecotourism Year. (To be sure, this guarantees nothing.)

Let’s see what the International Ecotourism Society says. On its website, it defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

It appears that ecotourism acknowledges humanity’s need to experience new things and to be curious; and sees a chance to imbibe tourists and guides alike with a sense of awe about nature, culture and the deep bond between these two, and to transfer economic wealth to less-fortunate locals.

In that sense, then, it proffers cognizance of the dangers faced by other life forms in the Anthropocene Age, but instead of tilting at the windmill and calling for an end to humanity’s exploitation of the planet, it prefers to ride along with Man’s mammoth urges and steer human consciousness towards respect of the Earth’s natural and cultural treasures. It appears oxymoronic or paradoxical mainly because it does not try to contravene the mainstream flow of economic development.

Although the final effects of this may be merely damage control and not preventive medicine, the line of thought is commendable. And it may be the best that humanity can do at this point – until, to end with my paradox, new innovations allow for real sustainability.

To consider the issue further and see what the “Principles of Ecotourism” are, go to http://www.ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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