Sightseeing with a Conscience – Ecotourism, Kota Kinabalu

Envisage – if you will – the tourism of the future, and no I don’t mean some Richard Branson utopian form of space tourism, I mean the kind of Star Trek tourism where you could beam yourself into another life for a day, Total Recall style. Imagine if science fiction came true and you could be just like Arnie – you could buy yourself a piece of memory revealing the idyllic escapade of a lifetime. There would be no environmental problems, no harmful detriments on society, not a centimeter of construction or pollution involved, and no greedy conglomerates to steal profit or culture from the locals. Welcome to the future, welcome to ecotourism.

Actually, in all honesty you can just go straight on imagining, because my allegorical metaphor isn’t specifically exact, but ecotourism does mange to alleviate some of these problems. I am sure most people have heard of ecotourism by now and it really is a love or hate concept. You either take the hedonistic ‘live life, screw the environment’ standpoint or stand on the opposing ‘bored of classical tourism, let’s have an authentic experience and save the environment at the same time’ side. I may refer to the latter stance sarcastically, but really whomever ecotourism attracts; the eventuality does more good than harm.

Now let me take a moment to clear something up – I don’t want this article to turn into some global warming anti-globalization manifesto propagandizing the impact large-scale tourism has on the environment. I mean, sure, I agree the effects are bad, and yes there are devastating consequences for the environment, but it seems everything has some sort of impact on the environment these days and I don’t want to lose the flow of this article. As a matter of fact though, it all really comes down to the extent of the despoliation. As humans, we can utilize and take from the environment; we just need to not do it at the vigorous rate we are doing so currently, and give the environment time to rekindle and replenish itself. Ergo; ecotourism.

ggLet’s just take an unwinding escapist aside here: put your feet up and picture a quaint old untouched village town in Malaysia. There is a small communal open-air village hall by a river. Nearby there are coconut trees and the sun is out bringing warmth to friendly dogs lounging around in the shade. Inside the hall there are some locals cooking and preparing food for the daily lunch, and with them – providing assistance – are some Japanese tourists working together with them side by side. These tourists have temporarily become adopted by the village. Over the course of the last few days they have lived with these families, dined with them, joined in their daily routines and basically espoused their way of life without damaging any of the traditional customs. Dwelling in the native’s houses these ‘home-stay holidays’ enable tourists to experience the lives and cultures of indigenous people first hand. These  ’holidays’ aren’t limited to backpackers and they in fact cater to a broad spectrum, with many modern conveniences integrated into the villages. The home-stay projects are homologous: the villagers learn about first world extravagances like internet and technology, whilst the visitors learn about things like fishing and farming. Based in and around the community, these home-stay programs are the purest kind of ecotourism there is and they have been gaining popularity around the world. Already, there are programs set up in Malaysia, Laos, China, Turkey and rural parts of Australia, to name but a few.

There are numerous home-stay programs in operation over the world, and many of them are run by small non-profit organisations. In Borneo, Sabah, the Malaysian tourism board has been working with Asian Encounters to establish and develop several home-stay programs. Described by its founder as a “start-up social enterprise,” Roger Harris is a consultant and activist who has been campaigning to further integrate tourism with rural communities. Asian Encounters provides an alternative to mass-marketed mainstream tourism attempting to “ensure tourism revenues reach those who provide the experience, while seeking minimum contamination, and maximum appreciation, of the visited culture and its surrounding environment,” Harris explains.

For developing countries tourism is one of the most lucrative industries, bringing exposure and capital to the country. However – as with the problems that plague foreign aid in developing nations – this wealth is not always equally shared out and the ones that most deserve and need the money are often left with nothing. However, with community based tourism programs like Asian Encounters everyone benefits. It is not an embezzling one-sided operation where people take from the community and reap the benefits for themselves alone. Home-stay ecotourism involves cultural exchanges where tourists meet with local communities and engage with aspects of their lifestyle.

These home-stay operations present tourism with a conscience. They offer the tourist a chance to directly experience the culture and live as the locals do. They are both ethical as well as educational and they contrast the often distilled counterfeit tourism offered by most tour guide operators. These ecotourism programs are also significantly cheaper and they offer authentic first-hand encounters, in opposition to the limited experiences often presented from the confines of a cosseted 5-star bubble. All things considered, it would just be easier if holiday-seekers could experience their travels through life-like virtual reality-implanted memories, but since this has not been invented yet, the ethical consequences remain in the hands of the consumers themselves (as with most industries these days).

Originally published with Synotrip and Asian Encounters

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