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Tourism Is Back. Is It A Good Or Bad Thing For Marginalised Communities?

With travelling no longer restricted to fully-vaccinated individuals, no doubt many have booked their flight tickets and packed their bags, making up for the lost time.

Even before the pandemic hit, tourism contributed significantly to our nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is the third-largest industry next to manufacturing and commodities[1]. The income generated from tourism earned the nation at least RM86.14 billion in 2019 [2].

One of the main draws to Malaysia as a tourism destination is the hospitality and diversity it offers. The sincere welcoming culture of Malaysians from all walks of life and different ethnic roots has attracted many to our shores. We have native and indigenous communities that are willing to open the doors and share the way of life. However, a line has to be drawn when tourists overstep the boundaries. 

Recently, Jefry Musa, a teacher from Iskul Sama Dilaut Omadal, a community-based school highlighted how the return of tourists to the island of Mabul caused disruption to the Bajau Laut community, also known as the sea gipsies[3].  

As the situation went out of control to the extent of disturbing my students, I went out (from the classroom) and asked them to refrain from taking nude pictures of the kids as it is rude and unethical. They nodded but continued to take photographs afterwards. We welcome tourists, but not like this. – Jefry Musa, a teacher at Iskul Sama Dilaut Omadal[3]

All Is Well In Tourism?

Community-based tourism or cultural tourism presents an alternative economic opportunity for the local communities. The widespread commercialisation of cultural tourism amongst the marginalised and indigenous communities such as the Mah Meri tribe in Bagan Lalang is seen as a cultural celebration and at the same time, it helps to preserve ethnic uniqueness.

Many would see cultural tourism, visiting the Orang Asli community and staying at their homestay as a great opportunity for the marginalised to improve economically. However, taking a leaf out of the Mah Meri Community in Bagan Lalang, they shed light on how tourism alone isn’t sufficient. 

The Mah Meri people ran a successful cultural village over the years, and reap income from their traditional dances and handiwork. However, with the ongoing pandemic, this was severely affected.  

Since the village was closed, they [Mah Meri tribe] have been unable to sell their carvings to tourists while those who have the expertise are leaving the craft altogether since they have to do other things to survive. – Rashid Esa, director of the Mah Meri Cultural Village[4]

Unlike other people who can drive Grab or go into direct selling when they are terminated, the Orang Asli who has been with the village have no boats to go to sea, nor the tools to gather food in the nearby forest or swamp.  Rashid Esa, director of the Mah Meri Cultural Village[4]

This particular dilemma has been echoed by the  Department and Development of Orang Asli (JAKOA) in the past. 

The available economic resources cannot provide indigenous groups with a sustainable source of income given the low market cost, and they are often misled by opportunistic mediators who control the cost of the sold goods procured by them. – Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli[5]

In the case of the Bajau Laut, their settlement is not open to tourists. In 2018, a tour was conducted near their settlement. A viral video[6] circulated on social media of a Bajau Laut woman and her child, snatching food from tourists. This only led the authority, the Sabah Tourism Board to disallow any future tours. 

The Sabah Tourism Board reprimanded the tour operator, saying that they do not want to promote the community as a ‘tourism product’. They asked that future tours do not visit the Sama people and that tourists do not bring ‘handouts’, in case the Sama community come to rely on them. – Sally Fox, writer at Unsustainable Magazine[7]

In a way, tourists who travelled to their settlement can be considered trespassing. Those who took a step further and captured their images and coaxing the children to pose a certain way is akin to infringing their privacy and degrading them. Neither does the tours benefit them economically. We depart with memories, but the community is left behind with irreparable damages to the environment. 

The tour conducted near Mabul Island does not profit or benefit the community and disregard the community’s dignity. The community consists of those who are invisible to the eyes of the country, the stateless and their way of life living on stilts is not simply for show, rather it is a show of inequality. 

Becoming only a photo opportunity to the tourists and disrupting their daily lives. In the instance of the Bajau Laut community, the tourists have interrupted the children’s schooling day.

Whoever comes to islands in Sabah especially in Semporna should stop treating sea gipsies as animals in zoos. Sea gipsies communities should also be empowered. – Dr Jacknaim, a humanitarian activist [8]

When Mother Nature Just Started Healing

At the end of phase one of the MCO on the 31st of March 2020, Malaysia’s Air Pollutant Index reportedly went down to 14% inferring that we were breathing in cleaner air[9]. At the same time, over a quarter of 29 automatic water monitoring stations nationwide recorded a real-time improvement in water quality [9]

With lesser traffic congestion, flights and overall reduced industrial activities; mother nature was going through well-deserved healing. 

But with travelling restrictions lifted and the uncertainty in the air on the looming influx of travellers to nationally reserved parks and shores would only damage the environment. While following the standard operating procedure (SOP) post-MCO, travellers would arrive protected in their face masks and face shields. This irresponsible littering during vacation would only affect the marine ecosystem. 

Already conservationists have found masks floating like jellyfish in the oceans and latex gloves strewn around the seabeds. – Roger Tan, former Board Member of SWCorp Malaysia, honorary secretary of the Waste Management Association of Malaysia[10]  

The sea gipsies whose main income is derived from the fishing industry would also be affected by the pollution coming from the tourist boats.  

In the past, a reported instance of destroyed corals due to the ignorance of international tourists in Sabah[11]. At the same time, there would likely be an increase in illegal hunting of protected wildlife such as turtles and pangolins. Often, hunting is arranged by locals or tour operators to meet the demands for exotic meats by tourists[12]. More travellers only spell more food consumption and food wastage, adding to the already critical situation in Malaysia when it comes to handling wastage. 

Source: Malay Mail

Putting The Marginalised Communities At Risk

Sabah, among other states in Malaysia, is a popular destination. The state receives up to 4 million travellers and generates a revenue of RM9.1 billion in 2019[13]. The state relies heavily on tourism, with a sharp decline of 32.6 per cent in tourist arrivals in 2020[13]. Of course, there is a need to recommence their tourism sector immediately. 

However, there is a deeper dilemma with allowing tourists in. Many of the undocumented migrants and the stateless community live at tourism hotspots such as Semporna and Sandakan[14].

According to the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba,
at least 1.1 million non-Malaysians or stateless individuals have been inoculated against COVID-19 up until 31st August 2021[15]. However, the question remains whether everyone from the aforementioned community has been protected against the disease as many have hidden away in fear of prosecution and deportation.

This coupled with asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers would only lead to a major outbreak among the vulnerable, especially among the youth who are yet to receive their jabs. 

Source: Yahoo! News

The Orang Asli communities living in Peninsular Malaysia have also been on high alert during the pandemic. Some communities have proactively barricaded their settlements from the general public in fear of infection. At the same time, their womenfolk and elderly population have demonstrated vaccine hesitancy[16]

Changing Tides When It Comes To Travelling 

The pandemic has certainly reset the environment and our perception when it comes to future vacation plans. 

At least 84% of Malaysians responded to an Airbnb survey that the pandemic had changed how they think about sustainable tourism[17]. Malaysians are more considerate in ensuring that their holidays would only create a positive impact for locals. 

With 60% of them believing it is critical to not contribute to over-tourism[17]

traveller/ airplane
Source: Arab News

As demonstrated by our survey findings, we’re seeing a trend where people are attempting to make their travel decisions more sustainable, economically, culturally and environmentally with a greater hope to impact the local communities. – Mich Goh, Airbnb’s head of public policy for South-East Asia[17]

The changing tide amongst the holidaymakers is a good sign. But there are among us who have yet to change our mindset when it comes to the marginalised. 

In our excitement to explore new places in our travels, bear in mind that the only thing we should leave behind is our footprints. When we are visiting the local, native or indigenous communities, let’s embed these few practices to remain respectful to the communities. 

  1. During the planning portion of your travels, select professional tour operators known to be responsible and respectful to the community. Hire a professional community tour guide to get the best learning experience you can from your trip.
  2. Protect yourself and the community you are visiting by wearing your mask at all times and sanitising frequently. It would be best to test yourself with a COVID self-test kit before your journey to avoid putting the community at risk.
  3. Engage with the community with full consideration of their customs and traditions. Ask for their permission before taking any photographs or venturing into homes or private land.
  4. Bear in mind that the communities have been courteous to accept us to their homes. Some villagers and residents are going on with their day-to-day lives, be in your best manners to not interrupt them. Plus, their homes are not tourist attractions.
  5. Leave a place better than before you have visited, make it a habit to carry home your trash and pick up any stray litter you find along the way.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Malaysian Investment Development Authority. (n.d).  Smart Tourism: Future Of Tourism in Malaysia. Link 
  2. Tourism Malaysia. (2020). Tourism Contributes RM 86.14 Billion To Malaysia Economy With 26.1 Million Tourists In 2019. Link 
  3. O.Miwil. (2021). Tourists continue to mistreat sea gypsies. New Straits Times. Link
  4. A.M. Zulkifli. (2021). Bagan Lalang eviction just the tip of the iceberg, says Orang Asli activist. Malaysia Now. Link 
  5. JAKOA. (2011). Pelan Strategik Kemajuan Orang Asli 2011-2015, Kuala Lumpur: Bahagian Perancangan dan Penyelidikan. Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli. Link.  
  6. D.R.Fong. (2018). ‘I didn’t mean to show Bajau Laut villagers in bad light’. Free Malaysia Today. Link 
  7. S.Fox. (n.d.)What does the future hold for Borneo’s Bajau Laut? Unsustainable Magazine. Link 
  8. O.Miwil. (2021). Tourists told to stop mistreating sea gypsies for social media “likes”.  New Straits Times. Link
  9. V.Tan. (2020). How will Malaysia’s environment fare after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions? Channel News Asia. Link 
  10. R.Tan. (2020). Let us save Malaysia. The Star. Link
  11. T. Ruxyn (2016). Some Tourists Are Destroying Malaysia’s Corals and Nothing Is Being Done About It. SAYS.Link
  12. J. Chan. (2017). Illegal and exotic meats on Sabah’s menus? Malay Mail. Link
  13. The Borneo Post. (2020). Sabah’s tourism industry in dire straits. Link
  14. H.C.Goh. (2021). Strategies for post-Covid-19 prospects of Sabah’s tourist market – Reactions to shocks caused by pandemic or reflection for sustainable tourism? Research In Globalization. Link 
  15. A.Hani. (2021). More than 1m stateless individuals completed their Covid-19 vaccination. The Malaysian Reserve. Link 
  16. UNDP. (2021). Issue Brief: Trends in COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy amongst indigenous peoples in Peninsular Malaysia and its implications on health communication. Link 
  17. N. Suhaida. (2021). Travellers are more open to sustainable tourism, survey shows. The Malaysian Reserve. Link 

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