Responsible Tourism

By Dr Rodney LimA holistic approach for sustainability in Sarawak Sarawak has big aspirations for its world-class tourism industry. By 2030, it aims to become a leading destination for ecotourism and business in the ASEAN region. This will be accomplished through …

Responsible Tourism

By Dr Rodney Lim

A holistic approach for sustainability in Sarawak 
SWINSays is a weekly editorial column prominently featured in the New Sarawak Tribune.

Sarawak has big aspirations for its world-class tourism industry. By 2030, it aims to become a leading destination for ecotourism and business in the ASEAN region. This will be accomplished through its Post COVID-19 Development Strategy (PCDS), which earmarks sustainability-based tourism as a key economic pillar to fuel Sarawak’s future growth. PCDS aligns Sarawak’s tourism development with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiatives and focuses on satisfying three targets: economic prosperity, social inclusivity and sustainable environment.  

At the heart of this strategy is the concept of ‘responsible tourism’, an approach to tourism development that aims to minimize the negative effects of mass tourism while maximizing benefits for tourists and local destinations. It seeks to promote ethical travel behaviours, preserve cultural and natural heritage, produce authentic and meaningful travel experiences, reduce waste, support local economies, and empower local communities toward their well-being.  

Beyond Greenwashing

The task is by no means easy, as the tourism sector is complex, multifaceted, and interconnected. Despite the efforts of the state tourism authorities, research has indicated that the actual rates of adoption of sustainable practices among Sarawakians lag behind their levels of awareness, perceptions, and interest towards such practices. To address this, a holistic approach that creates real and long-term change is necessary. Such an approach should focus on three initiatives: changing mindsets, supporting adoption and forging intersectoral collaborations. 

First, a shift in mindset is needed to ensure that adoptions of responsibility tourism are genuine and sustained over the long term. Too often, organizations feel pressured to conform and fall into ‘greenwashing’, where they make exaggerated claims about green practices to make them appear more environmentally friendly than they are. On the other hand, genuine adoptions through the winning of hearts and minds can effect real changes in fundamental beliefs and understandings about business, society and ways of living. In essence, it leads to a different way to do tourism and a reimagining of how value can be created to align monetary profits with societal and environmental goals.  Thus, ‘going green’ should not be just another trendy catchphrase, a fad or a niche activity, but an enduring movement that will outlast their promotional campaigns. In fact, tourism stakeholders need to understand that sustainability principles will pervade all aspects of the industry and that all tourism will essentially become responsible tourism.  

Second, a supportive approach is needed to secure stakeholders’ buy-in. This involves sustainability policies, strategies, and initiatives that are designed to give confidence and guidance in adopting sustainable practices while allaying concerns, fears and scepticism. To lay a strong foundation, investments in green infrastructures and processes are essential in such areas as waste management, consumption, public transportation, renewable energy, and others. To instil recognition, incentives like tax breaks, grants, subsidies, low-interest loans, and eco-certifications can be offered as rewards for sustainability efforts. Destination planning, zoning laws and regulations on tourism carrying capacities will further help to provide assurance and encourage participation.  

Meanwhile, smaller businesses will likely require more scaffolding as they often lack the financial base, know-how and other resources. Other than workshops and mentorship programs, sustainability-driven prototypes, exemplars and success stories would be useful to showcase how green principles can be effectively incorporated into tourism enterprises to deliver ‘profits, people and planet’. For tourists, both domestic and overseas, responsibility tourism requires learning about making ethical choices in travel and consumption and displaying behaviours that honour and benefits destinations, culture, and their inhabitants. 

Changing Mindsets & Supporting Stakeholders

Finally, responsible tourism requires intersectoral and wide-ranging cooperation among various stakeholders to make it work. Sustainability should not be seen as a challenge for the tourism sector only, as it often cuts across all layers of society and affects practically everyone. For example, issues of waste management, public cleanliness and safety do not just affect visitors and those in the tourism industry, but are also the concerns of local residents, local businesses, local municipal councils and enforcement agencies as well. As such, the task of tackling these issues cannot be left to only the tourism authorities, but must involve various government agencies and departments, institutions, community leaders, and individuals. This can often be tricky to navigate due to conflicting goals, jurisdictions, and priorities but can be accomplished with willpower and resolve.    

Ultimately, responsible tourism, as undertaken by the state government, is not just about banning plastic straws, keeping clean or saving a tree or two. It represents a bold effort at effecting transformations in all areas of society, and is therefore worthwhile for all Sarawakians to support.