The state government of Sabah is taking the long view when it comes to expanding its tourism industry, placing limits on the number of visitors to pristine natural areas, not only for environmental but also economic reasons.
Speaking to the press recently, the state tourism, culture and environment minister, Masidi Manjun, said, “If we do not protect and conserve our environment, the tourism industry will not be able to thrive because the environment is the asset for the tourism industry.” Protecting the environment is thus seen as investing in one of the state’s best sources of economic growth.
Masidi’s recent comments follow an announcement by the government in June 2010 that, under the 10th Malaysia Plan, 6m ha of forest in Sabah and Sarawak would be set aside for conservation as part of the Heart of Borneo initiative.
Preliminary 2010 statistics from the Sabah Tourism Board show that total international arrivals by air were 645,000 from January to October. This compares with 562,000 for the whole of 2009, an increase of nearly 15%, a trend that the government would like to encourage through environmental conservation.
Many tourists make visiting one of South-east Asia’s tallest mountains, Mount Kinabalu, their primary excursion in Sabah. But even at Kinabalu Park, which attracts most of the state’s tourism dollars and is its first UNESCO World Heritage Site (Gunung Mulu Park is the second), the government has capped the number of people allowed on the 4095-metre mountain at 192 per day.
Sabah’s other popular tourist attraction is the diving at Sipadan Island. In December, the state government announced that it would not increase the number of daily permits for diving at Sipadan from its current 120. The move illustrates the government’s commitment to environmental protection, given that the potential for tourism income from this site is immense: divers currently wait as long as seven months to dive off the coast of Sipadan.
Furthermore, Minister Masidi said that the Sabah government is not planning any development at the rainforest research centre in the Danum Valley or the biologically diverse Maliau Basin. Hunting and poaching are threats to these areas, and the Sabah government is intentionally leaving the roads leading to Danum Valley unsealed and unrepaired to make access more difficult for illegal hunters.
The state government’s efforts to keep Sabah’s natural areas pristine received a big boost in December, when details of the extensive marine biodiversity off the coast of the Semporna Peninsula in Sabah’s north-east were revealed by a group of international scientists.
The scientists had just completed an expedition to the Semporna Priority Conservation Area that was organised by a group of international environmental and scientific organisations, including WWF-Malaysia, University of Malaysia and the Netherlands’ NCB Naturalis.
The results of the journey, known as Semporna Marine Ecological Expedition (SMEE), revealed that Semporna is biologically one of the richest marine areas within the Coral Triangle – and on Earth. The Coral Triangle covers almost 6m sq km, including the waters of the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Sabah.
As part of their work, SMEE researchers studied the health of the area’s coral reef. Although the level of biodiversity is high, the reef has a relatively low population of marine life. In a joint statement, SMEE scientists struck a cautionary note, highlighting that measures need to be taken to address the reef’s declining health. They said nearly all the sites surveyed showed significant human impact, including damage caused by fish bombs and waste such as discarded fishing gear.
Although the Sabah state government protects Sipadan as a marine park, the fragile state underscores the need for expanded and integrated efforts to manage and conserve the priority conservation area, according to SMEE members.
The Sabah state government is well aware of the environmental and economic issues at stake. “We are very fortunate to be rich with flora and fauna and the only thing we have to do is to preserve the natural surroundings,” Minister Masidi said in December. In separate comments, he also said, “We want to preserve the state’s rich biodiversity and natural surroundings as these are the assets of Sabah to attract tourists, especially from overseas, to come and spend their holidays here. The tourists are visiting Sabah because of our nature.”