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PETALING JAYA: Malaysia must learn to strike a balance between mass and niche tourism to ensure that its attractions, from ecosystem to culture, remain sustainable.

Steps must be taken to enable tourists to visit places showcasing the country’s natural heritage, without causing damage to its environment, said tourism stakeholders and environmentalists.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the country must put a stop to mass tourism, which accounts for a large portion of earnings for the sector.

“Malaysia is unique as it has many attractions that can cater to mass tourism, but there must be a limit to the number of visitors to ecotourism sites,” Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Malaysia chief executive officer Andrew Sebastian told theSun.

He said this can be done by introducing guidelines to limit the number of people who can be admitted to an ecotourism or heritage site at any one time.

Sebastian was commenting on a recent report that Malaysia emerged 85th out of 99 countries in the “Top Countries for Sustainable Tourism” ranking.

The study, by Euromonitor International, assessed country destinations through the lens of environment, social and economic sustainability, transport and lodging, among others.

Sweden topped the ranking, with Finland and Austria in second and third place, respectively.

Sebastian pointed out that ecotourism is often misunderstood. “People think it’s only about watching sunsets, beaches or merely shopping at touristy sites, but they fail to understand the impact on culture and the environment. Such a practice is unsustainable in the long run.

“Ecotourism is the act of balancing (man-made) development and conservation. If practised in its true form, it can bring balance.

“We have to strike a balance between developing and promoting our tourist attractions to give business opportunities to the private sector, and ensuring that our cultural and natural heritage remain protected.”

“We are overlooking ecotourism products. For instance, Langkawi has a unique geopark, but its resources are not being tapped. We are only doing boat rides. It should be featured as a world class geographical attraction that is 550 million years old.”

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Datuk Tan Kok Liang said since Malaysia is known for its natural diversity, it has led to a growth of “experiential tourism”.

“This simply means travelling off the beaten path. This travel philosophy is usually championed by independent travellers,” he said, adding that it can be further tapped if lodgings and infrastructure in rural areas are improved.

EcoKnights vice-president Amlir Ayat said that in terms of sustainable ecotourism, it is not only about travelling to “natural” places.

“That is the common but superficial impression. It can only be achieved through engagements with local communities, tour guides and business groups.”