When done well, tourism can serve as a sustainable cornerstone of a country's economy, simultaneously supporting ecosystems and livelihoods, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP). In Malaysia, tourism is a major economic sector and generated over $18 billion in revenue in 2019.
After revenues plummeted by 72 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Malaysian authorities, with the help of UNDP's sustainable tourism recovery project, looked to reinvigorate the industry by putting out a greener welcome mat for global visitors.
Tourism is one of Malaysia’s major economic sectors, contributing 6.7 per cent to its gross domestic product (GDP), and responsible for generating ≈US$18.32 billion in revenue in 2019.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent travel restrictions resulted in a 72 per cent reduction in tourism’s direct contribution to Malaysia’s GDP in 2020. An estimated 100,000 persons in the industry were retrenched, while others were subjected to unpaid leave or pay cuts. The impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector has been extensive, affecting the whole value chain. With the easing of travel restrictions, Malaysia received more than 5.5 million tourist arrivals in the first nine months of 2022 — an increase of over 7,000 per cent from 2021.
In light of the tourism sector’s rapid recovery, the need for careful planning, community consultation, and a sustainability focus are especially apparent.
In Malaysia, the tourism industry is seizing the opportunity to transition to a more sustainable and resilient model, underpinned by well-protected and conserved natural assets, free from pollution and degradation.
One area of concern is waste management on destination islands, where an influx of human activity and population - mainly driven by tourism - has further complicated an already complex problem of waste treatment and disposal on islands that often lack the proper infrastructure to establish and maintain holistic waste management systems.
Waste management has been a constant struggle even for larger and more developed islands, where approximately 60% of collected wastes are disposed of in non-sanitary landfills, 35% illegally burned and disposed, and 5% being dumped directly into the ocean. This situation persists despite the installation and use of mini-incinerators, which in recent years have come under scrutiny due to their below-par performance and questions on suitability
Another concern relates to coral reefs, which are vulnerable to the impacts of waste due to their proximity to the main sources of refuse and dumping.
Research has shown that the immediate impacts of microplastics and other marine waste on reef corals and associated biota include physical damage, smothering of the seabed, entanglement of plants and animals, and gut blockages if items are ingested. With shallow coral reefs declining at unprecedented rates worldwide, and litter pollution escalating exponentially, it is critical to manage and curb the effect of anthropogenic litter on marine ecosystems.
Unique vulnerabilities, innovative solutions
To jointly address the issues of tourism sustainability and island waste management, UNDP Malaysia launched the Integrated Island Waste Management in Malaysia project and subsequently the Sustainable Tourism Recovery project, in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and the Ministry of Finance Malaysia.
The IIWM project is currently being implemented in two states: Terengganu and Johor. In the former, UNDP is collaborating with the Terengganu State Government on its two islands, Pulau Redang and Pulau Perhentian Kecil. In Johor, UNDP is partnering with a local NGO, Tengah Island Conservation (TIC) that specializes in biodiversity management.
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