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Tun Mustapha Marine Park is Malaysia’s biggest marine park, spanning 898,763 hectares. PIC BY AVILA GERALDINE

As a Sabahan, I’m unabashedly proud of my state. Our people are some of the friendliest and kindest in Malaysia, and there’s no denying how breathtakingly beautiful our state is. Little wonder the Land Below the Wind is such a popular destination for local and international tourists.

But tourism has its side effects on the place and the people. While tourism destinations reap the financial benefits, the visitors’ activities pose serious threats to not only the natural resources but also the social systems of the place.

As inhabitants of an island that attracts millions of tourists annually, we too are confronted with the clash of cultures and habits. On the one hand, the money earned from tourism keeps the state economic engine running. On the other hand, some tourism activities pose serious threats to our natural environment and people.

In the last few years alone, we’ve had to face unwelcome behaviours from our foreign visitors: tourists posing naked on Mt Kinabalu, poachers killing wild animals, tourists destroying marine life, visitors dancing in a mosque compound and walking around in bikinis.

In fairness, these despicable behaviours are displayed by only a minority of the tourists who come to our shores. While encouraging steps are being taken, I find them to lack the necessary bite to truly address these issues.

The government needs to step in when the economic benefits that tourism brings turn into destructive activities. Our fragile environment and our people’s values must be protected at all costs from people’s bad habits and behaviours.

One of the best ways to change people’s behaviour is to forge a heartfelt and a genuine human connection.

As more and more travellers seek an experiential form of tourism, we need to enable our visitors to make that connection. Instead of merely telling them what not to do, why not ask them to do something for the thousands of people, especially the children, who depend on nature’s preservation?

By asking visitors to do something for Sabah’s people, we enable them to make the emotional and human connection.

Would anyone deny wanting to leave a better world for others? If either Tourism Malaysia or Sabah Tourism could find ways to make this happen, I am confident that something effective could be done to address this issue.

The locals need to participate too.

The destruction of the environment isn’t confined to just the visitors; the locals are guilty of it too.

Even Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal reprimanded the people of Semporna for their environmentally unfriendly habits. As a Sandakan native, I was ashamed to see German tourists picking up trash in my hometown.

Before we can expect other people to do things for us, the onus is on us to help ourselves first. In view of this, it is absolutely crucial that the people of Sabah are included in whatever campaigns that are developed for sustainable and responsible tourism. Although not everything depends on tourism, tourism depends on almost everything.

The need for sustainable and responsible planning and management is imperative for the industry to survive. It is about refocusing and adapting, and it starts with us.

What you can do?

Visit forests and research stations, pay park fees and spend your money on local communities.

This will enable the rainforest and its natural environment to remain intact for centuries. This is far better than creating short-term gains from logging and destructive farming.

Buy Fairtrade sustainable products from Borneo’s forests that encourage the preservation of the forest, such as wild honey, mountain salt, and locally made handcrafts.

Or visit theTun Mustapha Marine Park while in Sabah to show your support for the government’s conservation efforts. And make sure you do so through a responsible operator who has a commitment to protecting this fragile environment.

For extra points, pack an eco-friendly sun screen to wear while in the water to avoid contamination, and gather any discarded bottles or plastic bags you may find in the sea.

Be sure to report to your holiday company any irresponsible actions by your boat operator or tour guide, such as dropping anchor on the coral reefs, touching marine life or disturbing nesting sea turtles or hatchlings.

Community tourism is a way for visitors to learn about these tribal traditions and for the local communities to continue practising their way of life.

Community tourism also enables people who have faced ongoing discrimination at the hands of the government and businesses to demonstrate that their culture, their sustainable way of life and their knowledge are valuable, even in the modern world.

Some of the best community tourism projects are in Sarawak, where you can stay in the communal longhouse, live alongside the tribes, with your money going directly to the community and conservation initiatives.

ivan.omar@theiomovement.com; Twitter@ckliio9

The writer heads Brand Strategy at The In/Out Movement, an ensemble of thinkers, creatives, and perfectionists who believe in doing right things right.

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