NATURE guide Irshad Mobarak pointed out a plant growing on a limestone rock by the mangrove river in Langkawi, as we cruised by in a speed boat.
“This is an ancient species that’s endemic to the limestone formations between Langkawi and Phuket (Thailand). It’s been around for 260 million years, and palaeontologists believe dinosaurs fed on them. It grows a metre every 200 years.”
A substantial portion of the plant had been hacked off.
“That’s 400 years off a 1,200 year-old plant. There have been thefts of these plants by ‘poachers’, as there’s a market for them,’’ Irshad explained
Irshad advocates farming these plants to meet market demands. “Creating a nature park here would impose conditions that rangers would be able to enforce,” he added.
Irshad does not just take guests on nature tours and regurgitate lines from an out-of-date, officially-sanctioned guide book. Instead, he goes to great lengths to explain the background, roles and threats related to a topic and will even discuss issues with you. This interaction cum information makes a visitor’s experience substantially more rewarding and memorable.
This is the kind of knowledge-enriched tourism that places like Langkawi should be aiming for, commented Richard Dorall, a participant in the Langkawi Scientific and Heritage Expedition 2003. It marked the first time experts in land and sea ecology combined resources and knowledge in pursuit of conservation and sustainable tourism.
However, scientists weren’t the only ones involved in this huge effort. The 160 participants included support staff, students, artists, hotel staff and volunteers. The scientific leader of the expedition from May 10-19 was Prof Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamad, dean and professor of botany at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“This expedition had been considered for a long time. The opportunity arose when the director of Lada Ecotourism, Datuk Dr Hashim Abdul Wahab asked us to organise an expedition to study the island’s natural resources,” he said (Lada is an acronym for the Langkawi Development Authority.)
There have been suggestions from various quarters that a portion of Langkawi be declared a National Geological Park due to its unique assets.
For a start, Dr Latiff would like to see zones or sites established where certain flora or fauna can be appreciated. He added that for such initiatives to work, scientific knowledge needs to be interpreted for the laymen so that they can better appreciate what fascinates these scientists. Therefore, information and its effective dissemination is the key.
During one of the nightly presentations, Dorall, an associate professor at Universiti Malaya’s Department of Geography, pointed out that research shows there’s been a gradual shift from pleasure-based tourism to a knowledge-based one.
Referring to regional competition, Dorall explained that Langkawi would not be able to compete with other islands since “we don’t really want” the hedonistic model of Phuket. Moreover, the island lacks the history of Penang and the “soul and culture” of Bali.
”So what we should do is make a visit to Langkawi an educational vacation with interactive information and experiences,” he said.H e cited intelligent initiatives in islands like Singapore, Tasmania and Mauritius as examples. “The tourism bodies provide PDAs (personal digital assistants) and tablet PCs to tourists. They’re then provided with real-time interactive information in the field. This cutting-edge tourism is already being practised.”
A similar example is Britain’s Crumpet project, an acronym for Creation of User-friendly Mobile Services Personalised for Tourism.
Dorall and his team also looked at the information level at certain Langkawi sites.
“The Seven Wells is a disaster. There’s hardly any water at the falls and there’s absolutely no information there. Only one tree is named, literally. There’s just the name and nothing else.”
There was a similar problem at Gua Cerita.
“Although it translates to Story Cave, there are no stories for visitors here,” he remarked.
“We went to the Tanjung Rhu Jetty by the mangroves. There were some informative charts about the mangrove ecosystem, but these were placed behind the ticket counter!”
Dorall added that the Langkawi Cable Car has outstanding views, but there are no information aids whatsoever.
“There’s nothing to enhance the experience of the visitor, for example maps, charts, binoculars or some photographs to elaborate on what you see around you. You need location-specific info.”
“Visitors would have no idea what they’re looking at. It’s a world-class project but it’s lacking in critical areas that go beyond the visuals.”
Dorall also observed that there is nothing in the tourist stores relating to Mat Chincang, the mountain the cable car goes up to.
He added that most of Langkawi’s sites were “more of the same, with dramatically-missed opportunities”, except Teluk Datai, a bay with lots of greenery and a couple of high-end resorts.
“This was a tremendous experience with lots of information thanks to a naturalist who took us on a guided walk in the forest. Both resorts have resident naturalists who take tourists out on informative walks. The guide successfully imparted lots of information.”
He said there were poem boards on trees, but suggested boards to identify and elaborate on tree and plant species. “The trail went through a remarkable range of plants, trees and vines, but they lacked signage.”
He added that there is generally great interest in nature among visitors and that a written guide could be supplemented with a palmtop computer.
“Such interactive experiences add a lot of value to a vacation. This is the type of tourism we should be aiming for, as opposed to hedonistic or pleasure tourism which is better suited to places like Phuket.”
Dorall also pointed out several tourism-related shortcomings in Langkawi. “There is a problem with getting good maps – the ones here are poor and even inaccurate.”
Maps published by foreign publications are usually on the entire country and not Langkawi specifically. He remarked that our mapping department probably does not see the value of producing attractive maps.
One common description from tourists (local and foreign) he surveyed regarding Langkawi was “boring”.
“This obviously means that tourists aren’t getting in touch with what you and I know about this place and what we get enthusiastic about.”
He found a lot of information available in Lada’s library, “but it’s not getting out there. There is research data, but in a form that is not accessible to the general public.”
Dorall is, however, confident that with time and effort, the experience of tourists could be enhanced many-fold.
“We could then use Langkawi as a case study and a model on how tourism should be managed.”
Dr Latiff meanwhile said that the expedition could assist by publishing two types of reports: a scientific one, and – if they are commissioned to do so – a tourism-related one. The technical report of the expedition for the Malaysian Nature Journal should be ready within the next six months.
“Then someone like a travel writer can dilute the information for the public. We scientists are known for our inability to translate information so that it’s readable by the public!” he quipped.
Dr Latiff said the writer could work with the scientists, Lada and the hotels to produce a report, focusing perhaps on the island’s rich mangrove and marine resources.
“This expedition has opened the eyes of scientists, the authorities and tourism bodies toward better resource management,” he said.
“There are still substantial pristine areas in Langkawi,” added Dr Latiff. “The question is whether there is expertise and capacity for sustainable exploitation of these resources. This is where publications help.”
He cited the example of Kinabalu Park in Sabah, a World Heritage Site, which has had the benefit of masterplans, conservation plans and information-packed guidebooks for visitors.
Dr Latiff added that relevant books are important. “It’s the only way forward. The Perlis State Park has benefited from several informative publications, for example on its birds, medicinal plants and trees.”
There have been many new scientific recordings for Langkawi, and some of these will have particular importance for the growth of ecotourism on the island.
Some interesting findings include a terrestrial crab which has not been recorded on the island since 1914, said Dr Latiff.
Dr Hashim summed it up thus: “One of the great attributes of this expedition is that it has brought together both marine and terrestrial scientists. Their research will assist us in making recommendations to the authorities regarding protection for certain habitats on the island with the understanding that they could be opened up for sustainable ecotourism.”
Dr Hashim, who is also the director of Lada Ecotourism Sdn Bhd, was there in his capacity as expedition chairperson and vice president of the Malaysian Nature Society.
He is confident they would be able to propose setting up at least one protected area.
According to Dr Latiff, Lada should ideally set aside natural areas for the three purposes of education, research and ecotourism – which basically reflects a national park model. The preferred area is the northeast of the island, which has an attractive combination of hills, limestone outcrops, mangroves and coastline.
At the moment, most of the area is unutilised. The mangroves are already a tourist attraction, and many boat excursions have been made into its rivers. The rivers’ salinity vary with the tide, so a variety of freshwater and marine fish live and spawn in its brackish waters.
The rivers and the limestone outcrops make for a rare, spectacular combination. These limestones are said to be the oldest in the region, at about 450 million years. Its vegetation is unique and differs from places like Gunung Raya (granite) and Gunung Mat Chincang (sandstone), also in Langkawi.
Using satellite images as a guide to the coastal region, we cruised down the river with Dr Azhar Hussin of the Department of Geology, Universiti Malaya. Irshad, a naturalist, pointed out some of the problems the mangroves face.
“Look at the riverbanks. Waves from boats that go fast erode the banks, causing trees to collapse,” he said.
As we hit the sea, we located a stretch of coral reef languishing in low-visibility water. Dr Azhar mentioned that the rivers that flow out here, like Sg Kisap, cause sedimentation and bring with it nitrates that settle on the corals.
Algae grows on these nitrates and then sea urchins consume the algae, crushing corals while they’re at it. Upstream activities at Sg Kisap include a housing project, a garbage landfill and a golf course.
“Land planners must realise that land development has effects on the marine environment. It is essential that government officials at all levels, from CEOs to guides and municipal officers, are equipped with environmental knowledge,” said Dr Azhar.
The fact that something seemingly insignificant like boat speed can turn out to be important shows how environmental management is crucial even on a micro level.
Dr Azhar said Langkawi is naturally very unique, with a combination of modern and ancient geo-formations. In addition Malaysia holds 80% of the world’s mangrove species, and Langkawi is home to a substantial number at the island’s northeast.
As the expedition reports are due out, planners will soon be able to work closely with researchers for Langkawi’s benefit.
By Deepak Gill – 27 June 2003