Malaysia has pledged environmental sustainability efforts, but unfortunately, it has fallen short in the areas of effective policy and enforcement. Loss of rainforest is a pressing environmental issue for this tropical country. It is estimated that between 1990 and 2005, deforestation was responsible for a loss of 6.6% of the nation's rainforest. Forestry remains a cash cow, as is agriculture -- specifically, the production of palm oil. Urbanization has also taken its toll. PM Najib's New Economic Model, unveiled in 2010, promises policies that will promote the development of sustainable economic growth, which includes the sustainable tourism industry.
As the demands of modern civilization encroach on rainforests, Malaysia's indigenous inhabitants are finding their ancient ways of life under threat. Orang asli, or "original people," make up a tiny sliver of the population, at only 110,000 people divided among 18 different ethnic groups. Most still call the rainforest home and practice traditional hunting and gathering methods for survival, but are losing their land, through sudden eviction with little monetary compensation, to business and government interests.
The underwater environment is also under threat. In 2010, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) reported that dive tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors within the tourism industry. Tourism Malaysia is aware of the potential of this sector and has touted the country's dive sites -- particularly Sipadan in Sabah -- to attract divers. Unfortunately, the government has no policy in place to help guide this sector sustainably, and dive operations are very poorly regulated.
In 2010, Malaysia temporarily closed a number of dive sites along its eastern coastline due to coral bleaching, damage to living reefs caused by rising sea temperatures -- this is the result of global warming. Popular dive sites off the islands of Perhentian, Redang, and Tioman were shut down for a few months to monitor the effects and prevent further damage, but they have since reopened.
However, despite these threats, ecotourism persists -- and there is a way to travel responsibly. Malaysia naturally lends itself to ecotourism, as many parts of the country are covered in primary vegetation, and there are some tour operators who offer unique travel opportunities that are sensitive to wildlife and indigenous cultures. Malaysia's best natural experiences are found in places like Taman Negara, Endau Rompin, parts of Langkawi, and Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo. Seek out natural ecoadventures in Kinabalu Park, Turtle Islands Park, Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and the Lower Kinabatangan River in Sabah. In Sarawak, similar experiences can be had in national parks like Gunung Mulu, Bako, Batang Ai, and Gunung Gading.
In this guidebook, I have done my best to recommend ecotour operators that are "eco" in more than just name, conducting their operations with respect for the environment on which they depend. Where tour operators bring travelers into areas inhabited by orang asli, I have recommended only those outfits that I feel demonstrate a genuine sensitivity toward and understanding of these communities.
Some of Malaysia's longest-established and most reputable ecotourism operators include Asian Overland Services (head office tel. 03/4252-9100; fax 03/4257-1133; www.asianoverland.com.my), with offices in KL, Langkawi, Penang, Kota Kinabalu, and Kuching. They also operate one of the country's leading green hotels, the Frangipani Langkawi Resort and Spa (tel. 04/952-0000; fax 04/952-0001; www.frangipanilangkawi.com). In Sabah, Wilderness Expeditions (tel. 089/219-616; fax 089/214-570; www.wildlife-expeditions.com) offers tours to all the state's leading natural areas. One of Sarawak's most respected ecotouring companies is Borneo Adventure (tel. 082/245-175; fax 082/422-626; www.borneoadventure.com), with offices in Kuching, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu (in neighboring Sabah). They offer tours to Bario, Bintulu, Mulu, and various longhouses.
Protecting Malaysia's Rare Species -- Vast tracts of primary rainforest in Malaysian Borneo are protected and believed to contain such rare species of animals as the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Malaysian sun bear, and the clouded leopard. In forest reserves, visitors can sometimes spot large-nosed proboscis monkeys and hornbills, with their colorful beaks. A number of rehabilitation centers on Borneo protect the orangutan from extinction in the face of their disappearing habitat. On Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia, many species of sea turtles that use Malaysia's beaches for nesting grounds are also protected.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.