The reference for the name Langkawi comes from the combination of two words 'Lang' and 'Kawi'. Lang is slang for 'Helang' in Malay which means eagle while 'Kawi' means marble in Sanskrit (Malaysia Tour Guide, 2010). The reason for this name is the abundance of eagles and marble in Langkawi. In the early 1980's, Langkawi was one of the most under developed districts in the state of Kedah (Din, 1990). The main source of income for the residents was fishing or growing rice. On 1st January 1987 the government declared Langkawi as a Duty Free Port (Kayat, 2002). This was the pinnacle of transformation and the main reason behind the sudden acceleration of economic growth in Langkawi. It opened a lot of opportunities for business, commercial and service sectors (Kayat, 2002). In 1999, The Langkawi Residential/Socioeconomic Study reported that only 19% of the working population was in the agricultural, forestry, fishery and hunting industries (Langkawi Island Development Authority, 1999) as compared to in 1987 when 63% of the working population was employed in the primary sector (Langkawi District Council, 1992).Since 1990 there has been a fundamental increase in the level of investment. Around 110 million US dollars have been invested for infrastructure and public facilities while approximately 1 billion US dollars have been put in by private developers for hotels (North Review, 1995). The number of tourists coming into Langkawi has changed drastically as well. In 1986 around 200,000 tourists came while in 1997 the number of tourists coming in to Langkawi was 1,800,000 (Langkawi Island Development Authority, 1999).
It is said that tourism has a love-hate relationship with its local population. On the one hand it increases economic growth, generates employment, income and tax revenue and is the medium of regional development (Grey, Edelman & Dwyer, 1991) while on the other hand, it destroys the local societies, cultures and takes environmental destruction wherever it goes (Rosenow & Pulsipher, 1979). The economic benefits of international tourism are helpful especially to developing countries, like Malaysia, but tourism can also been seen as having a negative side as it has many adverse social, cultural and environmental impacts.
McKercher (1993) in his journal mentioned some fundamental truths about tourism:
Tourism uses resources and increases pollution as it is an industrial enterprise
Tourism carries with itself the capability of over using resources including the ones which are scarce
It is very difficult to control as it is a very complex industry
International tourists never get the chance to know the residents and their traditions and cultures as they are modified according to the tourist's preferences. As a result the traditional culture is under threat. Tourists are usually in the host country for a small period of time so all they get is a quick and insignificant impression of the local culture. This was named 'Staged Authenticity' by Dean MacCannell, for example, The Monkey Dance in Bali, Indonesia is usually of duration of 4 hours; however, it is hardly ever performed for the proper length (Lyth, 2011). Anthropologists emphasize on social disruption and say that international tourism can damage unique traditional cultures and the impact of tourism on the local residents is mostly negative (Lyth, 2011). The residents may start to compare their way of life to tourists leading to a sense of subordination which can result in a higher crime rate. It is a known fact that wherever there are wealthy tourists, there are thieves (Lyth, 2011). Hostility is also strong between residents and tourists when the economy is largely dependent on the tourism industry like Langkawi. Different cultural value systems can also result in aggravated hostility between the two. Malaysia is an Islamic State whereas the tourists are mostly Europeans and Americans who are not used to following the system in an Islamic State which may lead to a lack of hospitality. An example is the alcohol consumption of the tourists in Langkawi.
The undesirable impacts of tourism are reduced if the local people have ample time to grow accustomed to the presence of tourists (Cooper et al, 2008). The fast growth of Langkawi as a tourist destination has added to the impacts of tourism. As residents of London or Rome have had the time to get used to tourists being around, the residents of Langkawi have not.
Some writers were critical about the rapid development of tourism in Langkawi largely due to the power and authority issues related to development. Bird (1989) felt that throughout the planning and development of tourism on the island, the needs of the residents were not considered. The local communities' participation increases the likelihood for a sustainable tourism development in the vicinity but problems still linger in the diverse ways in which participation is put into practice (Mowforth and Munt, 1998). The present situation in Langkawi is due to the lack of empowerment of the residents as most of the people are marginalized in front of tourists (Din, 1997). Tourists are well informed, better linked and wealthier than the local people, and so can get a greater net gain of the benefits offered by the tourism on the island (Din, 1997). Lyth (2011) talks about the development of such a servant master-relationship between well off tourists and the dependant locals.
These were the social and cultural impacts of tourism in Langkawi; however, the most serious impact of tourism is environmental. Firstly, the adverse effects of tourism are lessened if the growth in tourist population is relatively slow (Cooper et al, 2008). The short sighted aim to maximize profits in the short run is the main reason behind the negative environmental impacts such as over development, deforestation, sea pollution and habitat pollution (Lyth, 2011). Coastlines get eroded due to overdevelopment, beaches polluted by raw sewage, toxic wastage dumped into the sea and littering in sensitive wildlife areas (Lyth, 2011). Due to the rapid increase in the demand of tourism in Langkawi, airline operations have been amplifying. Consequently low cost carriers such as Air Asia are beginning to operate which lead to higher carbon emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change (Lyth, 2011). Other than that, noise is one of the key negative environmental impacts. The tranquility in Langkawi has been disturbed by the rise in airline operations and the increased demand for entertainment by tourists such as night clubs and discos.
As everything is based on profit maximizing, the long term benefits are not taken into consideration such as conserving the natural environment. Tourism is blamed to consume the environment; they pollute it and destroy it (Lyth, 2011).
In 1987, The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued the official definition of sustainable tourism which is that we should meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future (Sustainable Tourism, 2009). Sustainable tourism can be referred to as tourism that is taking into account the ecological and socio-cultural capacities of the environment involving the community and including all this in the tourism development planning (Cooper et al, 2008). It even involves that tourism should be matched with the current economic and growth policies, so as to cut down the negative impacts of mass tourism on the environment. Theobald (1998) talks about the ecological approach of considering both plants and people when implementing the sustainable tourism plan. This is in total contrast to the economic approaches to tourism planning, which do not consider the harms of tourism on the environment.
Currently, Langkawi is not taking a sustainable approach towards tourism. This implies that the island will most likely lose its charm to tourists as well as the locals in the near future, given the self destructive nature of tourism. Another tourist spot which also had a rapid increase in tourism but later took a sustainable approach was Barbados in the Caribbean. Similarities between the two are that they both are islands and the main source of income for both islands is tourism. Sustainable tourism has been the main priority for Caribbean Countries since the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States held in 1994 (Mycoo, 2006).
Training programs were implemented to aid in the development of institutional capacity in coastal resources and ecosystem management related to the tourism industry by The Caribbean Environmental Programme (Mycoo, 2006). In 1998 training courses were carried out in three main areas (Mycoo, 2006):
Water and Solid Waste Management for the Tourism Industry
Integrated Coastal Area Management and Tourism
Sitting and Design of Tourist Facilities
In order to smooth the transition, a Caribbean Regional Training Manual on Solid Waste and Waste Water Management was also prepared (Mycoo, 2006).
Local businesses in Barbados use ISO 14001 and Agenda 21 certifications which set a standard for waste disposal, recycling, energy efficiency and also social and cultural development (Mycoo, 2006). Such a certification regulates the impacts on the social and natural environment. A policy similar to this can be very beneficial for the future of Langkawi and can set up the rudiments of the earlier mentioned sustainable tourism approach. Barbados also adopted the Green Globe 21 programme for sustainable tourism (Mycoo, 2006). They rank number two in the region based on the number of certified green hotels (Mycoo, 2006). With a Green Globe Merit Badge, the tourism industry of Langkawi will be able to focus further on environmental sustainability. The Green Globe 21 programme sets regulations and targets for various aspects of the tourism destination environment including (Lyth, 2011):
Green house gas emissions
Management of fresh water
Ecosystem conservation and management
Waste minimization reuse and recycling
Langkawi can also take certain initiatives, as taken by the government of Barbados, for improving its tourism practice. Government officials of Barbados have transplanted their coral reefs and have thus been able to market Barbados as an environment friendly destination (Coastal Zone Management Unit, 2003). If Langkawi takes similar 'green' steps then it is likely to attract wealthy tourists, while charging more for a sustainable tourism product. Assuming that well off tourists are willing to pay more for services in Langkawi, this can be beneficial for both the economy and the environment. If a tourist destination serves to wealthy tourists, then although tourist numbers decrease, revenue is more likely to increase and in a sustainable way. The strategy mentioned here, attracting richer but fewer visitors, is classified as one way of achieving sustainable tourism as noted by Lyth (2011).
The government and the tourism industry of Langkawi has to consider both short term and long term welfare and choose a path which keeps in mind both these aspects in order for sustainable tourism (Lyth, 2011). A shift from the scientific 'paradigm' of modern society to a green 'paradigm' is ideally needed to achieve sustainable tourism (Lyth, 2011). The shift is a time consuming process; however, it is already in progress in Barbados. Langkawi needs to change its policies in order to secure their long term future.
There are some main points which should be implemented in Langkawi which are already being used in Barbados. Firstly, the local community should get trained in the tourism industry which will improve their productivity and also help in the management of the services they provide. Once made an integral part of the tourism process, the locals will feel belonged and might not envy the tourists as they would have otherwise. Trained and educated locals will also help in reducing the gap between them and the tourists. They can have training courses similar to the ones in Barbados mentioned above. The government should be involved as much as possible in order to promote sustainable tourism and they should have the power to influence all the decisions made by the tourism industry. They can make sure that Langkawi is also accredited with the ISO 14001, Agenda 21 and Green Globe 21 certifications so that they set a minimum standard which the industry has to keep up with. Langkawi should promote alternate means of transportation which are eco-friendly rather than flying there. This will help with the image of Langkawi as a sustainable one. Promoting eco-tourism will also help in building up the image of Langkawi.
Eco-tourism is travel to naturally beautiful areas where the tourists visit these places with a sense of responsibility towards the people of the tourist destination and towards the environment. As Langkawi offers panoramic sceneries, diverse wildlife, and a unique culture, eco-tourism serves as a sustainably profitable option for Langkawi. As an example, tourists could ride their rented bikes to go for their snorkelling trips instead of using cars. The Malay culture could also serve as a positive point for the provision of eco-tourism. Langkawi can portray their distinctive culture, which the tourists can learn to appreciate even when the culture is not staged.
There are some flaws in the sustainable tourism practices mentioned above as well. Although the Barbados' sustainable tourism policy encourages public involvement, the local communities do not have the authority to influence the decisions on the tourism development in which they are not in favour of (Mycoo, 2006). Initially there was a lack of sustainable tourism indicators; however, The International Development Research Centre (1998) developed the Barometer of Sustainability which will assist in planning of tourism. A similar problem could occur in Langkawi, but it could be addressed by a similar solution. Furthermore, the Green Global 21 Programme does not take into account problems of the local people at the destination; it just talks of the harms to the environment. The other two certifications, Agenda 21 and ISO 14001, set a minimum standard and therefore do not provide a reason to excel and go beyond the minimum standards. Also, it is quite difficult to assess problems of the local people and because they are relatively tougher to view as numbers, the application of sustainable tourism might not produce visible results. Some tourists are willing to pay more for eco-friendly tourism destinations, which might lead some companies to use green initiatives only as a means to exploit the consumers (Lyth, 2011). Moreover, it can be very costly to teach and train businesses of Langkawi about the dangers that they possibly present to the environment around them. Generally, given the current mind frame of the people of Langkawi, in the trade off between economic sustainability and environmental sustainability, people would choose economic sustainability, not realizing the impacts that this can have on the future.
Eco-tourism may be a very good idea for an island like Langkawi but it comes with its drawbacks. Most if not all of these drawbacks occur in the implementation stage. Firstly, it will be very tough to change the image of Langkawi and market it as a 'green' place. Secondly, this change can be very expensive to bring about.
As far as reducing the change between the people of Langkawi and visitors is concerned, this change's roots begin at a very basic level. The focus should be on changing the general attitude of the common person at Langkawi. This can be facilitated by similar education systems between Langkawi and the tourist generating countries. In regards to sustainability, this new system could be dangerous. Changing the attitudes of the people will reinforce the destructivity of culture and will rule out the possibility of the social and cultural aspect of eco-tourism.
Even though there may be some problems in achieving sustainable tourism for Langkawi, we must look at the overall benefit in the long run. In the long run the economy, the tourism industry, and the people and environment of Langkawi will all benefit by sustainable tourism. As mentioned by Farrell and his colleagues (2005), there are seven steps that could be taken towards achieving sustainable tourism. The base of these seven steps lies in the idea that one must understand all the surrounding factors. One must therefore realize that the people of Langkawi and the environment are not two separate entities but are one entity. Understanding everything as a part of the same system is essential in achieving sustainable tourism. One must also understand that a change in one of the entities may cause a change in another entity, for example if the coral reefs get destroyed at Langkawi, then the tourists will stop visiting and the locals will not make as much money. The whole system is very complicated and therefore one should design the sustainability plan very carefully and must keep updating the plan as our surroundings are ever changing.
To conclude, sustainable tourism will be very beneficial for Langkawi, as one must understand that sustainable tourism does not hinder the tourism sector's growth but rather defines the limits in which the tourism sector should grow. It will be difficult to apply the concepts of sustainable tourism to Langkawi because of the massive socio-cultural differences between the tourists and the residents. Consequently, the understanding of the whole complex system at Langkawi, which includes the environment and the people, is necessary for the execution of the sustainability approach.