Dr. Ahmad Puad Som[1], Azizan Marzuki[2] & Jamil Jusoh[3]


In the literature, research findings on variable impact of ecotourism in several less developed countries indicate that domestic participation is limited and the number in a community who are directly affected is negligible. The above situation can be explained by various limitations to community participation in tourism development process, which among them are lack of capital, skills and knowledge, lack of awareness of tourism potential, and complacency in attitudes among local people. Many authors also agree that there are operational, structural and cultural limitations to community participation in tourism, and the degrees of limitation tend to exhibit higher intensity in developing countries than in developed countries. By conducting research in two ecotourism sites in Malaysia, this study has postulated a community participation life cycle, which can be used as a descriptive tool to develop further knowledge in the field of community participation in tourism development. Although the life cycle illustration is only conceptual and is not intended to represent data that has been empirically proven, the diagrams integrate disparate factors and provide interrelationship and a sense of understanding between opportunity level and involvement levels – local and external. In general, the study found that a certain level of opportunity is required to allow local people to participate in certain activities. It is safe to assume that as the opportunities grow, the level of involvement also increases. In tourism, the level of local involvement in tourism-related activities is closely linked with the level of tourism opportunities. However, tourism growth will reach a critical point where external sources will exploit local control.

Key words: ecotourism, community, participation, life cycle


One of the basic tenets of ecotourism is that it should be both economically viable for business owners and should provide material well-being to the local communities. The profitability of ecotourism and flow of money and resources back to a local area and its community is axiomatic to development of ecotourism (Page and Dowling, 2002), and these benefits should outweigh the costs of ecotourism to the host community and environment. The benefits must also be sufficiently visible, so that local community sees them occurring and understands where they are coming from. Perhaps the most evident opportunity is through employment in and income from the ecotourism industry itself. Besides employment, other benefits of ecotourism include diversification of the local economy, increased markets for agricultural and local products and improved transportation infrastructure (WTO/UNEP, 1992). In general, local communities can become involved in various ecotourism operations and in the provision of knowledge, services, facilities and products.

With the introduction of ecotourism, it is found there is a better basis for conservation of the natural resource as there are direct benefits to be gained from an intact environment. These benefits can be seen by local communities thereby encouraging awareness to conserve within an economic framework (Wearing and Neil, 1999). The Australian National Ecotourism Strategy recognises that ‘ecologically sustainable’ involves an appropriate return to the local community and long-term conservation of the resource (Allcock et al., 1994, p. 3). Similarly, Drumm (1988) argues that local communities perceive ecotourism as an accessible development alternative, which enables them to improve their living standards without having to sell off their natural resources or compromise their culture. In the absence of other sustainable alternatives, their participation in ecotourism is often perceived as the best option for achieving their aspiration of sustainable development. Thus, ecotourism can provide a context for local incentives to conserve and protect the environment and to improve the quality of tourism experience (Tourism Concern, 1991).

The requirement that local communities and regions benefit from ecotourism and participate in decision-making, or at least be no worse off, appears to be based on two main premises. The first draws on the principles of intragenerational equity and intergenerational equity underlying the concept of sustainable development, and essentially holds that it is the socially responsible, or right thing to do. The second is instrumental in nature and involves the assumption that local communities are most likely to protect or maintain a resource base in a form that is suitable for tourism if they stand to benefit from it. In this case, they have an incentive to protect the resource (Blamey, 2001).

It is clear from the above discussion that there are many advantages to incorporating local involvement in ecotourism development. According to Rovelstad and Logar (1981), community involvement provides better understanding of interdependence between attractors and service businesses, promises greater community harmony by avoiding problems, reduces business failures by assuring sound growth, fosters community acceptance of tourism, and assists in obtaining needed human and financial resources. Paul (1987) recognises, indeed, that local input legitimises the decision-making process and reinforces the accountability of project managers, whether governmental or nongovernmental.

1 Community Approaches to Ecotourism and Planning

The full involvement of the community is required at each stage of the planning and management of ecotourism, with the understanding of how local communities can best be approached, understood and integrated. In other words, ecotourism at the community level must be developed within the context of sustainable regional, national and even international tourism development (Page and Dowling, 2002). This balanced approach to planning and management is required if tourism, as a renewable resource industry, is to become a successful and self-perpetuating industry many have advocated, based on local capacities and community decision making (Murphy, 1985).

At the national and regional levels of preparing tourism plans, the common approach to obtaining public involvement is to appoint a steering committee, which is represented by relevant government agencies in tourism, the private sector, and community, religious and other relevant organisations. Open public hearings can be held on the plan to provide opportunities for the public to learn about the plan and express their opinions. This procedure, which is usually practised in a large country or region, e.g. in the USA, is termed the ‘top-down’ approach (Inskeep, 1994, p. 9). On the other hand, the ‘bottom-up’ approach involves holding meetings with local districts or communities to determine what type of development they would like to have. These local objectives and ideas are then fitted together into a national or regional plan. This approach achieves greater local public involvement in the planning process, but it is more time consuming and may lead to conflicting objectives, policies and development recommendations among the local areas. These conflicts need to be reconciled at the national and regional levels in order to form a consistent plan. Often, a combination of the ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approaches achieves the best results. More importantly, the development patterns of the local areas complement and reinforce one another and reflect the needs and desires of local communities (Inskeep, 1994, p. 10).

However, Blank argues that a community approach to tourism planning should be a ‘bottom up’ form of planning, which emphasises development in the community rather than development of the community. Blank recognises that ‘communities’ are the destination of most travellers. Therefore, it is in communities that tourism happens. Because of this, tourism industry development and management must be brought effectively to bear in communities. Under this approach, residents are regarded as the focal point of the tourism planning exercise, not the tourists. And, the community, which is often equated with a region of local government, is regarded as the basic planning unit (Blank, 1989, cited in Hall, 2000).

Timothy and Tosun (2003) present a normative model of destination community tourism planning that combines three broad strategies into one under the abbreviation ‘PIC’ (Planning, Incremental and Collaborative). On the basis of participatory, incremental and collaborative planning, this model, as illustrated in Figure 1, implies that a combination of strategies is a more sure technique in the planning process than a singular method or approach. Timothy and Tosun (2003) further argue that principles, such as equity, efficiency, integration, balance and ecological and cultural integrity, are more effectively brought about when community members are allowed and encouraged to participate in tourism planning and development, when collaboration and cooperation are allowed to occur, and when tourism is developed in an incremental fashion. However, this model is not meant to replace the traditions of procedural planning, for example, the step-by-step planning process. Instead, the PIC principles should function in the broader context within which the rational comprehensive planning steps take place.

Meanwhile, Cater (1993) argues that a useful way to discern responsible community-based ecotourism is to approach it from a developmental perspective, which considers social, environmental and economic goals, and questions how ecotourism can ‘…meet the needs of the host population in terms of improved living standards both in the short and long term’ (Cater, 1993, p. 85-86). This perspective differs from those approaching ecotourism predominantly from an environmental perspective. For example, Buckley has devised a framework of ecotourism that is based on nature tourism, which is sustainably managed, environmentally educative and supportive of conservation (Buckley, 1994). While Buckley’s framework helps us understand that ecotourism is much more than just a product, nature, he fails to consider whether the quality of life of local communities is enhanced by ecotourism activities (Scheyvens, 1999).

On the other hand, Lindberg et al. (1996), take an economic perspective when they examine ecotourism case studies form Belize. While they consider the extent to which ecotourism generates economic benefits for local communities, they do not account for how the amount of money entering communities is distributed, or how communities are affected socially and culturally by ecotourism ventures. Even when ecotourism results in economic benefits for a local community, it may result in damage to social and cultural systems, thus undermining people’s overall quality of life (Wilkinson and Pratiwi, 1995). Therefore, community-based approaches to ecotourism need to acknowledge the importance of social dimensions of the tourism experience, rather than primarily focusing on environmental or economic impacts (Scheyvens, 1999).

The above discussion has demonstrated that the way ecotourism is approached is critical to its success, in terms of promoting the well being of both local people and their environments. In order that local people maximise their benefits and have some control over ecotourism occurring in their regions, Friedmann (1992) has suggested an empowerment framework, which could determine the effectiveness of ecotourism initiatives in terms of their impacts on local communities. Four levels of empowerment are utilised in the framework: psychological, social, political and economic empowerment.

Similarly, Scheyvens (1999) develops similar framework that includes disempowerment in addition to empowerment, in relation to four levels mentioned above (see Table 1 on ‘Framework for determining the impacts of ecotourism initiatives on local communities’). These multiple views of empowerment require the involvement of multiple agencies, and Scheyvens (2003) identifies governments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations as critical stakeholders in facilitating the involvement of destination communities in managing the tourism industry. Several types of opportunities are available for host communities to be involved in the management of ecotourism: i) private business run by a local entrepreneur, ii) community enterprise, iii) joint venture between community and private sector, and iv) representation in tourism planning body or conservation authority (Ashley and Roe, 1998).

In a related development, residents’ reactions to tourism should also be incorporated by the above approaches to gain a more balanced assessment of the local situation. Doxey’s (1975) irridex model and Ap and Crompton’s (1993) concept provide useful insights into local attitudes that change with the scale and form of tourism development. Development can lead to euphoria or antagonism, the general objective being to achieve a balanced development that brings economic and amenity benefits within acceptable levels of commercialism and congestion (see Figure 2 on ‘Doxey’s irridex model’ and Figure 3 on ‘Ap and Crompton’s model of resident attitudes to tourism’). In a similar impact assessment, residents are equated with animals of the local ecosystem. They are part of the community’s general attraction and are expected to be hospitable, yet they also need to go about their daily lives while they are part of the community show (Murphy, 1985).


Primary data for the research was obtained at two selected ecotourism sites in Malaysia: the Perlis State Park (PSP) in Wang Kelian, Perlis and the proposed State Eco-park in Ulu Muda, Kedah. Both ecosites are selected because they have not only superb natural assets, but also they are ranked among the ten very special places for Malaysian ecotourism out of 52 project suggestions identified in the National Ecotourism Plan.

Comprising two forest reserves in the state of Perlis – Mata Ayer and Wang Mu – PSP protects 5,075 hectares of geological, ecological and historical importance (Osman, et al., 2002). It is a unique conservation area of limestone-dominated ecosystems shaped by geography and climate, and it harbours the country’s only semi-deciduous forest, endangered and threatened mammals, and a treasure-trove of underground cave passages, many of which were once mined. The park is also the Peninsula’s first trans-frontier protected area, together with Thailand’s Thaleban National Park, which it joins at the border. Considering that the PSP comprises half the total forest reserve land in the state, the move to gazette the area shows state government commitment in protecting valuable natural and cultural resources. Now managed by the State Park Unit under the state Forestry Department, the park has been carefully developed according to management plans drawn up with consultants World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and funding from the Danish International Development Assistance (DANIDA).

Meanwhile, the Ulu Muda forests are located in the eastern part of Kedah and are part of a forest area that stretches well into Thai territory. Similar to Perlis State Park, its flaura and fauna incorporate a large degree of the so-called ‘northern element’ due to its northern locality, i.e., biological components of Continental and Mainland Asia, as well as the Sundaland elements found further to the south. The overall biodata of the Ulu Muda forests is distinct from other parts of Malaysia and include a large Thai-Burmese component. While some of the forests in the Greater Ulu Muda area have been logged, enough primary forest remains to be able to consider Ulu Muda a ‘High Conservation Value Forest’ (WWF Malaysia, 2002). Apart from providing essential habitat for some of the region’s more spectacular, significant and endangered wildlife, the forest itself is important in many other ways such as water catchment, climate regulation and pest control. To enhance these values and ensure sustainability of these resources, various initiatives have highlighted the significance of the Ulu Muda forests and recommended for its adoption as a State Park or State ‘Eco’ Park.

The development of PSP has direct impacts on two local communities: Kampung Wang Kelian and Kaki Bukit. Kampung Wang Kelian is a homogeneous Malay community with a population of 200 people (interview with Village Headman, 2003). Most of its people are farmers working in paddy fields, rubber smallholdings, orchards and vegetable farms besides rearing chicken and breeding fish. Kaki Bukit, with a population of 3,000, is the main town outside PSP. The people of this community are descended from tin-miners who used to work in mining activities in caves that ceased operations in the 1970s. They are currently involved in small businesses and agricultural practices.

In Ulu Muda, there are several villages located on both sides of the main road leading to the forest area, dam, natural attractions and resorts. The villages are Kampung Surau, Kampung Pinang, Kampung Bukit Berangan, Kampung Belantik Dalam, Kampung Belantik Luar and Kampung Kota Aur. The population is approximately 3,000 people, all of them are Malays. They are mainly involved in paddy farming, rubber smallholdings, animal husbandry and fishing activities.


The degrees of local involvement in ecotourism in PSP and Ulu Muda are illustrated in Figures 4 and 5. The figure graphically summarises the findings of the study in a simplified fashion. The representation in Figures 4 and 5 does not represent exact measurement along the specified axes and no exact proportions should be attached to the diagrams. The illustration is only conceptual and is not intended to represent data that has been empirically proven.

However, the diagrams provide the interrelationship and a sense of understanding between opportunity level and involvement levels – local and external. Despite its limitations, the illustration is meaningful because it is integrating disparate factors. It can also be claimed that the conceptualisation, which can be used as a descriptive tool, has significantly contributed to the development of knowledge in the field of community participation in tourism development, which can be further developed or refined in future research.

In general, a certain level of opportunity is required to allow local people to participate in certain activities. It is safe to assume that as the opportunities grow, the level of involvement also increases. In tourism, the level of local involvement in tourism-related activities is closely linked with the level of tourism opportunities. However, tourism growth will reach a critical point where external sources will exploit local control. In developing countries, growth of tourism does not simply derive from processes internal to local communities (Urry, 1990). They are affected by external conditions, not only from the establishment of tourism but also from their day-to-day activities. When the external factors that are beyond the control of local communities start to increase, the level of local involvement begins to decline. Therefore, it can be argued that tourism both influences and is influenced by external events and factors.

The involvement of local communities in Wang Kelian in tourism-related activities started even before the onset of PSP, through trading at the Border Market. With the establishment of PSP, the forms of local involvement expanded into job opportunities, nature guides, home-visit programmes and development discussions. These are basically government-initiated because the state government of Perlis has played a vital role in promoting good access and infrastructure, cross-border tourism and development of the state park. However, the degree of local involvement tends to decrease over time because local people are not empowered with the necessary skills and resources to sustain the competitive environment due to external involvement, particularly from the Thai traders and outsiders. The development of the park in an enclave also limits local benefits from tourist spending.

In Ulu Muda, the tourism stage is relatively newer and resorts were established at an early tourism stage due to incentives from the state government. Thus, the interception of all three lines, as depicted in Figure 5, occurs at an earlier stage, compared to PSP. As a result, the level of local involvement is much lower, and the types of participation are limited to blue-collar jobs, seasonal boat guides and development discussions. Business activities primarily serve the needs of local people in the vicinity. Due to heavy capital investment, resort enclaves inhibit local participation. Therefore, it can be assumed that the state governments in both study areas, who are directly involved in the tourism industry and use tourism to meet their development objectives, have failed to maximise community participation in tourism development process.

It is noteworthy to acknowledge from the findings that different stakeholders place various understandings on the term ecotourism. In general, there seems to be lack of a coherent view as to what constitutes ecotourism, and there is lack of clarity and consensus as to an understanding of ecotourism definitions. However, it can be argued from the findings that government respondents commonly view ecotourism in the context of the natural environment, and their broad view is that conservation of natural resources should be emphasised in ecotourism development. Their views closely mirror the official definition of ecotourism adopted by the Malaysian Government. This definition has been taken aboard in a relatively uncritical manner without reference to the considerable debate that exists, both at an academic and practitioner level, regarding the usefulness of the term. Ecotourism is, in part, used as a destination branding tool for selected parks throughout Peninsular and East Malaysia and the actual practical implications of its use, in terms of, for example, community participation, are, perhaps lost in this packaging.

Planners, also public employees, appear to share a similar perception as to what constitutes ecotourism but do express the cautionary view that strict development guidelines and appropriate mechanisms should be enforced, so as to preserve the natural heritage of sensitive areas and to prevent these areas from being transformed into mass tourism. Some non-governmental respondents, in part, go a bit further in their interpretation of ecotourism but such responses were fragmented and limited.

At a community level, there seems to be a greater ambiguity as to ecotourism’s definition because the term appears to be little understood by the local people. A few respondents among them were clearly did not understand the term ecotourism because the eco-prefix was misinterpreted as ‘economics’ of tourism and ‘city in a forest’. Local benefit is only acknowledged as being important from an interview with a non-governmental organisation’s respondent. The apparent marginality of the concept of ecotourism to respondents at a community level is an important finding from this study, even if the basis for conclusions in this regard may be tentative. As we have seen, definitions that exist for ecotourism place considerable emphasis on the role of community. This is a distinguishing feature of this form of tourism compared to nature-based tourism which does not imply any necessary stakeholding for the local community. However, the findings of this study raise interesting questions as to whether such involvement can be imposed in a top-down manner on apparently disinterested local communities. They also beg discussion as to whether the Malaysian Government, in adopting its Ecotourism Plan, really intended the application of the bottom-up approach that is implicit, for many people, in the very use of the term.


There has now been a move away from the narrow concern with physical or promotional planning facilitating the growth of tourism, to a broader more balanced approach recognising the needs and views of not only tourists and developers but also the wider community (Dowling, 1991, 1997). Similarly, efforts to make ecotourism a more sustainable option have been focusing increasingly on a community-oriented approach. However, an analysis of the differences and conflicts between tourism and community interface clearly shows that there are limitations to participatory tourism development approach. A successful community approach, therefore, requires a complex combination of interlocking parts, environmental, economic, socio-cultural and management considerations, leading to a general goal that can be identified and measured. Above all, it is vital that local communities are involved in planning and management of tourism resources and directly benefit from the utilisation of these resources to ensure true sustainability (Mat Som and Baum, 2004).


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[1] School of Hbp, Penang, Malaysia

[2] School of Hbp, Penang, Malaysia

[3] School of Hbp, Penang, Malaysia