back to Home Page

Opportunities for Recreation and Ecotourism in Tropical Forests

Paper presented to the 13th Malaysian Forestry Conference, Johor Bahru, 20-25 August 2001

Patrick J Devlin and Michael E Meredith


This brief paper is aimed at stimulating thought and discussion on the role of forests in recreation and the relationships between recreation, forests and tourism, outlining some of the concepts involved and some of the issues which forest managers need to consider. Many of the terms in common use are perceived and used in different ways by different people, and this may cause difficulties for forest managers.


Recreation is generally recognised as the things we do in leisure or non-work time. Historically the word inferred a "re-creation" of the individual through involvement in fun or stimulating activities, many of which we today think of as entertainment. For most people up until relatively recently there was little leisure time or recreation. In the western world in the last 150 years, organised sport was popular and the wealthy and adventurous travelled to see the great sights of the world and to learn about other cultures. Only very recently has mass affordable travel become commonplace. Many of the world’s cultures have no word for leisure in their language: it is a Western concept. Festivals and religious ceremonies along with dance and other traditions served in similar ways to provide entertainment for many groups of people, but these would be carried out for other purposes, not primarily for entertainment.

Understanding cultural differences in use of leisure time is an interesting challenge.

Forest recreation

Traditional use of forests for subsistence in Malaysia and other countries in the region has been well documented. Until relatively recently the level of dependence has been very high and for many people remains so. Hunting and gathering of forest products for subsistence purposes is not considered to be recreation. However, where hunting and gathering are supplementary to paid employment there will be no doubt be a recreational element, even if the primary purpose is to supplement the larder or to enrich the diet. Purely recreational hunting or fishing as in the Western concept is still relatively uncommon in the region, but may be on the increase.

Swimming and picnicking in forest settings are common and popular recreation activities. In one Thailand national park which has a well-known waterfall, an average of 2,200 people each weekend day and 600 on week days visit to swim and play and picnic. At Lambir National Park in Sarawak the great majority of visitors to the park go there because of the waterfall. The fact that both of these places are national parks and both have extensive and ecologically important forests is not the main reason why a majority of visitors go there. In Kubah National Park, also in Sarawak and about 20kms from Kuching city, the pattern of recreational use is most interesting. The forest has several trails, a waterfall and a steep concrete private road on one boundary that serves as access to transmission towers. At the top of the road is a viewpoint with impressive views. The unique conservation features of the park are pitcher plants (Nepenthes spp.) and a very large range of palms. Nearly 10,000 visitors came to the park in 2000, of whom 90 per cent were local and 10 per cent foreign and regional tourists. In broad terms, most of the local visitors go to the waterfall or viewpoint. Their enjoyment comes from the exercise, the views, the social experience of being with family and friends, a swim, a barbecue or a picnic. Again it can be suggested that the recreation activities have little to do with the conservation focus of the National Park. It is the foreign and regional visitors who tend to use the trails through the forest; this may be because those who travel a great distance are more likely to do as much as possible during a visit compared with those who can choose to visit often. Whichever group is considered, the recreation nevertheless either depends on the forest or is enhanced by it.


Tourism is a form of recreation and leisure away from "home". Thus a tourist is often defined as a person who visits for rest, relaxation and entertainment. Tourism for many countries is a most important source of income. For some, it is amongst their top industries.

World travellers choose their destinations to fulfil a range of motivations. Apart from visiting relatives and friends or to shop, eat, rest and recreate in cities, it is the natural and cultural features of a country which are the most important draw-cards – the mountains, beaches, forests and wildlife, and the people.

Until recently tourism involved a "tour", just as the name suggests. Big planes, boats and busses moved people around for a period of days or weeks, making short stops at pre-selected sites, with over-nights in comfortable hotels. A well-informed guide would give commentaries and manage the tour. Themes of history, architecture, religion and culture, farming and life-styles, with fleeting views of natural features, were the norm. This was so-called "mass tourism". An infrastructure to cope with large numbers of visitors was indispensable. Despite the rather denigrating stereotype portrayed of mass tourism it is essentially true for most forms of tourism as numbers increase. In Nepal in the 1960s, for example, trekking in the Everest and Annapurna mountain areas was the prerogative of a small number of hardy and adventurous tourists. Now, with expanded infrastructure – better roads, airports and accommodation – thousands of inexperienced tourists trek the mountain trails. It has become another form of mass tourism.

Tourism is a business and as with all businesses the tourism industry has entrepreneurs and creative operators seeking to capitalise on new market opportunities. More and more younger people are travelling. Adventurous, thrill seeking, well educated, they travel the world to quench a thirst for knowledge and excitement. If you are looking for adventure in New Zealand, for instance, you can bungy jump, sky dive, jet boat, white water raft, sea kayak, swim with seals or dolphins, whale watch, walk on long distant mountain trails, horse trek – and the list goes on. These are niche markets and small. New products are constantly being developed or new and better sites being opened up. Each of these presents challenges to resource managers.

It will be quite clear that many tourism destinations and products are nature oriented or nature dependent. The culture-adventure-nature (CAN) marketing strategies well known in Malaysia recognise this. It was a relatively small step to move from the "clean green" image of nature to the "ethical and responsible" high ground offered by the "eco" label. In little more than a decade ecotourism has become the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry.


Ryan (1999) has described ecotourism as a concept in crisis, largely because of confusion over the meaning of the term.

Ecotourism arose when people began to realise that nature tourism could at times be quite destructive. Viewing nesting birds in such a way that the parent birds desert eggs or nestlings would be an example. Using a destination or environment belonging to a group of people without money or any other benefit going to the ownership group would be a second example. Together they represent two of the problems that ecotourism tries to redress: unacceptable environmental impacts and failure to deliver economic benefits. Almost inevitably, nature related recreation (tourism) has impacts on the environment. Under circumstances of high use and poor management these can be irreversible.

Ecotourism is increasingly identified as a means to achieve both conservation objectives and sustainable development. Walpole and Goodwin (2000:560) define it as "low impact nature tourism which contributes to the maintenance of species and habitats either directly through a contribution to conservation and/or indirectly by providing revenue to the local community sufficient for local people to value and therefore protect, their wildlife heritage as a source of income".

Ecotourism is thus viewed as a viable alternative to mass tourism. It is expected to be small scale, sustainable, locally controlled with emphasis on community development to meet economic, social and cultural needs, and to contribute to nature conservation. Walpole and Goodwin (2000) investigated the economic impacts of dragon tourism in the Komodo National Park in Indonesia. They found that external operators in urban areas rather than rural villagers in the park were the major beneficiaries. The operations did not qualify for the ecotourism label (ibid:573). Integrated efforts to redress the situation in Komodo are currently being worked through.

The debate over definitions is all the more acrimonious because the name is being widely used as a marketing tool, even when the product is anything but ecotourism as originally conceived. The question raised by Ryan (1999) is "does it matter if some tourism operators adopt the label without embracing the criteria?". His belief is that it does matter. The benefits from using the label are clearly significant for the operator. If the operation fails to deliver conservation or community benefits it has no ethical right to the label.

Ecotourism: product or process?

Semantic problems plague the debate. Clever marketing describes certain tourist attractions as "ecotourism experiences". It is very doubtful that many of them do in fact fulfil the criteria described above. Perhaps the criteria which define ecotourism are too restrictive? The single criterion of "environmentally sustainable" may be sufficient to justify use of the label. In some environments there are no local people to be considered, and other criteria are to a large extent sub-sets of the sustainability requirement. Ecotourism must be thought of as a "process" – a way of going about the management of a nature tourism opportunity. To be at its best it will require a high level of agreement and co-operation among land managers (e.g. national parks or forestry agencies) and local people.

National Parks

National parks, marine parks and other protected areas are among the most important natural environments which are tourist destinations. This is logical enough. This region’s ecology is unique and its forests are fundamental to its biodiversity. The responsibility implicit in managing a national park is protection and enhancement of its flora, fauna and landscapes, so any nature tourism in protected areas must be sustainable. Managing for sustainability cannot be left to chance, and systems for monitoring impacts and managing use are essential. Two such systems which are complementary are the Recreation Opportunity planning System (ROS) and Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC). The ROS is a form of zoning to optimise user experience (Stankey and Wood 1982), while LAC establishes indicators for recording the impacts of recreational use (McCool et al, 1987). Such management tools can do much to maximise the synergies between conservation and recreational use.

Other forests

Recreation and tourism, whether strictly ecotourism or simply nature tourism, should not be synonymous with national parks. Often referred to as the "crown jewels" of a country’s precious natural environments, national parks should not be over-run with inappropriate use. When applying ROS techniques for planning for recreation and tourism, other classifications of forest should be included. This will assist greatly in understanding the relationships between different levels of recreational use and nature conservation. Some forests that may not be considered suitable for designation as national parks may be eminently satisfactory for nature based and ecotourism ventures as well as other recreational pursuits. Identifying forests for these purposes and giving them adequate legislative protection and management could be an interesting challenge to the forestry sector, both private and public.


This paper has discussed tourism as a form of recreation. We have pointed out that as a form of leisure-use both recreation and tourism are relatively new. Massive increases in the number of people who travel has engendered a huge industry world-wide and tourism has become a major economic force in many countries. The constant search by people for new and exciting things to do, along with the traditional popularity of nature and culture, and with a growing realisation that a lot of nature tourism was not sustainable, gave rise to ecotourism. It was to be small scale, to contribute to conservation, to contribute to local people and to be sustainable. Subsequent use of the term merely as a marketing strategy by operations which fail to measure up to the criteria make a mockery of the term "eco". On the other hand, if ecotourism is thought of as a process, there should be a large component of good "eco" in all tourism.

Forests are major destinations for tourists. They provide the wildlife and vegetation that are exciting and inspiring for visitors. Opportunities for increasing the use of forests abound and in this sense there are planning strategies for helping managers to provide for recreation while keeping negative recreational impacts to acceptable levels.



Dulkul, P. 2000. Crowding Norms In Thai National Parks: A case study of Nan Tok Phrew National Park, Thailand. A Masters Thesis (unpublished). Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand.

McCool SF, DN Cole, RC Lucas, GH Stankey. 1987. ‘Maintaining wilderness quality through the Limits of Acceptable Change planning system.’ Paper presented at Symposium on management of park and wilderness reserves, 4th World Wilderness Congress, September 1987, Estes Park, Colorado.

Ryan, R J. 1999. ‘Ecotourism: What’s In A Name?’ Hornbill 3:212-222, Forest Dept. Sarawak.

Stankey GH, J Wood. 1982. ‘The Recreation Opportunity Spectrum: an Introduction’ Australian Parks and Recreation Feb 1982

Walpole MJ, HJ Goodwin. 2000. ‘Local economic impacts of dragon tourism in Indonesia.’ Annals of Tourism Research 27(3):559-576


back to Home Page