Over at Kampung Sungai Bunbun in Pulau Carey, Selangor, a festive mood hangs in the air as the local Mah Meri tribe celebrates Hari Moyang.
The day is especially important to the community – one of Malaysia’s many Orang Asli groups – as it is when they pay reverence to various moyang or ancestral spirits. It’s supposed to be a time of spirituality and for introspection.
That’s why Harith Jamaludin feels uncomfortable when he observes some carefree tourists taking selfies with the shaman when he is in a trance.
“One guy even went up to the ancestral platform which is reserved for the community, just so he can get better pictures. There was also a drone hovering over the main altar,” he laments.
What Harith, an Orang Asli proponent, is alluding to is responsible tourism – or lack thereof in this scenario.
Responsible tourism, as defined during the 2002 World Summit On Sustainable Development, is about “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit”. It is one of the sub-components of sustainable tourism, as outlined by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
The Cape Town Declaration recognises that responsible tourism takes a variety of forms. One of these traits is travel which is culturally sensitive, promotes respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride.
In Malaysia, tourism involving Orang Asli settlement areas is usually promoted through ecotourism features and homestay programmes.
The Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry recently announced that it would appoint an Orang Asli to the board of its two agencies – Tourism Malaysia and Kraftangan Malaysia. This is a bid to further promote tourism products involving Orang Asli settlements.
But there’s also a fear that the peaceful nature of the indigenous community makes them more vulnerable towards what Harith calls “spectator antics”.
“If you know how the Orang Asli are, whichever group they belong to, they tend to be non-confronting people. And sometimes there is a barrier in communication that makes them tend to not confront others for rudeness and blatant disrespect,” he says.
To travel more responsibly among the indigenous communities in the country, one just needs a little common sense, says Center for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas.
“You must have respect and consideration. Don’t trample all over the place. Remember that you are entering someone’s home. Imagine if someone comes to your house, and start behaving badly. Would you like that?” he says.
Colin adds that it’s important to have interaction between the community and travellers.
“The whole idea is for visitors to learn from the community. Unfortunately, most trips to the settlement don’t give much chance for hosts and travellers to interact with each other.
“Responsible tourism requires you to engage with the community, not just take photos,” he says.
As for language differences, Colin doesn’t see that as a barrier, and feels that tour guides should only act as mediators and not translators.
“The tourist has to understand that they are visiting people who do not conform to their lifestyle and language. I get the sense that the community is treated like zoo animals sometimes,” he says.
Being mindful of the community’s perspective and lifestyle is something that Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies head researcher Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom stresses, too.
“Do not impose your own touristic values. I have very often heard of tourists who were impolite and looked down on the indigenous community by making comments in their own language,” she shares.
The onus is also on the travel stakeholders to uphold the dignity of the indigenous community in Malaysia.
“Please stop making indigenous people a cultural show. This image will stay with tourists forever and the stereotype about indigenous people in the country being primitive and backward will never come to an end,” Welyne says.
Colin is of the opinion that tourism activities will ultimately benefit indigenous people, but only if it is managed by the community.
“The attractions must be owned by the community. Whenever tourism is controlled by another party, the indigenous people is then just the subject of the tour,” he says.
There are instances where proceeds from the tour are absorbed by the external travel operators, Colin notes.
When it is shared with the community, only selected individuals receive the profits.
“The ownership of any tourism must be with the local community. When they are in control, they are able to reap the full benefits,” Colin explains.
According to Welyne, assistance from the relevant stakeholders will further empower the community to take charge of tourism activities.
“There should be a joint venture of some sort. Assistance should be given to them to start with the tourism business by providing training. This will improve their confidence,” she shares.
Community ownership, in her opinion, will also make the travel experience more sustainable.
“The locals who run homestay or independent small resorts would be able to earn a stable income to maintain their place. This may be a way for them to conserve certain culture, heritage or forest,” she says.
The Bario and Ba’kelalan settlements in Sarawak are fine examples of how tourism activities have impacted the locals positively.
“Since they need to provide explanation to the tourists, the indigenous communities there give emphasis on forest conservation and truly learn about traditional indigenous knowledge,” Welyne shares.
The way Welyne sees it, though, is that the community’s interests should triumph above any commercial interests.
“Do not use indigenous community and their cultural heritage as well as their forests to your own benefit and manipulate their kindness for business,” she says.
When it comes to travelling more responsibly and sustainably, tourism stakeholders are of the opinion that travel agents and tour operators can be proactive too.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang says tour operators act as a medium between visitors and the communities.
“While tour operators don’t have the authority to implement practices or arrest wrongdoers, they are in a unique position to create awareness and educate tourists,” he says.
Travel agents, according to Tan, can act as the “front line” and inform them of the culture, politics and economy of the communities visited.
“They can also support the integrity of local cultures by favouring businesses which conserve cultural heritage and traditional values,” he says, adding that operators can provide pertinent information in regards to expectations and cultures of the communities visited.
Homegrown travel tech startup LocaLokal, which works closely with the local community, is all for helping the local communities benefit from tourism.
“Travel operators can encourage the participation of the local community, which empowers people to share their skills or culture,” says LokaLocal representative Rachael Lum.
She adds that there needs to be a balance between incorporating tourism and preserving the community’s environment or identity.
“Responsible tourism is first and foremost about helping local communities benefit from tourism. In a way, it ensures that future generations can also see and experience the same wonders when they travel to the same places,” she concludes.