Southeast Asian eco-tourism: Ethical or not?

SOMETIMES environmentally minded or “ethical” tourists, as they are sometimes known, have to ask themselves difficult questions. Questions that ordinary sun-seekers aren’t aware of, or perhaps even bothered about. For example, just labelling something as “green” doesn’t mean it is. So just how ethical is eco-tourism in Asia?


Case in point: the development of eco-tourism on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island has contributed to the destruction of forests, including primeval (original) tracts. This may sound counterintuitive, as eco-tourism projects depend on pristine or near-pristine natural conditions in order to attract visitors. If they destroy what they are meant to protect then they aren’t eco, sustainable or ethical. What has been described as an $1.8 bn project on Phu Quoc including a golf course and entertainment facilities as well as a forest eco-tourism site doesn’t really fit the bill anyway.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam, pic: Zoe Shuttleworth (Flickr CC)

From Vietnam Net:

Tien Phong reporters have found a forest in hamlet No. 4 of the project’s area, where trees have been chopped down in an area of 30,000 square meters. Local people cut off the trees in order to receive the compensation from the State.

This occurred on formerly public-run lands that are now under the control of a development corporation, the Lan Anh Company. It is a bit unclear what has happened, but it’s not the first time. Similar events have taken place on the island before on sites run by the same company.


The Indonesian province of Papua has received a ringing endorsement for eco-tourism by the WWF among others. Papua’s rainforests are home to a vast array of flora and fauna, including a dizzying number of bird species, making it ideal for not just birdwatchers, but anyone interested in exploring pure, tropical natural environments. What the country is lacking is an adequate tourism infrastructure.

Papua is located on the island of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world and home to marsupials, giant monitor lizards, flying foxes and salt and fresh water crocodiles. It is also home to largely unexplored equatorial glacier fields. Since logging and land clearing for palm oil plantations are a serious deforestation problem and threat to the nature of Papua, eco-tourism could be one way to preserve the rainforests.

equatorial glacier, Papua, Indonesia, pic: Simon Pearson (Flickr CC)

From The Jakarta Post:

Papua represents the most ideal ecosystem in the world. We have seen massive deforestation in Kalimantan and Sumatra. The WWF message is clear that in Papua, we have to do the best we can to utilize its natural resources with sustainable development, before it is too late. The locals are very traditional and dependent on their natural surroundings, therefore the sustainability of natural resources is very important.

–WWF CEO Efransyah


Sometimes eco-tourism is envisioned as a way to protect threatened natural areas by offering an alternative income to one derived from simply stripping an area of its resources and then moving on. Other times, developers see untapped potential for business and would like to, for instance, transform a rural community into a tourism center by taking advantage of its natural features. Dubbed the “city in the forest,” Puerto Princessa City in the province of Palawan in the Philippines seems to be a current favorite for the latter option. Home to a spectacular cavernous underground river and surrounded by lush nature, one can see why.

Like most development in the Philippines, this is a private partnership with the city. The venture is being headed by Bantay Kalikasan and Armadillo Holdings, Inc. (AHI).

From ABS CBN News:

Bantay Kalikasan’s ecotourism project aims to affect other communities in Palawan aside from Puerto Princesa. Brooke’s Point Eco-Academy commenced early this year to help indigenous people uplift their standard of living while maintaining the beauty of Mt. Matalingahan. Brooke’s Point, one of the five municipalities in Mt. Matalingahan, is located in Southern Palawan. Another ecotourism project is set to launch in Sibuyan Island in Romblon.

One hopes they focus on the “eco” part of eco-tourism.

Palawan, Philippines, pic: Joseph Ferris III (Flickr CC)