Time for socially innovative next-generation tourism

Our tourism industry is required to gear up changes that promote and drive the tourism industry's innovation.


Published by AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

In tandem with the evolving global travel landscape, Malaysia is not just confronted by traditional tourism challenges but is also navigating through a terrain brimming with transformative and socially innovative opportunities within the tourism industry.

Standing among the largest contributors to our economy’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), tourism has always been one of Malaysia’s powerhouse industries. Although the industry recorded substantial growth, it is still in the process of recovering from the downturn caused by the pandemic. Malaysia is facing challenges in catching up to the rapid rebound seen by regional peers like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

A striking example is Vietnam, which experienced a staggering 3.4 times increase in tourist numbers compared to the previous year, securing the 6th position among the most-searched destinations globally (see “Vietnam tourism searches grow at sixth fastest rate in the world”, The Star, Jan 7, 2024). Whereas Thailand reported hosting 28 million foreign tourists in 2023, outpacing Malaysia’s 26 million visitors from January to November 15, 2023.

The pivotal moment arrives with the recognition of the need to embrace socially innovative approaches in tourism. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s announcement of Visit Malaysia Year 2026 marks an opportunity to showcase the true nation’s charm globally. Positioned at the crossroads of the global tourism industry, the need to embrace socially innovative approaches becomes increasingly evident.

Malaysia’s tourism allure lies in its breathtaking natural beauty and rich cultural diversity. From the captivating Taman Negara National Park, home to one of the world’s oldest rainforests, to enchanting islands and pristine beaches, the country leaves a lasting impression on nature enthusiasts. This ecological richness seamlessly blends with the energetic vibe of modern cities and cutting-edge architecture, epitomised by the iconic Petronas Twin Tower, formerly the world’s tallest twin towers at 451.9 meters.

Undoubtedly, tourism’s Gross Value Added of Tourism Industries (GVATI) has been a substantial contributor to Malaysia’s GDP (Figure 1), consistently impacting the nation’s economic landscape over the past decade.

However, modern reality demands the extension beyond economic metrics into the realm of social innovation, acknowledging that the future of tourism involves not just financial gains but also positive impacts on communities, cultures, and the environment.

Therefore, despite the enticing appeal of Malaysian tourism, significant challenges cast a looming shadow.

Recognised as a pressing concern by the World Tourism Organisation, over-tourism threatens the citizens’ and visitors’ quality of life. Have you heard about Thailand’s Maya Bay and the Philippines’s Boracay Island? These locations underwent rehabilitation due to the devastating impacts of mass tourism on their ecosystems, serving as stark examples of the severity of this issue.

Many of Malaysia’s popular tourist destinations are located along the coast, featuring idyllic beaches and thriving marine ecosystems, such as Tioman, intended to showcase Malaysia’s cultural richness and natural beauty, are now also grappling with the adverse effect of over-tourism. The decision to discontinue the Tioman International Airport and extend the existing runway is a promising step towards addressing these concerns and enhancing tourism sustainability.

The strain on environmental resources from unsustainable practices like unregulated development, pollution, and habitat destruction associated with mass tourism poses a challenge not only to our tourism industry but also to food security and overall sustainability. Sustainable tourism development has been neglected by tourism stakeholders prioritising short-term economic benefits.

In the past, the National Coastal Erosion Study 2015 indicated that 15% of the 8,840 km of Malaysia’s shoreline is experiencing erosion, with one-third of it requiring structural protection.

Recent data from the National Coastal Vulnerability Index (NCVI) introduced under the Second National Coastal Zone Physical Plan (RFZPPN2) in 2022 revealed that 425 km of the 3,800 km of coastline in Peninsular Malaysia and the Federal Territory of Labuan was affected by erosion.

These statistics underscore how unsustainable tourism is not merely a theoretical concern but a tangible threat to our ecosystems. Locals may face a dilemma at the crossroads between economic benefits and preserving their unique way of life.

In steering Malaysia’s tourism to a sustainable future, the focus shifts to the transformative power of social innovation.

The concept of next-generation tourism through social innovation, involving the implementation of regional policies to create employment, promote local culture, increase regional income, and protect natural resources, is not a novel idea.

Take South Korea for example. The global phenomenon of the ‘Korean wave’ stands as a testament to social innovation in tourism.

South Korea’s approach to tourism and cultural exchange demonstrated that longevity and sustained interest are achievable through strategic planning and ongoing engagement.

Envision a Malaysian tourism landscape where cultural diversity and natural beauty go beyond mere attractions, becoming experiences that leave a lasting impact. Social innovation has the power to turn this vision into a reality, creating a tourism ecosystem that thrives economically while fostering cultural exchange and environmental stewardship.

In Malaysian tourism, local stakeholders agree that it’s time for social innovation. An intent to leverage digital opportunities, propelling the industry forward was already expressed in 2018 with the introduction of Smart Tourism 4.0 by Tourism Malaysia.

Embracing the synergies between social innovation and Smart Tourism 4.0, Malaysia’s tourism industry is not just evolving but standing on the brink of a revolution.

Indeed, our tourism industry is required to gear up changes that promote and drive the tourism industry’s innovation.

Therefore, it is highly recommended to integrate a sustainable tourism framework that effectively balances economic growth with environmental conservation and community well-being.

Key stakeholders, including the Ministry of Art, Tourism and Culture (MOTAC), Tourism Malaysia, and the State Tourism Department, must collaborate to develop a robust crisis management plan tailored to address challenges such as public health emergencies, environmental issues, and economic downturns affecting tourism business.

Take, for example, Sipadan Island, a gem in Malaysia’s diving industry. Implementing a temporary closure to visitors allowed the island to recover its marine life. Although other areas are yet to adopt such measures particularly top tourist destinations like Langkawi, Pangkor, and Tioman Islands, this showcases the importance of proactive strategies to delicately balance economic objectives and preservation of our natural treasures. This is especially important amidst the zeal to recover after the pandemic.

Moreover, it is essential to establish clear guidelines and regulations that can be enacted to manage tourist influx, especially during peak periods like school holidays and festive seasons. Revising regulations on tourist numbers and implementing a sustainable tourism certification for business owners and tourism stakeholders are commendable measures.

Furthermore, incorporating digital technology into tourism, such as leveraging the power of social media and its influencers, can significantly broaden the industry’s reach and engagement. Travel influencers create compelling content about travel experiences that resonates particularly well with millennials and Gen Z travelers. Social media can also be skillfully employed to manage the tourist crowd — redirecting it from the most popular (and overcrowded) tourist attractions to more hidden gems and new travel destinations.

As Visit Malaysia Year 2026 approaches, it’s time to promote our tourism by collaborating with influencers with the goal of not just promoting but also fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation for Malaysia’s rich cultural diversity.

Our tourism industry requires a concerted effort in social innovation as it can be a significant way to improve and bring our tourism industry into a more sustainable ecosystem. There is a need to embrace more sustainable tourism practices and regulations to ensure the long-term viability of Malaysia’s tourism sector, preserving its natural beauty and cultural heritage for future generations.

Farah Natasya is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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