Sep 27, 2010
Eco-tourism package deal
S'pore and Malaysia are in talks to link Sungei Buloh with 3 Johor sites rich in biodiversity
Migrant whimbrels perch on trees on Pulau Kukup - a protected site in Johor which, with Tanjung Piai, Sungai Pulai and Singapore's Sungei Buloh, is being studied to find out more about the environmental impact of visitors and best modes of transport between sites. --ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
THE sleepy seaside village of Kukup, a short hop across the Causeway, stirs to life only on weekends when tourists descend on its famous seafood eateries.
But all that could change if an eco-tourism project combining the lure of Malaysia's biodiversity spots with Singapore's Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve takes off.
The two countries are in talks to look at how three gazetted nature sites in Johor - Pulau Kukup, Tanjung Piai and Sungai Pulai - can be marketed with the popular Sungei Buloh wetlands, to tap the burgeoning eco-tourism market.
The 647ha Kukup island, a five-minute boat ride from the mainland, is one of three Ramsar-accredited nature reserves in Johor state teeming with rich
biodiversity such as flying foxes, bearded pigs and long-tailed macaques.
The title is granted by the Swiss-based Ramsar Convention Bureau to identify wetlands of international importance.
In total, Sungei Buloh with the three spots in Johor will mean more than 1,300ha of lush green reserves, full of flora and fauna, that can be managed holistically and can attract tourist dollars.
The tourism agencies of both countries are conducting a feasibility study, separated into four phases, which includes looking at the environmental impact of visitors on these sites and the best modes of transport between the spots, said Ms Jeannie Lim, tourism concept development director at the Singapore Tourism Board.
She added that Malaysia and Singapore are now studying examples of cross-boundary eco-tourism products overseas.
The collaboration, first mooted last year as part of Singapore's involvement in the Iskandar Malaysia development region, was reiterated during talks between the two countries' prime ministers last week.
The talks secured a historic land swop deal to settle the issue of Malayan Railway land in Singapore, and the leaders also agreed to cooperate on projects such as a rapid transit system link between Johor Baru and Singapore, and an iconic wellness project in Iskandar.
While the feasibility study is on, the lure of Kukup remains a cheap weekend getaway where a mere RM85 (S$36) gets a night's stay and three meals at one of the sprawling holiday chalets overlooking dozens of fish farms dotting the sea.
Fishing remains the main source of income for most locals here, but for years Kukup has crumbled under the weight of a declining fish industry. The busy Strait of Malacca is riven by pollution that has dwindled the supply of red snappers and garoupas in the waters. The issue has been compounded by soaring food prices and a weakening economy.
Kukup is expected to benefit greatly if the eco-tourism plan succeeds. So, too, is the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve here.
Already, more than 140,000 visitors passed through its gates last year, more than three times the number visiting the three Johor sites.
Tourism experts such as travel consultant Subaraj Rajathurai, 47, who for the past 20 years has toured the nature sites in Johor, sees the initiative between the two countries as a 'win-win' situation.
Singapore can leverage on its world-class hotels and efficient transport networks - attributes that already make it a strong tourist hub regionally, while tapping a market dominated by neighbours with bigger and lusher green spaces, he said.
'Many of the roads in Johor are narrow and riven with potholes. A lot of work must be done to make it more attractive to international tourists,' he added.
Experts point to a largely untapped market of eco-tourists who can be wooed - estimates put the number of bird watchers in the United States, for example, in the millions.
Then there are the environmental benefits. Protecting wetlands which are separated by small stretches of water could also slow the loss of mangroves and allow birds to migrate back and forth, noted Assistant Professor Edward Webb from the department of biology at the National University of Singapore.
He said: 'The old school way of managing ecosystems, in which each country takes care of its own spaces, is outdated.
'Ecosystems do not respect national boundaries.'
Sep 27, 2010
Biodiversity boost to sleepy spots
Amresh Gunasingham susses out the three Johor sites, which may be linked with Sungei Buloh if an eco-tourism project between Malaysia and Singapore takes off.
A park will soon be built surrounding the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which teems with flora and fauna. There are concerns about excessive public exposure, with 140,000 visitors going to the reserve last year. --ST PHOTO: AIDAH RAUF
THREE decades ago, a visitor to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve would be greeted by a smattering of prawn ponds situated within acres of wasteland.
Today, through a concerted effort to protect the 138ha green space, which was gazetted as a nature reserve in 2002, the area now teems with a variety of flora and fauna, including more than 220 species of birds.
Concerns have been raised about the need to protect the site from excessive public exposure.
Some 140,000 visitors walked through the reserve's gates last year. To try and alleviate the crowds, the authorities want to lower the number to 100,000 by channelling some of them to a 38ha park that will be built soon surrounding the reserve.
Linked to the nearby Kranji trail, the new park will be replete with facilities such as observation pods, coastal boardwalks and wireless learning trails.
The prospect of developing a cross-border tourist attraction involving the reserve and the three Ramsar green spaces in Johor has caught the attention of researchers and nature enthusiasts alike.
'It makes both economic and ecological sense,' said Assistant Professor Edward Webb from the department of biology at the National University of Singapore.
JOHOR is a state blessed with an abundance of natural wonders and Sungai Pulai is a good example.
Spanning 9ha, it is the second-largest mangrove area in the state and was gazetted by the state government in 1923, the first mangrove forest to receive that distinction.
For years, the reserve has played an important economic role in supplying wood products such as timber.
It is also home to the rare small tree, Avicennia lanata, and animals such as the smooth otter and flat-headed cat. Threatened bird species like the mangrove pitta are known to live there.
The reserve, much of which remains protected and open only to environmental groups and researchers, sits at the mouth of a lowland tropical river basin, teeming with animal life.
Yet over the years, the mangroves there, like those in the rest of Malaysia, have fallen victim to illegal logging, the clearing of upland vegetation and land reclamation.
It is estimated that, between 1980 and 1990, 12 per cent of the country's mangrove forests disappeared.
LOCATED at the southern tip of Malaysia, the Tanjung Piai National Park is home to more than half of the 40 known freshwater mangrove species in the world.
Named after a local fern known as 'Paku
Piai', the park supports many threatened species, such as the pig-tailed macaque, and birds such as the mangrove pitta.
The site has been conferred the status of a state park for eco-tourism by the Johor government, meaning it is funded by an estimated RM5 million (S$2.15million) annual budget that is shared with four other such parks.
The park is easy to navigate - a raised boardwalk network runs through the mangroves, while an ample number of maps and directional signs are also provided.
The site already appears to be popular with Singaporean nature lovers and schools alike, with schools taking students on annual nature trails and rubbish clean-ups there. More than 70 per cent of the 35,000 visitors to Tanjung Piai annually are from overseas.
Said Mr Yeo Suay Hwee, a nature guide: 'The reserve supports 23 species of mangroves. Considering there are only 30 known freshwater mangrove species in the region, that is a substantial number.'
A CENTURY ago, the seaside town of Kukup in south-west Johor was a famed fishing hub. Yet, just a stone's throw away from its coast, the 647ha island of Pulau Kukup holds the distinction of being the world's second largest uninhabited mangrove forest.
Local legend has it that the island is cursed - it was once home to five celestial princesses until one of them committed the forbidden act of falling in love and eloped with a sailor.
Gazetted as a national park in 1997, the lack of human intervention has seen it become home to more that 70 bird species and 30 mangrove species, crabs and wild boars, while the mudflats are rich with shellfish.
A thriving marine cage industry exists in the coastal waters between the island and the mainland. Its geographical position enables it to shield the mainland from the elements.
'Kukup has huge mudflats, which are important for the stabilisation and maintenance of mangroves,' said assistant professor Edward Webb from the department of biology at the National University of Singapore.
However, the western part of the island has been eroding in the last 15 years, leading to some mangroves vanishing.