An arduous ascent to the summit

Choosing to host an ecotourism conference at the remote Mount Mulu National Park comes with challenges – but also great merits.

6th World Ecotourism Conference, speakers

Event brief
The Mount Mulu National Park, located in the remote northeast of Sarawak, was selected as the venue for the sixth edition of the World Ecotourism Conference. The park is one of Malaysia’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the nature category, the other being the Mount Kinabalu Park in Sabah.

Conference convenor, Lee Choon Loong who is also president/CEO of Discoverymice and regional vice president (Asia-Pacific), UNWTO Affiliates Board, hoped this would spur tourism to Mulu National Park, where arrivals have remained stagnant at 18,000 per annum, and also to Mount Kinabalu Park, which was hit by a major earthquake in June 2015.

6th World Ecotourism Conference, speakers

Since its inception in 2009, the World Ecotourism Conference has always been jointly held with the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). The aim is to discuss policies and trends that weigh on sustainable tourism development and practices, nature and culture conservation, community development and responsible tourism.

The MASWings flight scheduled to connect the organisers and bulk of the participants from Miri to Mulu was cancelled due to an engine fault. The next scheduled flight available was departs the following morning. This was especially disappointing as the participants had been eager to join the Sarawak tourism minister, Abang Abdul Rahman Zohari Abang Openg, at a welcome gala dinner at Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa that evening. 

Having no Internet access and limited voice communication services at the venue brought further disruptions. “We could not access our internet-based information systems – only Celcom subscribers could use their mobiles with limited internet and event speakers could not access their presentation videos. 

“There were other surprises,” recalled Lee, who said the lack of email access prevented them from finding out about last minute sign-ups or back-outs.

And on the technical tour involving exploring four showcaves at Mount Mulu National Park, he said: “The entire excursion was an arduous 11 hours. The well-being of all participants depended very much on their level of fitness  and good weather,” Lee said.

As soon as Lee heard about the flight cancellation, he called a state government officer to explain the situation. The civil servant in turn contacted the management of MASwings which then arranged for another aircraft to fly the group to Mulu. The opening ceremony proceeded on schedule.

Luckily, there were no rain showers on the day of the technical visit to Mulu Caves and guests had a wonderful time.

Key takeaways
On hindsight, Lee said it would have been wiser to fly participants to Mulu in batches.

He further opined it is critical to seek the support of the local government when organising a conference in a remote destination, as the government would have the necessary power and “machinery” to address any challenges along the way.

Lee also advises participants with international connections to allow a one-day buffer, so they would not miss their flight connections in the event of any delays or cancellations.

Event: 6th World Ecotourism Conference & 1st Malaysia Ecotourism Summit
Organisers: Ministry of Tourism and Culture of Malaysia; Tourism Malaysia; Malaysian Ecotourism Association; Asia Pacific Ecotourism Society; Discoverymice; UNWTO
Venue: Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa and Mt Mulu National Park in Sarawak
Date: January 27-30, 2016
Number of participants: 100 guests

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