Feb 9, 2008

Capitalising on agrotourism

Capitalising on agrotourism
By Errol Oh
Saturday February 9, 2008

The agriculture sector and the tourism industry may be miles apart in some ways, but both are vital components of the Malaysian economy. The fact that the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP) devotes an entire chapter to each area underscores their potential and the Government's aim of increasing their contribution to the nation's growth.

Ngiam: Tourist from Japan and Europe are most likely to visit agrotourism attractions

Ngiam: Tourist from Japan and Europe are most likely to visit agrotourism attractions

As such, where agriculture and tourism intersect, there are surely many opportunities for entrepreneurs to capitalise on the drive for development.

Agrotourism – also known as agritourism, particularly in the United States – straddles these two fields. It essentially involves visits to farms and other agricultural sites to experience the various aspects of farming and the rustic lifestyle at close hand. Often, the farms provide boarding as well.

The definition can be broadened to incorporate elements of entertainment, shopping, education and food.

Agrotourism ties in with the current global emphasis on ecotourism and responsible tourism because when done right, it encourages the appreciation of nature and helps develop rural communities in a sustainable manner. It is a vast arena, and there are many well-established examples all around the world. Tuscany in Italy has been a famous tourist draw for ages, and vineyards, olive groves and farms are part of its scenic beauty. Several other places in Europe also have a similar allure.

Many of the states and provinces in the US and Canada have vibrant agrotourism markets. Among the more prominent attractions are dude ranches (resorts featuring camping, horseback riding and other outdoor activities), u-pick farms (where visitors can pick fruits and vegetables), vineyards and farmers' markets.

Given the importance of agriculture in their economies, it is only natural that Australia and New Zealand are known for their farmstay holidays. In Taiwan, agrotourism – over there, it is known as leisure farming – has taken off in a big way and there is even an association to serve the interests of the operators.

In comparison, agrotourism in Malaysia is not as large and organised. Says Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Ngiam Foon, “It's a niche market and at the moment, it doesn't have a high profile here. But it definitely has a lot of potential.”

He adds that tourists from Japan and Europe, particularly the younger ones, are most likely to visit agrotourism attractions.

The good news is there is plenty of room for growth and the Government sees the wisdom in encouraging the development of agrotourism.

The 9MP points out that the key to enhancing the distinct appeal of our tourism products and services is to promote the country’s traditional advantages, namely, its cultural and natural heritage. This is especially relevant to agrotourism.

Tourist travel arrival to Malaysia

Furthermore, our climate welcomes tourists the whole year round and a large portion of the population speaks English.

In addition, the Malaysian tourism industry as a whole is robust and healthy. After a bad year in 2003 due to the SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) scare, tourist arrivals and receipts have rebounded strongly to achieve new records.

A main component of agrotourism in Malaysia is the homestay programme, which increases participation of the rural population in tourism-related activities and provides rural households opportunities to supplement their incomes.

During the Eight Malaysia Plan, covering 2001 to 2005, an additional 463 homestay operators were trained and licensed, bringing the total to 1,089 from 79 villages.

The efforts on this front continue under the 9MP. These include farmstays and visits to agricultural parks and research stations, says the 9MP report. Guests will be encouraged to visit handicraft sites and participate in activities such as pottery-making, batik-canting, songket- and basket-weaving.

There is also comfort in the fact that there are some agrotourism success stories in Malaysia to learn from and to emulate.

A shining example is Cameron Highlands, which has been one of the country's top destinations among domestic and foreign tourists. Much of this has to do with its tea plantations and strawberry and vegetable farms. Also, there are a number of farms (ranging from those cultivating tropical fruits to ostrich farms) that cater largely for visitors.

The website of the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Ministry (agrolink.moa.my) has a directory of dozens of agrotourism sites, including pasar tani locations. Among the notable places are the Malaysian Agricultural Park in Shah Alam, a honey processing centre in Kedah and a veterinary station in Perak.

Tourist traveling in Malaysia

Entrepreneurs in the agriculture sector are, of course, prime candidates to operate agrotourism projects. However, Ngiam of Matta says it is important to first understand what is needed to create a sustainable tourist attraction.

Ultimately, that means ensuring that the visitor has a positive experience and goes home with fond memories. After all, tourism is a service industry. “It's not just about providing the hardware. The software is just as important,” Ngiam reminds.

In addition, it may be a good idea to adopt the cluster approach in developing agrotourism attractions so as to give tourists more reasons to make the trip. -- Bizweek.