When Rustam Roshandin got out of rehab, he wanted to do something with his life that would help recovering drug addicts like himself stay clean. He had no idea this desire would transform into the largest night bazaar in Kuala Lumpur.
KL Downtown Night Market now has 600 stalls, most of which employ former addicts who completed the same rehabilitation program Roshandin went through, and more than half are owned by recovering addicts. "It gives us a reason to stay clean and sober everyday," Roshandin said.
The bazaar (open from 10 pm to 4 am) is a huge draw for tourists, he added, offering everything from local, handmade batik fabrics to street food to foot massages to five-minute haircuts. On weekends, the market invites local dancers and musicians to perform on its stage. A portion of all proceeds go to Kuala Lumpur's Pengasih rehab centre.
Socially conscious businesses like KL Downtown are giving travellers the opportunity to do some good while on vacation. The timing is great, say responsible tourism advocates, because demand for sustainable travel in Malaysia is on the rise.
"Over the last couple of years, there has definitely been an upswing," said Deborah Chan, programme manager of Wild Asia, a Malaysia-based NGO dedicated to promoting responsible tourism throughout Asia. Tour operators vouch for the increase in sustainable travel. Responsible Travel, a UK-based travel agency selling sustainable holiday packages, reports a 23 percent increase in customers buying trips to Malaysia from 2009 to 2010. "In particular we're seeing an increase in travellers opting for orangutan based holiday experiences in Malaysia - Borneo in particular," said communications manager Krissy Roe.
Locally, the award-winning tour operator Borneo Ecotours is finding the same trend. The company says that ecotourism attracts many people from Europe and the UK who want to learn about Malaysia's natural history. "You have to be careful, though," warned assistant general manager Susan Soong. "A lot of companies are into greenwashing. They are more marketing sustainability than practicing it. So it's a bit important to know who you are [buying from]."
That is part of the reason that Wild Asia hosts the Responsible Tourism Awards each year - to support businesses that practice what they preach.
This past year, one of the winners was the Frangipani Langkawi eco-resort, located in the northwestern part of the peninsula in Kedah. The resort and spa offers a luxury getaway of beach relaxation in beautiful villas with private terraces. Nearby eco-activities abound, with chances for snorkelling, rainforest treks and island hopping. Travellers can feel good about staying here, too, since the hotel's mantra is conservation. Frangipani implements a rainwater recycling system to water its sustainable gardens and uses solar panels to reduce energy use.
For travellers seeking adventure, Malaysia's stunning wildlife lends itself to many opportunities for sustainable travel. Sea turtle lovers can visit the Ma'Daerah Turtle Sanctuary in Terengganu or Malacca's Padang Kemunting Turtle Hatchery. Or, take a reforest trip and find endangered elephants at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary or endangered guar (wild cattle) at the Seladang-Gaur Wildlife Conservation Center.
Local food enthusiasts may be more interested in agricultural tourism. Farms such as Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm feature tours, activities and accommodations. Kahang, which produces rice, vegetables, fruits, herbs and seafood, has tours of its rice fields, prawn harvests and wild duck sanctuary. It also hosts trips for nearby mountain climbing, bamboo rafting and boat riding. Accommodations range from floating chalets amid rice fields to simply camping. If you are really committed to sustainable farming, Kahang is a great place to volunteer. Volunteers learn farming practices and work eight hours a day for a minimum of 10 days; meals are included.
It is also possible to support local communities just by shopping. In Kuala Lumpur, the Salaam Wanita eco-basket making project is a social enterprise through which local women living below the poverty line seek economic independence. The women are highly skilled in the local art of basket weaving. Interestingly enough, the beautiful baskets, boxes and totes they make are actually crafted from recycled magazines.
Even without embarking on an eco-trip, said Wild Asia, tourists can travel responsibly by merely exercising common sense. "In hotels, switch off lights and re-use linens," advises Chan. "And respecting local cultures is also a big thing. In [some] provinces it's not appropriate to dress skimpily, in a bikini for example... And if you go on a tour that brings tourists in to indigenous tribes, don't walk into someone's home without asking permission."
From shopping to eating to sleeping, almost everything you do on vacation can involve a sustainable element. For a list of socially conscious tour operators in Malaysia, visit Wild Asia's directory.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.