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Ecotourists' Perception of Ecotourism Experience in Lower


Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia

Article  in  Journal of Sustainable Tourism · September 2007


DOI: 10.2167/jost679.0

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Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism
Experience in Lower Kinabatangan,
Sabah, Malaysia
Jennifer Kim Lian Chan
School of Business and Economics, University of Malaysia Sabah,
Malaysia

Tom Baum
The Scottish Hotel School, The University of Strathclyde, Glasgow,
Scotland, UK

This paper presents the empirical findings of an exploratory qualitative study which
looks at ecotourists’ perceptions of ecotourism experiences in Sabah, Malaysia in order
to identify the expressive dimensions that describe the quality of their experience.
In-depth interviews were conducted with European ecotourists who stayed at two
ecolodges in Sukau. Positive and negative experiences were identified from an analysis
of the expressive dimensions of their service experience. The findings show that the
ecotourists’ experience is multidimensional. Respondents place particular emphasis
on the ecotourism activities in which they physically engage at the sites and the
natural environment in which they are located; their interaction with the site service
staff; socialisation with other ecotourists, and the information acquired during the
visit. The six expressive dimensions describing the positive experience are consistent
with previous research. The study explores understanding of ecotourists’ experience
in the ecotourism environment – an under-researched area. The paper points out that
the evaluation of quality of experience appears to involve both attributes – functional
elements that are provided by the service suppliers and affective/emotional elements
that are brought about by the ecotourists themselves.

doi: 10.2167/jost679.0

Keywords: ecotourists’ experience, ecotourism in Lower Kinabatangan, key


moments, quality of experience, service expressive dimensions

Introduction
Ecotourism is the fastest growing subsector of tourism in Malaysia as recog-
nised by the national government (WWFNM, 1996). The rapid growth of eco-
tourism globally illustrates an increasing interest in nature and the environment.
This is documented in previous research, such as Eagles and Higgins (1998) who
note that changes in environmental attitudes, the development of environmental
education and the development of an environmental mass media have led to the
pursuit of ecotourism. Likewise, enjoying scenery and nature as well as seeking

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C 2007 J.K.L. Chan & T. Baum
JOURNAL OF SUSTAINABLE TOURISM Vol. 15, No. 5, 2007

574
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 575

Figure 1 Map of Malaysia indicating main ecotourism sites

new experiences or places as a form of novelty have been found to contribute to


demand for ecotourism (HLA and ARA Consulting, 1994; Wight, 1996a, 1996b).
Epler Wood (2002) claims that the main motivations for ecotourism are observa-
tion and appreciation of natural features and related cultural assets. Holden and
Sparrowhawk (2002) note that the main intrinsic motivations for ecotourists are
learning about nature, being physically active, and meeting people with similar
interests, while Ballantine and Eagles (1994) believe that ecotourists’ prime mo-
tivation is to learn about nature in wild or undisturbed areas. Both Eagles (1992)
and Page and Dowling (2002) confirm that both attractions and social factors
play an important role in this context.
Lower Kinabatangan River, Sabah, is one of 10 very special places for
Malaysian ecotourism as outlined in the National Ecotourism Plan 1996
(WWFNM, 1996) and its location is identified in Figure 1. Research findings
in this area have concentrated on the management and development of eco-
tourism as well as local community involvement. However, there is a lack of
understanding about ecotourists’ perception of the ecotourism experience and
a lack of published empirical evidence about the quality of the experience in
the Lower Kinabatangan, both of which are crucial for ecotourism manage-
ment. Understanding ecotourists’ perception of their experience is paramount
to any ecotourism business that attempts to improve its visitors’ experiences
and subsequently influence their satisfaction levels. Thus, this paper aims to
bridge the gap by exploring ecotourists’ perception of their experience in Lower
Kinabatangan, subsequently identifying the expressive dimensions that
describe that experience.
576 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

Ecotourism as experiential consumption


The literature reveals that ecotourism is a growing segment of tourism (Meric
& Hunt, 1998; Wight, 2001) which contributes in environmental, social and eco-
nomic terms to a particular site. Ecotourism is described ‘as a form of tourism
that fosters learning experiences and appreciation of the natural environment
or some component thereof, within its associated cultural context ... preferably
in a way that enhances the natural and cultural resources’ (Weaver, 2001: 15).
Duffy (2002), meanwhile, regards it as a form of taking pleasure that invades
natural habitats, while Ryan et al. (2000) define it as a directed viewing of nature
and wildlife rather than a holistic understanding of natural processes. Thus,
ecotourism is associated with and measured by activities related to nature, out-
door and cultural experiences (Wight, 1996a); while others assert that it involves
experiencing change and doing something different (Weiler, 1993). Indeed, it is
a travel experience through which visitors come to a better understanding of
unique natural and cultural environments around the world. Ecotourists are
distinct visitors who consume ecotourist-related tourism products and experi-
ences (Page & Dowling, 2002). Ryan et al. (2000) focus on the intensity of the
interaction with the site, while Wight (1997: 218) notes that ecotourists seek
‘uncrowded, remote, wilderness, learning about wildlife, nature, and local cul-
tures, community benefits and having physical challenge’. They search for an
authentic and complex learning activity as part of a leisure experience, as well
as the destination’s diverse natural and cultural resources (Ayala, 1996). Other
writers note that ecotourists are interested in wilderness settings, pristine areas
and look for experiences that provide a sense of closeness to natural attrac-
tions and local communities. Other empirical studies (Eagles, 1992; Fennell,
1999) conclude that ecotourists want to see and experience as much as possi-
ble in the time available and also desire high quality guide and interpretation
services. Ecotourism, therefore, is regarded as a holistic, experience-based prod-
uct. Therefore, ecotourists are likely to perceive ecotourism site visits in terms of
their expressive experience rather than merely as a utilitarian transaction (Chan,
2005).
In the same vein, ecotourism offers diverse products and services that can be
categorised as both a service and an experience. Ecotourism sites, like historic
houses or theme parks, are primarily consumed for their experiential/emotional
dimensions, which is more a representation of consumption of service experi-
ences rather than relating to their functional properties. Thus, the psychological
benefits gained by ecotourists are deemed more relevant and important in this
context. The ecotourism literature documents rich evidence relating to the man-
agement and development of ecotourism, ecotourists’ profiles, characteristics
and motivations (Boo, 1990; Fennell & Eagles, 1990; Palacio & McCool, 1997;
William, 1992) as well as the ranges of experiences sought by ecotourists (Ea-
gles, 1992; Ryan, 1997). However, there is little empirical evidence in the litera-
ture with regard to ecotourists’ perception of ecotourism experience and their
understanding of quality experiences in ecotourism locations which may have
an impact upon quality improvements in ecotourism. More importantly, visitor
satisfaction with ecotourism experiences is essential for a long term success of
products of this type (Page & Dowling, 2002). There has been extensive research
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 577

that documents tourist satisfaction, motivation and tourist experience; however,


there is less research that integrates these three components.

Tourist experience
Tourism is widely acknowledged as a socio-psychological experience (Iso-
Ahola, 1983; Mannel & Iso-Ahola, 1987), and, arguably, this same general de-
scriptor can be applied to ecotourism. Empirical research suggests that sociolog-
ical factors, such as income and socioeconomic status, affect tourist behaviour
but they are not significant determinants of the quality of the experience; in-
stead it is the individual’s cognition and feelings about the experience that
are of greatest importance (Ross & Iso-Ahola, 1991). Tourists’ experiences are a
complex combination of factors which shape the feelings and attitude of tourists
towards their visit (Page & Dowling, 2002). In the ecotourism site context, tourist
interactions with nature, the environment and other sources of stimulation (such
as wildlife viewing) are elements of the very product or service that the tourist
wishes to experience. Experiences can be defined as ‘the subjective mental state
felt by participants during a service encounter’ (Otto & Ritchie, 1996: 166). Eco-
tourism site attractions can, thus, be seen as ‘experiential’ products facilitating
feelings, emotions, and knowledge for tourists, which are similar to river trips
that contribute to similar feelings (Arnould & Price, 1993). The visitor’s perspec-
tive has also been advocated as essential in achieving a symbiotic relationship
between visitor and resources (McArthur & Hall, 1996). The core product of
ecotourism is described as ‘beneficial experiences’ gained by the visitors, as val-
ued by them and expressed in their own words. The very nature of intangible
‘products’ or services means that, in essence, ecotourism involves the consump-
tion of an experience that provides attractions for their visit to the site in terms
of interaction and interpretation. In this respect, one can regard the ecotourism
experience as being just like any other tourism experience that can be addressed
as a phenomenon – as part of the experience of life. Thus, visitor experiences
have elements of core needs fulfilment and emotional or hedonic content, whilst
core delivery and performance are related to the provider’s processes (Johns,
1999). Making an effort to understand the dimensions that contribute to the
ecotourists’ experiences is paramount to the quality of management as well as
contributing to sustainable resource management.
There has been a growing recognition of the importance of tourists’ expe-
rience in various tourism sectors, and empirical research on tourists’ experi-
ence have been conducted in a variety of areas, such as museums (Rowley,
1999), river rafting (Arnould & Price, 1993; Fluker & Turner, 2000), skydiv-
ing (Lipscombe, 1999); heritage parks (Prentice et al., 1998) and heritage sites
(Masberg & Silverman, 1996; McIntosh, 1999). Elsewhere, leisure and tourism
researchers have emphasised the expressive/hedonic factors as a central fea-
ture of satisfaction evaluation (Crompton, 1979; Mowen & Minor, 2001; Otto
& Ritchie, 1996). Experience is regarded as an important element in influenc-
ing satisfaction. In the service experience context, satisfaction results from the
experiential nature of consumption and contains both perceptions and experi-
ences (Otto & Ritchie, 1996). Experiential or emotional dimensions in satisfaction
578 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

evaluation are generally favoured over utilitarian ones (Crompton, 1979; Otto
& Ritchie, 1996). The psychological environment – the subjective personal reac-
tions and feelings experienced when consuming a service – has been found to be
an important part of consumer evaluation and satisfaction with services (Otto &
Ritchie, 1996). In particular, understanding experiential phenomena is crucial,
as emotional reactions and decisions often prevail among consumers (Wakefield
& Blodgett, 1994). It is argued that tourist experiences are individualistic, subjec-
tive and emotional in nature, while the service experience is inherently interpre-
tive, subjective and affective (McCallum & Harrison 1985; Parasuraman et al.,
1988).

Quality of experience
The quality of the experience can be conceptualised as ecotourists’ affective
responses to their desired social-psychological benefits. The quality of the expe-
rience involves both the attributes provided by the supplier and the attributes
brought to the opportunity by the visitor. It also refers to a specific service
transaction, such as contact with people who contribute to the actual experience
(Baum, 1997). Investigations of ecotourists’ experiences need to be grounded
in the realities that ecotourists themselves describe. Arguably, affective or emo-
tional elements form the basis of the quality of the service experience that may
be a valuable insight into any variances in satisfaction evaluation. The affective
component of the service experience has been shown to consist of subjective,
emotional and highly personal responses to various aspects of the service de-
livery. Otto and Ritchie (1996) develop six construct domains for the service
experience, as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1 The construct domains of service experience


Dimension Examples

Hedonic Excitement, enjoyment, memorability


Interactive Meeting people, being part of the process, having choice
Novelty Escape, doing something new
Comfort Physical comfort, relaxation
Safety Personal safety, security of belongings
Stimulation Educational and informative, challenging

Source: Otto and Ritchie (1996: 169)

Research Objectives
The objectives of this paper are: (1) to explore and to describe European
ecotourists’ perceptions of their experience during their visitation in Lower
Kinabatangan, and (2) to identify the expressive dimensions that describe the
quality of the experience.
The research questions addressed in this study were:
r How do visitors define ecotourism experience?
r What do they perceive as quality in their experience?
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 579

Research Method
This paper describes an exploratory qualitative research project, designed
to investigate ecotourists’ perceptions of experience. An inductive approach
was adopted to address the research objectives, since they are subjective in
nature within an interpretative paradigm. Specifically, this paper focusses on the
individual consumption of experiences in relation to the psychological benefits
that are based on site experiential behaviour. Hence, in-depth interviewing is
deemed as a relevant research technique for data collection.
A convenience-sampling technique based on the lists of guests’ arrival and
departure dates, obtained from the ecolodge operators in Sukau, was adopted
because of a lack of proper statistical records of tourists’ arrivals in this re-
gion. Such convenience-sampling technique is a key feature of qualitative re-
search and it operates within the typology of sampling strategies in a qual-
itative inquiry (Kuzel, 1992; Patton, 2002). It enables the researcher to select
sampling units that reflect the parameters of the population (Denzin & Lincoln,
1994).
This study was based in Sukau in the district of Lower Kinabatangan, Sabah,
a pioneer ecotourism site. It is a wildlife sanctuary and zone for nature and
ecotourism attractions that offers a quality ecotourism experience. Its jungle
environment offers sightings of many birds, proboscis monkeys, orangutan and
other kinds of wildlife, such as monitor lizards and butterflies. Thus, inbound
tour operators and lodge operators in the area capitalise on available natural
attractions. There are three ecolodge units: Sukau River Lodge, Sukau Proboscis
Lodge and Sukau Rainforest Lodge, located along the Lower Kinabatangan
River bank. These ecolodges located in the tropical rainforest, offer basic fa-
cilities for a deep jungle adventure experience. Ecolodge operators provide
both accommodation and ecotourism activities for their guests – wildlife view-
ing, riverboat cruise trips, jungle walks, night safaris and village tours. These
ecolodges have established their own private reserves, enabling them to directly
manage the natural resources that they depend upon for their business. These
lodges offer their own experienced and knowledgeable guides and interpreta-
tion walks to visitors, who are often travelling in small groups. Riverboat cruise
trips are a primary ecotourism activity provided for guests staying in the lodges
as part of the ecotourism experience in Sukau. They offer an alternative way of
viewing wildlife in the natural environment, via river, jungle or lake, and which
contribute to their unique experience.
The sample respondents were ecotourists who stayed in ecolodges in Sukau.
The sample respondents were limited to English-speaking European visitors.
There are two justifications for the selection of the sample informants. Firstly,
Europe is the primary market for ecolodges in Sukau and also the major market
segment for long-haul guests to Sabah. Ecolodge operators in Lower Kinaban-
tangan have aggressively promoted Sukau in Europe as a place for viewing
wildlife and experiencing the tropical rainforest. Secondly, this research specifi-
cally chose English-speaking European visitors in order to maintain the authen-
ticity of the data by avoiding translation into other languages, since nuances may
be lost in this process, possibly resulting in bias and loss of meaning. Further-
more, English is spoken by many European visitors and it is more meaningful
580 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

to do research in this main market segment. At the same time, as the sample is
restricted to English-speaking Europeans, the study is limited in its generalis-
ability.
In-depth interviews were conducted with 29 ecotourists who stayed at one of
the ecolodges in Sukau. The data was on-site cross sectional. Sample size was de-
termined when information and theoretical insights reached saturation, which
constitutes hearing the same information reported without anything new being
added. Walker (1985) suggests that 20 to 40 in-depth interviews are necessary for
qualitative research of this nature. In-depth interviews were conducted using
tape recordings and they lasted an average of 45 minutes. They were conducted,
with the consent of the respondents, after dinner on the last day of their stay
at the ecolodge. All respondents were willing to respond to the interview ques-
tions. A semi-structured interview protocol was employed in order to ensure
that there was sufficient flexibility to enable respondents to respond freely and
fulfil certain requirements for the study. It also ensured that all of the respon-
dents were asked the same questions. The identification of key moments was
used to investigate the respondents’ judgement of their own psychological state
during the consumption of the service experience and their on-site behaviour
during their visit to Lower Kinabatangan. This technique provides considerable
freedom to select the kind of events (experiences) that the respondents wish to
report. Thus, the researcher was able to determine their quality of experiences
in positive and negative terms. In-depth interview questions focussed on the
following:
r What does the term ‘ecotourism experience’ mean to you?
r What were the times when you felt exceptionally good or bad about your
experiences during the visit (including both the ecolodge services and eco-
tourism activities in which you have participated)?
The respondents were asked to describe when they felt exceptionally good or
bad about their visits, in order to discover the kinds of situations that stimulated
negative or positive attitudes towards their consumption of experiences. The
respondents were asked to elaborate further in terms of when, where, what,
how and why.
The interview tapes were transcribed into a written format prior to analy-
sis. The data was analysed using qualitative analysis techniques. The responses
were reviewed until a set of comprehensive categories and themes emerged
for each question. The data analysis sought to ‘understand the people stud-
ied’ and induce meaning from the data (Patton, 2002: 392). Thus, certain cat-
egories and themes emerged from the data about the ecotourists’ experience.
Themes about the expressive dimensions of service emerged from the positive
and negative experiences. Such dimensions are expressed as personal feelings
and emotions that lead to individual social-psychological benefits, which can
be termed as positive and negative experience. Nevertheless, each expressive
dimension is caused by some functional attributes, drawn from ecotourists’
experience. Positive expressive dimensions can be categorised based on the
construct domains of service experience, as described by Otto and Ritchie
(1996).
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 581

Findings and Discussion


Defining the term ‘ecotourism experience’
The respondents’ explanations of the term ecotourism experience reflected
three major themes: (1) seeing wildlife in its natural habitat and preservation
of natural environment (wildlife, rainforest, and local culture), (2) having basic
accommodation and facilities, and (3) learning and acquiring knowledge about
nature and the environment. These three themes closely reflect descriptions of
the ecotourism experience as documented in the ecotourism literature (Ayala,
1996; Ryan et al., 2000; Wight, 1996a).
A significant number of respondents related their ecotourism experience to
activities – wildlife viewing and riverboat cruise trips, local custom and culture,
and experiencing and appreciation of the natural environment. As stated by
respondents, for example: ‘To see nature and wildlife with my own eyes . . . ’
(interview respondent [IR] 14), or ‘I expected it to reflect the local custom and
culture generally . . . I would like to see the villages, getting some ideas about
how locals live’ (IR 2).
The importance of a clean and undisturbed environment and their emotional
experience encountered with nature contributed an important part of the eco-
tourism experience. One respondent indicated that it was important ‘to see
wildlife in its natural habitats and in an undisturbed way’ (IR 6), and another
respondent stated that ‘I expect to experience and see the wildlife in nature,
and the clean environment, and the preserved forest and natural environment’
(IR 13). One respondent described it as affecting the emotion by saying that ‘It
is an emotional experience to see wildlife, especially to see orangutan and also
the crocodile in the river’ (IR 7).
In general, the respondents’ recognition of the primacy of nature and the
environment emerged clearly from the responses: ‘I think also in connection
with nature, yes, ah . . . the nature . . . walking in the jungle or sitting alone on
the riverside to relax’ (IR 20), and ‘It means to see a lot of wildlife . . . to see
different things . . . see rainforest, and physically to be there, to feel it’ (IR 18).
The findings reveal that the ecotourism experience also means having basic
accommodation and facilities. Respondents appeared to define the ecotourism
experience with reference to having basic accommodation and a clean envi-
ronment, suggesting that ecotourists do not expect luxury facilities and service
in this context. This was as indicated by one respondent, who noted that the
ecotourism experience is a ‘basic accommodation setup, touring to the actual
wildlife area’ (IR 9), or that ‘It means a clean environment and a pleasant envi-
ronment, with basic comfortable accommodation, not a luxury type’ (IR 2).
Likewise, learning and acquiring knowledge of nature and environment
emerged as another important ecotourism experience component. Clearly, eco-
tourists expect to learn and gain some knowledge about nature and the envi-
ronment that they have visited. In this context, learning activities contribute
a significant part to the ecotourism experience. As one respondent stated: ‘It
means learning more about the place, especially the protection of the natural
environment, and finding out more; and so you are more knowledgeable about
it’ (IR 24). Another respondent noted that the ecotourism experience also ‘means
582 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

to see wildlife and environment, and also to be talked to a lot because I like to
come away knowing more about things we see’ (IR 10).

Findings of expressive dimensions


Evidence from the verbal expressive responses can be categorised as posi-
tive and negative experiences. Table 2 reports positive expressive dimensions
that describe the positive ecotourism experiences, while negative expressive
dimensions are presented in Table 3.
Table 2 presents the positive verbal expressive dimensions (affective/
emotional aspects) and the functional/utilitarian aspects that are associated

Table 2 Positive expressive dimensions describing ecotourism experience


Positive verbal Expressive Dimensions Functional/utilitarian
(Affective/emotional Aspects) Aspects
Hedonic (excitement, enjoyment, memorable) Wildlife
Natural environment
Excitement, enjoyment and memorable experiences Riverboat cruise trips
related to the wildlife, natural environment, riverboat Jungle walks
cruise and experience of a jungle walk
Interactive (meeting people, being part of the process, Wildlife
having choice) Staff
Guides
Being part of the process to see and spot wildlife and to Group members
fulfil wants and needs
Positive interactions between guests and the lodge staff,
guides and group members
Opportunity to meet other people – staff and group
members
Novelty (escape, doing something new, new experiences) Wildlife
Something new, unique and different experiences (never
been before, first time to see wildlife in the wild, lifetime
experiences, something that I could never do due to old
age)
Comfort (physical comfort, relaxation) Physical Wildlife
relaxation in the natural environment and lodge Natural environment
Experiencing the peaceful tranquillity of the natural Riverboat cruise trips
environment Riverboat cruise trip offered relaxation and
physical comfort
Stimulation (educational and informative, challenging) Guides
Jungle walks
Information and knowledge gained from the
knowledgeable and experienced guides
Learning experience and an understanding of the natural
environment as valuable education
Challenging experiences to complete the jungle walk in
risky conditions – rainy weather, muddy and leeches
Personal safety Boatmen
Riverboat cruise trips
Personal safety into and out of the boat by boatmen,
riverboat cruise trip safety
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 583

Table 3 Negative expressive dimensions describing ecotourism experience


Negative Verbal Expressive Dimensions Functional/utilitarian Aspects

Don’t want/don’t like/hate Noise, fumes from boat engines


Uncomfortable/unpleasant Mosquito bites
Negative things/negative Fumes from boat engines
experiences/frustration/distraction/ Riverboat operations – boat congestion
decrease satisfaction
Feeling sad/unhappy/frustration/ Not able to see specific types of wildlife
disappointment Short duration of riverboat cruises
Poor sanitation condition of public
toilet facilities
Poor maintenance of bedrooms
Bumpy road
Disappearance of forest

with each expressive dimension. These functional attributes are wildlife, natu-
ral environment, riverboat cruise trips, jungle walks, staff, guides, group mem-
bers and boatmen. Six expressive dimensions that describe positive experiences
emerged from the responses. They can be termed hedonic, interactive, novelty,
comfort, stimulation and personal safety and can be regarded as emotional as-
pects of the ecotourists’ experience. These dimensions correspond well with
the domains of service experience identified by Otto and Ritchie (1996). The
findings reveal that hedonism was mentioned by all of the respondents, arising
from their high level of satisfaction with the riverboat cruise trips. Key hedonic
expressive statements include excitement and enjoyment that are closely asso-
ciated with both wildlife and the natural environment, and memorable, which
describe the whole experience gained in Lower Kinabatangan. For example, one
respondent noted that ‘my happy moment was when I sat on the boat to watch
monkeys running and jumping from bank to bank during the river boat cruise’
(IR 5). Another highlighted ‘The river trip and seeing animals – the monkeys
made me feel extremely happy because they are funny and entertaining to look
at, they act very funny. Seeing the animals really satisfies me and made me
happy, and made my experience positive’ (IR 12). Another noted that ‘Because
they (the orangutan) are much the nearest primate to humans, 97% of the genes
are comparable to humans. I always wanted to go, this is the opportunity of a
lifetime. Yes, I felt exceptionally good and excited when I saw the orangutan’
(IR 6). One respondent regarded it as a memory and noted how ‘I considered it
[the experience of seeing wildlife] as a memory, and I bet my children will tell
their children that grandma had seen these things’ (IR 5).
Interaction between guests and service staff, the natural environment and
other group members contributed to the positive experience, leading to the
intention to repeat the experience. For example, one respondent indicated
that ‘When I arrive at the lodge, we are welcomed and feel happy. The staff
are friendly people and they talked to us ... like the tour guide (Morris)’
(IR 1), while other respondents emphasised the guide and group interaction
during the riverboat cruise trip: ‘On the riverboat trip – you need to have
584 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

a good team leader. You have groups of people with similar interest; it is
nice and it can be close as well. Social interactions and to be close to group
members adds to your satisfaction and positive experiences. You share and en-
joy together!’ (IRs 28 and 29), Another respondent stated that ‘It was a very
pleasant experience, it was relatively easy to do, we enjoyed out time and saw
some interesting things and we will go again because we feel sure we will see
some more interesting things and have a positive experience’ (IR 11).
Novelty is associated with new and different experiences, such as seeing
wildlife in the wild for the first time, or escaping from normal daily life. Indeed,
many ecotourists were looking for a new environment in which to relax away
from work. These desires are evidenced from the verbal responses by respon-
dents; for example, ‘This was the first time to see monkeys, it is difficult to see
them in the wild rather than in the zoo. I feel very good about seeing them in
the wild, it is very different’ (IR 1), and another stated that ‘I am glad I did it
because it is a great experience . . . I have never stayed in a river lodge and in
the jungle before, this is my first time. Something quite different and a lifetime
experience!’ (IR 4). Similar responses included ‘To get away from the busy life of
work’ (IR 1), and ‘To experience in the countryside . . . It’s very much different
from a big city like London’ (IR 4).
The findings show that relaxation and physical comfort are associated with
riverboat cruise trips, as highlighted by one respondent: ‘The riverboat trip was
a comfortable way to view wildlife. I just sat back and relaxed; ah . . . this is a
comfortable angle, I get 360 degree vision and can see anywhere I want’ (IR 8).
The comfort of the lodge and the bedroom was noted by one respondent: ‘The
lodge was in good condition, there is a neat and clean room to sleep. We did
not get bitten by mosquitoes. We have a comfortable night’s sleep’ (IR 8). The
general physical environment was noted in another response: ‘It [the physical
environment] was also very relaxing and made me feel very satisfied inside;
ah . . . it was a very good experience’ (IR 22).
Responses stated that stimulation was closely associated with the information
and knowledge gained from the experienced guides. One respondent stated
that ‘The guide is an important element in increasing my positive experience
because he can tell us about the animals, the river and the jungle, all about what
we saw, we learn from him’ (IR 13). Another respondent expressed the view that
‘Without the guide, it would not be the same journey. We would not have seen
all these things. We might have seen a hornbill but we would never know what
sort it was, we would never have seen orangutan building a nest, and other
wildlife . . . it makes a short visit so valuable . . . ah, the guide made the trip very
successful, and that actually increased my satisfaction’ (IR 7).
Likewise, stimulation also refers to the challenge of completing jungle walks,
as noted by one respondent: ‘The jungle walk was hard, the ground was wet and
slippery, we brushed past bushes and got leeches on us. It was an achievement
what we did!’ (IR 15).
The personal safety dimension was evident from the verbal responses of three
respondents. One respondent stated that ‘I think the boatmen were very good.
They coach you on the boat and give assistance on and off the boat. They also
took care of my luggage and collected it, and were always there and things were
quickly done’ (IR 4). Two other respondents agreed that ‘I know for a fact that
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 585

the water level was 14 m high and it was at a dangerous level for riverboat
cruises. The boatman was taking the boat across the river in flood, it was quite
an experience and I was afraid! The guides and boatman made you feel 150%
secure with them’ (IRs 28 and 29). This seems to indicate that ecotourists are
still concerned for their personal safety but they feel secure with knowledgeable
and skillful service staff.
Table 3 presents responses which can be termed as negative experiences.
Attributes leading to negative experiences are closely related to the functionality
and operations of riverboat cruise trips (noises, fumes and boat congestion),
mosquito bites, inability to see specific types of wildlife, poor maintenance of
public toilets and bedrooms, bumpy roads and the disappearance of forest. The
negative expressions of ‘don’t want’, ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ from the responses were
closely associated with attributes of noise and fumes from boat engines. As
one respondent noted ‘There was noise from other boats – the motors and the
fumes were everywhere . . . and making all that noise and creating lots of fumes.
We do not want to hear the noise and to breathe fumes. We have not come to
the so-called clean, pristine rainforest for all that noise’ (IR 3). Discomfort as a
negative expressive response caused by mosquito bites was expressed by one
respondent, who said that ‘Mosquito bites are an unpleasant feeling and I hate
them’ (IR 1).
The frustration expressed is associated with boat congestion during the river-
boat cruises and the loud noise from boat engines. Negative experiences, as
expressed by respondents, are related to fumes from boat engines during the
riverboat cruise trips. One respondent, for example, noted that ‘I was angry
when other boats came as they created a cloud of petrol smoke, I did not like
that. This was a negative experience and it decreased my level of satisfaction’
(IR 17).
Disappointment emerged a number of times as negative expressive dimen-
sions. Expressions of ‘disappointment’ were associated with the inability to see
specific types of wildlife that they had hoped to see, such as proboscis monkeys.
One respondent stated that ‘We could not see the proboscis monkeys, the river
was blocked with fallen trees, and we have to turn back disappointed’ (IR 21).
The short duration of riverboat cruises and the disappearance of rainforest also
emerged from the following responses as representing disappointment: ‘There
were some nice parrots in the trees which, if we had stayed longer, we could
have enjoyed. The riverboat trip did not last long enough’ (IR 7), and a second
response stated that ‘I think probably the disappointment was the road you go
along – just vast palm oil plantations. You are just aware how little forest is left.
Miles of palm oil plantations reduce the wildlife and leave no scenery to enjoy’
(IR 11).
Other functional attributes that caused disappointment included bumpy
roads to the lodge, the poor sanitation conditions of public toilet facilities,
blocked showers in the accommodation, and disturbed sleep caused by spiders
and fans in the bedroom. These attributes emerged from the verbal responses
of one respondent who noted that ‘You have to go 42 km on a bumpy, gravel
road, and basically the bad road made me feel bad’ (IR 6). Further comments
were that ‘The sanitary conditions of the toilets were old with a door which
cannot close and a “stinky” smell so that I felt uncomfortable’ (IR 21). Another
586 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

respondent noted that ‘You don’t need to have a shower that is blocked. It is so
easy to fix and that sort of thing was disappointing, because you are hot and
smelly and you just want a good shower’ (IR 8). One respondent noted that ‘My
sleep was quite disturbed by a spider as I got one crawling on my arm in the
middle of the night. It woke me up and made me nervous, and the fan was very
noisy, it rattled through the night. I am tired. Therefore, I don’t enjoy things as
much. This actually affects my experience indirectly’ (IR 9).
It is evident that both emotional/affective and functional/utilitarian aspects
are mentioned in both the positive and negative experiences, as shown in
Tables 2 and 3. This leads to the conclusion that the ecotourism experience
constitutes both affective/emotional and functional/utilitarian aspects. Affec-
tive/emotional aspects are derived from the ecotourists themselves and their
experiences. At the same time, several functional aspects, provided by the ser-
vice suppliers, contribute as part of the ecotourism experience. These are related
to the functionality of the ecotourism site – wildlife, the natural environment,
ecotourism activities (jungle walks, riverboat cruises), service staff (guides and
boatmen) as well as group interaction.

Conclusions
This exploratory research aims to examine ecotourists’ perceptions of the
meaning of ecotourism experiences and the expressive dimensions that describe
the quality of their experiences. The findings reveal that ecotourists interpret
ecotourism experiences in association with nature and the environment, simple
accommodation and facilities, and a learning experience. These elements con-
tribute to the ecotourists’ perception of their experiences. The findings show
that the ecotourists’ experience is multidimensional. Clearly, ecotourism ser-
vice experiences are produced by the integration of a combination of factors.
The purpose is to satisfy the varying wants of potential customers. In this case,
ecotourists emphasise ecotourism activities (wildlife viewing, riverboat cruise
trips and jungle walks) in which they have engaged physically at the sites and
their natural environment, their interaction with the site service staff and group
members as well as the learning and information acquired during the visit.
Thus, this suggests that the management of ecotourism sites may need to pay
more attention to their surrounding natural resources, site service staff and the
information provided about wildlife and local culture. These factors contribute
significantly to the ecotourists’ experience. Guides, as part of the service staff
at the ecotourism site, contribute and enhance ecotourists’ positive experience
as reflected in the responses. Indeed, ecotourists had positive interaction and
stimulation from knowledgeable and experienced guides during the riverboat
cruises.
Interestingly, the responses show that perceptions of quality of experience in-
corporate both functional and emotional aspects. Emotional aspects are derived
from the ecotourists themselves during and after the consumption of the service
experience It was found that ecotourists tend to mention expressive dimensions
in describing their experiences. However, it is evident that functional aspects
also contribute to the experience and affect ecotourists. In general, ecotourists
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 587

were positive and expressed their happiness with their visit to Lower Kinabatan-
gan. Hedonic responses were evident among all the respondents, and these were
closely associated with nature, the environment and the ecotourism activities in
which they participated. This seems to indicate that ecotourists tend to use he-
donic dimensions as one of the expressive dimension components in describing
their positive experiences. Added to this, ecotourism can be regarded as a holis-
tic experience-based product that has clear ecological, cultural and geographical
identity, often in wilderness settings and pristine areas, offering a sense of close-
ness to nature (Holden & Sparrowhawk, 2002) and local communities (Ayala,
1996). Hedonic consumption experience has received attention in the literature
(Hirschman, 1984; Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982). These authors introduce he-
donic components to the consumption experience, as the most advanced insight
into non-utilitarian consumption and to provide a framework that can relate to
the analysis of the leisure and tourism consumption process. The hedonic per-
spective seems to suggest the superiority of affective processes in determining
behaviour and predicting satisfaction. Also, hedonic dimensions of service per-
formance are important for marketing, and the management of services, as well
as enabling the exploration of guest satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
The findings reveal that negative expressive dimensions are related to the
range of factors identified above. Hence, these are areas that ecolodge operators
could further improve in order to enhance the ecotourists’ experience. On the
other hand, positive experiences from the responses were associated with the ex-
perience of riverboat cruise trips, wildlife viewing, the natural environment, the
lodge environment and the experienced guides. These dimensions contributed
to the ecotourists’ positive experiences, and thus, can be selling points for Lower
Kinabatangan as an ecotourism site. The positive expressive dimensions can be
regarded as favourable experiences, while the negative expressive dimensions
may be treated as unfavourable experiences. These favourable and unfavourable
experiences, subsequently, lead to satisfaction and dissatisfaction respectively.
In order to achieve the long term sustainability of ecotourism in Lower Kin-
abatangan, attention and actions are required to improve the dimensions that
contributed towards negative experiences, with care and proper management
of the dimensions that contribute to positive experiences.
Despite the challenges presented as a result of measurement difficulties with
respect to the construct of tourist experience, this paper provides tentative
evidence that this construct can be explored through expressive dimensions
that are also related to functional aspects. The paper suggests that the percep-
tion of quality of the ecotourism experience can be explained through expressive
dimensions that are associated with both affective/emotional and functional-
ity/utilitarian aspects of the service experience. Also, it can be seen from the
verbal responses, that respondents were more likely to mention expressive di-
mensions rather than functional attributes. These expressive dimensions are
driven by the location, the atmosphere and the experiences gained by eco-
tourists during their visit. However, the ecotourism experience context can also
be regarded as a service experience. It seems that ecotourists tend to associate
their positive expressive dimensions with their experience in the natural envi-
ronment and with ecotourism activities, while expressing negative expressive
588 Journal of Sustainable Tourism

dimensions relating to the functionality of services. By probing for these expres-


sive responses, researchers can gain insightful understanding of these respective
attributes, and thus contribute to improving visitor experiences.

Research Contributions and Limitations


This exploratory study offers an initial step in uncovering the meaning of eco-
tourism experiences and perceptions of ecotourists’ experiences in the under-
researched environment of Lower Kinabatangan. This paper makes two signif-
icant contributions to the management of ecotourism in this location and be-
yond. Firstly, the study reveals that ecotourists’ experience is multidimensional
in nature and consists of participation in eco-activities, interaction with ser-
vice staff, socialisation with other ecotourists and acquiring information. Thus,
it has implications for the management of ecotourism sites and suggests that
more attention should be given to ecotourism activities, site service staff and the
quality of information provided about wildlife and local culture. Second, the
six expressive dimensions describing positive experience from the findings are
in congruence with Otto and Ritchie’s (1996) expressive dimensions of service
experience. This indicates that similar constructs might helpfully be used to
describe or express quality of experience. More importantly, this paper points
out that, when describing quality of experience, ecotourists do not just mention
expressive or emotional aspects, but also focus on utilitarian or functional as-
pects. The paper points out that the evaluation of quality of experience appears
to involve both attributes – functional elements that are provided by the ser-
vice suppliers and affective/emotional elements that are brought about by the
ecotourists themselves. Emotional dimensions are mentioned by the ecotourists
rather more frequently than functional attributes when describing the quality
of their experience. This means that the management of ecotourists’ experience
must take into consideration both emotional and utilitarian aspects.
The paper recognises the shortcomings of exploratory qualitative research
in that a study of this nature cannot achieve the same outcomes, in terms of
generalisability, as that of a more quantitative or large scale approach. Limita-
tions include the small sample size, limited to European ecotourists and data
collected at only one ecotourism site. Despite these limitations, this study uses
ecotourists’ verbal responses on their experience (their voices are heard and
captured), so that respondents were given ‘flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ to identify
key moments in relation to their good and bad experiences. Furthermore, the
data collection occurred at the actual site and in a natural setting. Therefore, the
outcomes are not dependent on memory recall in term of types of experience of
the respondents, and this in turn enhances the internal validity of the findings. It
also suggests an avenue for future research to include comparative work based
on different locations or respondent nationalities that could prove beneficial to
enable possible further generalisation of findings in this area.

Correspondence
Any correspondence should be directed to Jennifer Kim Lian Chan, School
of Business and Economics, University of Malaysia Sabah, Locked Bag 2073,
Ecotourists’ Perception of Ecotourism Experience 589

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah 88999, Malaysia (jkimchan@yahoo.co.uk, jenniferchan@


ums.edu.my).

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