Mine Tourism in East Asia
By Tai Wei Lim

Mine Tourism in East Asia

Aug. 30, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Throughout East Asia, different mining regions are trying to cash in on their mothballed or active mine assets for tourism. Some former mines are rich cultural heritage, others have manmade structures of interest for photography enthusiasts or history buffs, while others feature laid-back rustic towns that are suitable for tourism.

Local community leaders and national and state governments have become aware of the potential of these sites to generate income for their provinces or states but especially for the local communities in these areas. Therefore, vigorous efforts have been made to conserve East Asian mining sites as heritage assets, reproduce nostalgic lifestyles or working conditions, or gentrify these sites for the retail and service industries.

In Malaysia, the former tin mining town of Taiping is the most prominent example of a gentrified former mining area. It was transformed from a Wild West-type frontier town which experienced horrific battles between rival secret societies formed by different groups of Chinese tin miners in the 1800s, to a well-known regional tourist attraction today.

Besides the mothballed tin mining areas, the colonial British administrators built heritage places of worships, parks and European-revival structures that are now preserved for posterity and tourism. Prominent tourist sites in Taiping include limestone structures, the Lake Gardens’ tropical primary forest rain trees, nature treks, picturesque locations, as well as Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill)’s hiking trails, Burmese pool waterfall, and wild jungles. Still a laid-back bazaar town, two magnificent 130-year old wooden arcades are platforms for fruit retailers in the daytime and for hawkers in evening selling local fare like kuay teow goreng and chee cheong fun.

A lesser known Malaysian tin mine, Sungai Lembing, was prominent in the early 20th century for its wealth of subterranean tin reserves with some of the largest, lengthiest (300 km) and deepest (700 m tunnels) tin mines in the world, mined by Chinese employees of the British colonial authorities of Pahang Consolidated Company Limited. With state funding, some touristy features in this gentrified mine included the Sungai Lembing Rainbow Waterfall where a rainbow is visible in the water in the morning, a tin mining museum established in 2003, Panorama Hill’s sunrise view, and the Kuantan Municipal Council’s refurbished mine shaft for tourists rides on a trolley car into the tunnel and walks.

Indonesia is another location that is benefitting from a tourism boom in gentrified mining areas. Former gold mining area Manado has scenic views with bamboo groves, rice fields and orchards, and a 50-meter-tall Christ’s Blessing statue. The tourism boom has inspired locals to take up tour guiding as a means to make a living, capitalizing on an Indonesian tourism boom that highlights outdoor adventure.

The idea is to benefit the local communities first, generating income for local area development, while enhancing tourism branding for the country as a whole.

The trend has attracted both domestic tourists (cosmopolitan Jakarta residents who usually visit cushier areas) as well as mainland Chinese tourists (30,000 in 2016, projected to go up to 150,000 in 2017, boosted by increased flights) to Manado. Other attractions in the Manado region, which used to depend on gold mining and farming, include Banuken Island National Park reef in North Sulawesi for divers and snorkelers, the unique lifestyle of the Minahasan local community, and commodified tourism.

Another well-known but physically challenging area for tourists to traverse is the Ijen Crater in East Java. In the night, noxious gas combustion in the volcanic crater emits “blue fire” that attracts hundreds of tourists as they line up to navigate precariously downwards into the volcanic depression. These selfie-taking tourists visit the site at the same time as the miners who report to work at 2 am to escape the unbearable heat of the afternoon sun and who also trade with the tourists for additional revenue.

The miners wait for the sulphur gas emitted by the volcanic crater to liquefy using a pipe system. The sulphur gas then cools down to a solid form for the miners to extract. Tourists sometimes show empathy for the miners by purchasing masks and filters (better protection than cloth over their mouths) for them. Sunlight that penetrates through the low altitude atmosphere generates warmth, painting the acidic lake in the volcanic crater with rainbow colors, stopping even the most hardened and weary miners (in addition to tourists) to admire its beauty.

Developing economies are not the only ones gentrifying older mines. In Japan, Hokkaido is gentrifying its former mines and railway tracks for tourism. In other areas like Gifu, for example, unused Kamioka Railway tracks have been adapted for a “mountain rail bike” tour system whereby tourists can ride mountain bicycles directly plying on the tracks. This not only brings in tourist revenue but also rejuvenates the greying local communities in the countryside. The former freight-only railway tracks were used to transport mining products from Kamioka (contemporary Hida city, Gifu prefecture), an 8th-century mine that was amongst the biggest zinc and lead ore mines in East Asia. These minerals served Japan’s economic development during the boom days before the mine was mothballed in 2006.

To support tourist arrivals and their activities within the former mining areas, local and state governments, private sector entities, and local communities need to work closely together to limit numbers of tourist arrivals when necessary, protect natural assets around the mines to preserve their beauty, respect local communities’ cultures and lifestyles, as well as educate all stakeholders on the idea of sustainable development.

The idea is to benefit the local communities first, generating income for local area development, while enhancing tourism branding for the country as a whole as it impresses tourists with a well-planned educational tour experience. This complements the non-traditional nature of tourism in all its forms, including outdoor adventure tourism and cosmopolitan tourists keen on a local experience with an off-the-beaten track feel.


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Japan Times (23 May 2017). Tourists take part in a “mountain rail bike” tour on the abandoned Kamioka Railway in Hida, Gifu. Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/05/23/national/efforts-afoot-turn-abandoned-rural-train-lines-tourist-attractions/#.WZo9oD4jGUk

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Raslan, K. (2 March 2017). An Indonesian gold hunter dreams of better days - in tourism. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/business/article/2075441/indonesian-gold-hunter-dreams-better-days-tourism

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