Going Green – Sabah’s ecotourism industry going on strong

Today, more people are planning to go green not just at home but also on holiday. In recent years, there has been a major growth of interest in responsible travel or ecotourism, outpacing interest in the more traditional sun-and-sand holiday. In fact, some experts estimate that ecotourism now represents 11.4% of all consumer spending[1] and it is estimated that the number of eco-tourists increases by about 10% annually[2]. With all the coverage on the dangers of environment degradation and climate change, more tourists are conscious of their ecological impact when they visit natural areas and are willing to give a little bit back to the environment and the people who live there.

Other countries have stepped up to the plate to promote a more sustainable way of tourism. For example, when a video showing sewage flowing directly into the waters of Boracay Island in the Philippines went viral in early 2018 (which was referred to as a “cesspool” by President Rodrigo Duterte), the government was quick to dispatch an emergency government taskforce to save the island from a possible ecological catastrophe. The island was closed for six months for repair and restoration. It has since been re-opened, but visits are still being closely regulated by the government. Cruise ships have been banned during peak seasons and alternative island destinations have been sanctioned in a measured way.

For Malaysia, this means managing the impact of tourism on the environment, landscape and local communities. We’re fortunate to have tourism, culture and the environment all under the same ministry which should make it easier to craft the right policies and ensure that everyone, from the private sector to the local communities, are moving in the same direction.

Sabah achieved a record-breaking year in 2018 in terms of the number of arrivals and tourism receipts which also came with an added strain on the environment. For nature-focused industries like Sabah, ecotourism was a way to still encourage people to visit while safeguarding its lush natural beauty.

The Golden Goose

Often referred to as Malaysia’s ‘golden goose’ of ecotourism, Sabah has made a name for itself as a destination famed for its natural beauty. Its lush landscapes and remarkable wildlife draw crowds of nature-lovers eager for a chance to hike up Mt Kinabalu, visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, or trek down the Kinabatangan River.

This year, the government has set a target of 4 million tourist arrivals for 2019. They’re hoping to attract over a million international visitors and the rest from other parts of Malaysia.

While this growth in visitor numbers is encouraging and bodes well for the local tourism industry, this carries the risk of these sites being overcrowded or degraded due to the high numbers. This has already happened in some of the more established tourism sites. As early as 2004, the WWF lodged reports on the serious pollution issue facing the Kinabatangan River as a result of dumped waste, industrial waste from the nearby palm oil mills, as well as fertiliser and sediment from logging and plantations in the area.[3] Even the nearby villages had gotten into the habit of throwing their rubbish and plastic waste in the river. Thus, Sabah needed a way to increase income from tourism while still ensuring that the environment, the very source of their popularity, remained pristine.

It turned to ecotourism.

Implemented correctly, ecotourism allows for the conservation and preservation of the environment while stimulating socioeconomic development for the local community. Sabah’s state government has been actively encouraging the growth of ecotourism in the region and has taken steps to ensure that the environment, culture and biodiversity is preserved.

It has been relatively easy for Sabah to introduce ecotourism initiatives. Albert Teo, Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours and the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, noted that “The fact that development came slowly here has been a blessing. The infrastructure was slow in coming to this area, and this has helped preserve the biodiversity. Ecotourism came in as an employment alternative, as logging was over.”[4]

Cuti-cuti Tawau

The eastern region in particular has the potential to become a unique ecotourism destination. Capitalising on this potential has enabled the region to further contribute to the overall state’s economic growth and development.

The recent MATTA Fair 2019 saw the launch of “Cuti-Cuti Tawau” by the Sabah Tourism Board to promote tourism in the east coast of Sabah.  Tawau is poised to be the gateway to the eastern coast, encouraging the spread of tourists beyond the already-popular Kota Kinabalu on the west coast. It is anticipated that the number of tourist arrivals to the eastern region will see over 7% CAGR between 2018 and 2035.

Thanks to these efforts, sustainable luxury ecotourism has picked up in Tawau. One organisation in Tawau has capitalised on ecotourism as a source of revenue for its larger conservation practice. 1StopBorneo Wildlife is a volunteer group whose main objective is to raise awareness on Borneo wildlife through education programmes, animal rescues and release services, and conservation tourism. Founded in 2012, the group’s founder Shavez Cheema advocates for a two-pronged education and tourism approach which a) helps locals get jobs so they can afford to safeguard the environment and the creatures that live in it, and b) educates the public on conservation through a variety of mediums like short videos, documentaries and social media engagement.

1StopBorneo Wildlife recently added another programme to their range of tours. About an hour out of town is Sabah Softwoods, a state-controlled timber and palm oil producer that has been involved in rapid-growing wood planting since 1973. The softwoods plantation itself has become a small haven for wild pygmy elephants and other wildlife. Noticing that the wildlife did little or insignificant damage to the trees nor did they threaten the safety of the workers, the company decided to allow the herds to roam the estate and was accorded a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate in 2007 for its efforts on environmental conservation.[5]

And just last year, the company teamed up with 1StopBorneo Wildlife to offer the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative which seeks to use ecotourism to raise money to help preserve herds of pygmy elephants that frequent the softwoods plantation and also help recreate their natural habitat by planting trees. Up to 80% of the profits are reinvested into elephant conservation and an upcoming plant nursery project.[6]

Eventually, the goal is to create a wildlife corridor over the next decade or two that will give the animals access to the nearby forest reserve.  Under the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative, travellers would be taken to the plantation to help plant the trees that will make up the wildlife corridor and do some wildlife watching on the grounds. In doing so, tourists will be directly involved in preserving and furthering the conservation efforts of Sabah Softwoods and 1StopBorneo Wildlife.

Making a difference

Reflecting increased global interest in environmental and social issues, more travellers today are becoming more conscious about the local landscape when choosing potential travel destinations. Sabah is one such destination that has benefitted from the introduction of ecotourism practices and businesses to the local industry.

Within a year of launching Plant4Borneo Elephants, 20 conservation trips, including both international and local visitors, were made to the plantation and about 300 trees – mainly fruit trees like figs and laran – have been planted by volunteers and visitors under the guidance of the plantation’s staff.[7]

Datuk Christina Liew, Sabah’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, noted that the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative has boosted the Tawau economy by attracting tour operators who take groups of tourists to the plantations and creating new jobs for locals to cater to the growing interest in the attraction.[8]

Other organisations have also gotten onboard the ecotourism train. Earlier this year, WWF announced it will work with Sabah Softwoods to restore a wildlife corridor in the Brumas area of Tawau which has been identified as a hotspot for human-elephant conflict.[9] Much like the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative, this partnership focuses on replanting trees and reducing crop damage from elephants to reduce the risk of elephant and human conflict.

  1. Green Global Travel
  2. Greener Ideal, 2012
  3. WWF News, 2004
  4. TourMab, 2019
  5. The Borneo Post, 2010
  6. Nikkei Asian Review, 2018
  7. The Star, 2018
  8. The Borneo Post, 2018
  9. The Star, 2019

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