The Sabah Tourism Board is working with rural communities to develop destinations and travel experiences that would appeal to tourists who want to go off the beaten path. Located in northern Borneo, Sabah is known for its marine and nature parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and forest reserves.
“While we encourage tourists to visit Sabah and experience the state’s major attractions, we equally encourage them to explore the countryside and interact with the local community to get the most out of their visit,” said Sabah Tourism Board chief financial officer Julinus Jeffrey Jimit, who recently met with village representatives to discuss opportunities in community-based tourism.
Community-based tourism is an initiative to promote sustainability and improve the livelihood of the community in an area. It emphasizes on the development and involvement of the people in developing and managing their own tourism destination and products.
A 2020 study by the World Travel & Tourism Council sees community-based tourism growing by 10% before 2023. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped increase the demand for nontraditional and off-the-grid destinations offered by small towns and rural areas where travelers can avoid large crowds.
“Coupled with the shift to lesser-known destinations will be a renewed interest in authentic and immersive experiences, driving demand for niche markets, such as community-based travel and cycling holidays,” the report said.
These emerging destinations will need government support in providing local communities with the necessary resources and capacity to cater to the tourism market, said WTTC. These include investments in digital infrastructure, digital upskilling of local workers, and assistance in developing effective marketing strategies. “Public–private–community partnerships will be central to ensuring the sustainable and inclusive growth of these destinations,” it added.
Potential attractions in the state’s interior
Bingkor township in Sabah’s interior is among the destinations being developed. In collaboration with the Keningau Tourism and Culture Association, the tourism board’s product team recently engaged with 47 Village Development and Security Committees (JPKK) in the Mukim Bingkor to explore opportunities in their areas.
Jimit said rural areas, such as Bingkor, have great potential in drawing tourists into the interior of the state. In the session with the village committees, he gave a presentation on the tourism industry and how rural communities can benefit from it, especially now that Malaysia has reopened its borders to tourists.
Bingkor is located about 10 kilometers from Keningau town, where Crocker Range National Park, the largest park in Sabah, is located. Majority of the people are Dusuns, the largest ethnic group in the state. Nature, culture, and handicrafts are abundant in the area, but these have yet to be developed for the tourism market.
Among other things, the tourism board aimed to raise awareness of the tourism products that can be developed, particularly community-based tourism products, in Bingkor. It also briefed village representatives about the importance of equipping themselves with digital marketing skills to efficiently promote their tourism products.
Jimit said such efforts will be expanded to Keningau and other districts soon to empower and reach out to as many rural communities as possible.
At the moment, Bingkor does not offer community-based tourism. With the development of Bandukan Eco Park, the local community will soon be managing its first tourism attraction with assistance and training from the Sabah Tourism Board. The Keningau Tourism and Culture Association will also work with the tourism board in using QR codes to capture visitors’ data.
In the West Coast, Sabah is developing Kadamaian in the Kota Belud district into a world-class rural tourism destination by 2025.
“Kadamaian has the potential to develop into a world-class tourist destination. It has a wealth of natural charms, making it a great place for tourists from all over the world to come and see,” said Sabah Tourism Board chief executive officer Noredah Othman.
Kadamaian is one of Sabah’s fastest developing rural tourism attractions. It received the ASEAN Community Based Tourism Standard 2019–2021 at the ASEAN Tourism Ministers’ Conference in Ha Noi, Viet Nam in January 2019.
Early this year, Othman visited five tourism spots in the area: Porohon Garden, Eco-Tourism Tagal Kampung Talungan, Eco-Tourism Kampung Tambulion, Eco-Tourism Kalangadanku, and Karanahan View. Porohon Garden and Karanahan View are privately owned attractions while the others are managed by the local community.
“We will continue to engage with the community to ensure they have the skills and abilities needed to reach world-class status as well as to assist them in obtaining necessary funds to enable them to improve their facilities,” Othman said.