INTERVIEW with Wan Azhar Wan Hamizan – General Manager – Royal Belum Resort.
After working in industries as varied as automotive, property development, and pharmaceuticals, with a finance background (he was once an auditor with Ernst and Young) Wan Azhar Wan Hamizan has been working in the role of General Manager for the Royal Belum Resort for two years now. We asked him firstly what his day to day role here entails.
Typically, as a GM we have to manage the place in general, but my mission is basically to help save the rainforest. We have something that is not replaceable… it’s not replaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can grow trees again, but the biodiversity can never be replaced We have one of the oldest rainforests in the world, if not the oldest, and we want to save it. We want to let the world know that this is worth saving. You never know what is inside. Recently, a potential cure has even been found for type two diabetics. So, who knows, there might be some other cures that could help the world. That’s my main mission that’s why we are here. We are not here to make profits, we are here to basically tell people the world needs to pay attention to our rainforest; that it is worth saving. From a business point of view, the owner does not want to make losses, so I am here to make sure we don’t lose money as well.
So this comes top-down from the owner?
Yep. The owner is Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal, who, by the way is also the Belum conservation executive director. He wholly owns this company. Belum rainforest management is a subsidiary of MK group.
How do you work with him? Is he very involved?
He is very involved. He is a hands-on person. In fact, he comes down to this place on a monthly basis whenever time permits.
You say you don’t want to make profits you just want to save the rain forest?
That’s it. We are not here to make profits; we are here to save the rainforest. We don’t want to lose money, but we want to be able to sustain ourselves to cover costs.
What is the plan for this place? How much more do you want to expand?
We do have a self-imposed charter. This island is privately owned, but we will not develop more than 10%, so we are in line with the conservation message.
At the moment, we have 106 units of rooms and villas on the tip of the island and we have yet to confirm how many more will be built one day. Perhaps in two or three years’ time there could be something in the pipeline, but there is nothing for the moment.
This is the 10th year of your operation. That must be a bit of a celebration?
It is. We opened up in 2007 the first phase, and 2014 the second phase was officiated by our current prime minister; so this is our 10th year. We will be having various events, to increase awareness, working closely together with tourism Malaysia and tourism Perak. We will be launching new products. For example, we are developing a Kampung Stay concept working closely with the locals with the Orang Asli people, where guests can actually go there and have activities with the indigenous people and if they wish to stay, there are chalets provided as well. It’s about an hours’ drive from here. It’s something very different. It’s not a resort concept; it’s staying with local people. You can cook together with them, have activities and live like them. We are trying to promote the beauty of everything about this place; not just the nature. Inside the environment, there our animals and people, so there are other aspects that are unique and beautiful about this place and we want to put that forward.
You have been here less than two years. How do you feel about developing something as exceptional as this? It must be a great feeling.
It’s an amazing feeling. If you are used to working in the city and coming here and living in isolation, it’s a feeling that’s beyond compare. The isolation can get to people, but if you enjoy working and enjoy the place, then it doesn’t get to you. Passion is important. To be able to develop this place; to be able to work here, I would say passion is a must. There are challenges of course – you are far away from everything. The nearest town is easily a half an hour’s drive. Logistics are a challenge – getting manpower is a challenge, and getting staff to work on a daily basis is a challenge, but at the end of the day we are still here 10 years on and still going strong.
What is your personal goal here?
My personal goal is to help the owner. I have promised him I will help him the best I can to basically save the rainforest. We share the same goal.
You are working also alongside the World Wildlife Foundation, and Prince Charles visited here recently. That seems to be a very interesting aspect as well.
We do share some information together. We do work together, but WWF is an independent organisation.
Last year was the year of sustainable development for tourism by the UNWTO. How much impact did that have and how is that carrying over?
We were hoping it would have a lasting impact. It had a big impact, but we fear that may dwindle. So, Prince Charles coming here for the first time; that was good… it was good exposure. If it’s good enough for Prince Charles to come here and see how excellent this place is, I’m sure it’s good enough for a lot of other people.
What feedback do you get from foreign tourists?
Most of the foreign tourists come from Europe. There are not that many rainforests in Europe! So, this is something very different. They really appreciate the things they see here, as many of them have never even seen rainforest before. Most of the European guests are first timers here so the first thing they say is that they are surprised to find a resort in the middle of nowhere.
What are your main feeder markets from Europe?
Currently, if I am not mistaken, it is the Netherlands. We get quite a few Dutch people coming here, and Italians make up the top two. I would not say that other parts of Europe are not our markets, but no doubt the reason you’re here is to help us get more people coming from all the other regions.
Where do the people working here come from?
Part of our charter is to employ local people. 70% are local people and we have to provide transport, accommodation and training for all the people, as many people have never been working in the hotel business. If we were to bring people in from the big cities, it could be easily done, but that is not our thing. We wish to develop local talents and local communities and work with them. We are not here just on our own. We wish to think that we are part of a bigger community, so we support them and whatever happens here should benefit them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Prince Charles cruised across the Tasik Temenggor lake in November with Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak in his visit to the Royal Belum State Park, in conjunction with a day-long visit to Perak. The Prince also spent about half an hour listening to a briefing on the WWF-Malaysia Conservation Summit given by WWF-Malaysia Chief Executive Officer Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma.