Face to face with Sabah’s “pioneer of eco-tourism”

Interview: Borneo Eco Tours / Sukau Rainforest Lodge Managing Director, Albert Teo

Albert Teo was a pioneer in eco-tourism, starting Borneo Eco Tours in 1991, and built the Sukau Rainforest Lodge in 1995, with a total of 20 rooms. In 2018, he expanded the lodge to 40 rooms. Teo’s property was the first to be listed as a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World in Malaysia and Borneo. We first asked him to tell us how it all started.

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Albert Teo

I went to the UK to study for my A levels and university, then came back to Kota Kinabalu to help run the family hotel of 120 rooms that my father built. That was in 1977, and I haven’t left tourism since then. After 14 years running the family hotel in the city, I moved on to running the tour company. I started Borneo Eco Tours in 1991. I focus on Borneo simply because I want to focus on eco-tourism. I was a pioneer in eco-tourism in 1991, when the idea was first spawned. In 1995, four years later, I built the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, with 20 rooms, and in 2017, I expanded to 40 rooms. When National Geographic set up Unique Lodges of the World several years ago, I was invited to come in, to represent Malaysia and Borneo. I have been indirectly connected to Costas Christ who I knew very well. I had invited him several times to Sarawak and Sabah. When I organised the eco-tourism conference, he was one of my keynote speakers, and the relationship has dates form more than ten years back. So, I got involved with the eco-tours and eco-lodge and I joined the international eco-tourism society as a founding member. Recently I also joined the Global eco-tourism network, which has basically taken over from the International Eco-tourism society. I am the founding board member as well. I just want to continue to specialise in eco-tourism.

Sukau Lodge 4-2Why is Borneo so special for eco-tourism?

Because we are in the tropics, the biodiversity is tremendous. This region, in the eastern part of Borneo, is recognised as one of the top places in the world for biodiversity. Both the flora and fauna are incredibly rich. Kinabatangan has often been compared to the Amazon, but it is very different to the Amazon. It can stand on its own. We have ten species of primate here, and all the eight species of hornbills found in Borneo are found here. The Borneo pigmy elephant is found here. Because it is a wetland region, hundreds of bird species are found here. Some are endemic, and are almost extinct.

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. If the logging had still been active, we would have had an even greater threat. When the logging was over, the people converted the land to palm oil, so if we had not come in, it is probable that we would have lost more biodiversity. We are creating employment, and are the ears and eyes on the ground.

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Nature cruise – Kinabatangan

What are the key activities you are promoting here?

Specifically tours on the river. All the wildlife viewing is basically done on the water. The wildlife generally come to the river bank in the late afternoon and they go back into the forest in the early morning. So those are the best times to see the wildlife along the river banks. The elephants migrate up and down the river, so you can’t be guaranteed to have elephant sightings. The proboscis monkeys and the macaques are the most easily seen at any time. Hornbills can often be seen, because it’s so open.  The orangutans, during the fruiting season, you are almost guaranteed to see wild orangutans. We actually have resident orangutans here when the trees are fruiting. Kinabatangan has a great diversity of figs, which the hornbills and orangutans love, so it is great for wildlife viewing.

What about adventure tourism?

We have a couple of areas in Sabah that are very well suited for trekking, such as the Maliau Basin Conservation Area, the Crocker Range, and Mount Kinabalu, which everybody does. Due to limited capacity, it is getting harder and harder to get space for this, due to the many tour operators working there. So, we are developing new areas, like the foot of Mount Kinabalu and the communities there. I have kind of diversified into “adventure tourism helping the community to develop the area”. I am doing that in Kiulu as well. We are developing campsites in the jungle to help create opportunities for communities. That is a very small segment, because these are new products I am trying to develop.

I saw you are doing farm-stay as well.

That is a totally new area I have created in the Kiulu area. The lower part of Kiulu is where people go rafting, but I decided to focus on the upper reach of Kiulu where there was no tourism. I started a new concept and branded it Kiulu farm stay. It’s an agricultural area. They are totally agriculture-based, and they are struggling against urban migration of the kids. They are economically struggling, many just growing rice for their own consumption… so there is very little economic activity there. I became very interested in community development, as I have my own NGO. I use that as a tool to develop what I call “integrated community tourism development”, to try to combine tourism with other economic activities – other than tourism.

Hornbill viewed from river

It is more than CSR, because I am engaging on the long term, to basically alleviate poverty, using the 17 goals of the UN DG to transform the whole community. I am working with 13 villages, over a huge area. We organise them under their own NGO there, then I raise funds through tour products. Every tourist that goes there contributes money. We are building capacities for them via their own NGOs. We cannot just focus on agriculture. We have to focus on homestay. Homestay ensures less leakage of income. We are adding adventure activities, as these fit-in well, and more and more people are seeking adventure. I am also moving gradually towards developing small cottage industries that will supply such things as bamboo straws – replacing plastic. We are teaching people to build bamboo chalets, so that tourists can stay on the weekends around these villages. We are working from the ground up, building the capacity, first to establish low-end products such as chalet accommodation and tented camps that don’t require a lot of sophisticated hospitality services. Then hopefully, as they increase their skillsets, we can build better accommodation.

Who does the marketing?

Borneo Eco Tours. The hardest part for them, which is why most homestays fail in Malaysia, is because they are not connected through the supply chain to the market. That is the weakest link, and that link is provided by the tour operator. Over the years, the state government didn’t see how crucial the marketing aspect of these rural homestays is in the development of these places, and the essential role of the tour operator in connecting the product to the marketplace. I am adopting this product, marketing it through my website and through our wholesalers in Europe or Australia. We have to ensure the safety – that’s number one. Number two is the service standards, which are very critical. It is very interesting, as we are learning more and more how to engage with the communities. They are all different ethnic groups. We have to build capacity, send them for training and so on. It is fascinating. The money comes in small increments. It doesn’t grow overnight exponentially. You have to have a lot of patience to build their skill sets.

I find that I have a certain skillset in my business that I can apply to community development. This, you could say, is my CSR. I am very good at using my business skill, or knowledge capital, in identifying the opportunities in the community. I am using the same skills that made me successful and applying them to the community. Of course, you have to juggle a bit here and there.

I have found there is an increasing trend, globally, between universities and governments, they have often neglected the importance of the role played by the private sector in the greater scheme of things. NGOs try to develop communities. But usually, the NGO has a timeline of three or five years for a project, then they pull out. For the government, it’s often the same thing. They build toilets, homestays, and so on, with a five-year timeline. But for a community, you have to be there permanently, because the skills and the marketing take time to develop. Hospitality takes years to build capacity. So, when I engage in a village, it’s for at least ten years, if not longer. I am trying to brand the product, create a brand, so if I pull out after five years, after building the infrastructure, I would be pulling-out just when it’s taking off. The last three years, we have been working on the Kiulu farm stay – making it into a brand. I am good at branding. I create and reinforce the brand, using Facebook, and a website. We create a website, as they don’t know how to do that. They are always waiting for the government for funding before doing anything. But if a bridge needs to be repaired and the funding doesn’t come, you have to just do it, and not wait. I am able, using my business ideas, to create self-sustaining communities like this. I package it in my tour packages. So, part of the money from the tourists who come here is contributed to the funds, building capacity, and enabling people to decide their own destiny, without waiting for the government. That has always been the problem with the communities: too over-dependent on the government. International aid agencies are increasingly realising that this actually has the opposite effect – as the purpose of aid is to build capacity, but instead it is making people totally reliant on aid. They call it “toxic charity”. I am trying to undo the damage of all this dependency, building a fund for them, making it sustainable, then they can use that fund and plan – repair a bridge, build a bus stop, or build a jungle path, without having to rely on the government.

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Proboscis Monkey – Kinabatangan

People talk about the environmental problems here, and the species that are dying out because their habitat is being destroyed. How can tourism help stop this?

There have been a couple of cases, here in Sukau, for example, that really show that tourism has a positive impact on the environment. It has a better impact that agriculture, for example. When more and more people are engaged in tourism, they feel that their future will be threatened if there is pollution in the water, or more clearance of forested land for agriculture. People feel that if more land is cleared for agriculture, obviously the wildlife will have a problem in the long term. People are beginning to understand that there will be a negative impact in the long term if more forest is cleared. It has a lot to do with education, which may be slow in many cases. The elephant is a keystone species now in Kinabatangan, so if elephants are poisoned or killed, even outside this area, people are beginning to make comments about how important elephants are for tourism. This awareness of the importance of wildlife will continue to increase as time goes by.

This area is, in any case, known for eco-tourism, so there are not as many tourists here as in many other parts of Sabah or Sarawak. Obviously, if you have too many tourists in a place like this, it will also have a negative impact. Just before the last elections, the government announced they were going to build a bridge across the river here in Kinabatangan. There were a lot of protests against the plantations, who were for the bridge. But what is important is that there were increasing voices against development, even though development is often seen as a positive thing for the community. You can see more and more dissent. People are more daring to speak out.? Before, they were very docile. But then Sir David Attenborough went to the press and made a statement that this was not good for the wildlife. Obviously, there is a big conflict between development and wildlife preservation.

Sir David has been here a number of times. What did he say about this place?

He loves this place. He thinks this is one of the best wildlife spots on earth. He came and stayed with us a number of times. Thanks to him, and the public outcry, the government cancelled the bridge project.

What do you see as being the solution to save the orangutans?

I am not sure exactly how serious it is, but I do observe, running this lodge for a few decades, that we sight the orangutans here. It’s only in the past three to five years that I have orangutans that come to this land, feeding on the fruit trees here, so obviously they don’t feel threatened by seeing tourists around. Also, it seems that secondary forest is able to be a home to orangutans, not necessarily just primary forest. If there are more plantations, this is definitely not good for the orangutans. The negative news about orangutans is actually coming out of Kalimantan Borneo, more so than Sabah. Sabah probably has the best record, because our conservation strategy here in Sabah is very strong. Even along this river, I see more orangutans more often than before. It’s quite incredible. Every other day, our tourists are seeing orangutans in the wild. When I first started business here, I couldn’t see orangutans, I couldn’t see elephants. But now we see them. It has become an oasis for the wildlife. I feel that if we can encourage the communities to conserve land, and use whatever forest land they have to create alternative sources of income, this is a solution. We have to start somewhere, so what I did was a two-pronged approach. The father-in-law of one of our boatmen had a seven-acre piece of land he didn’t want to sell or convert to Palm Oil, so we tied-up with him to promote tours on his land, with the father-in-law as the guide, showing the wildlife there. This is a long-term strategy. You need to ensure that the income generated is increasing year by year to make it worth his while. He has a homestay as well, so he can also bring tourists from his own homestay onto his land.

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Overwater restaurant and arrival pier at Sukau Rainforest Lodge

So that’s a model for others?

Yes. I am looking at another model right now, which may be controversial, but it’s quite interesting. This area has a lot of swiftlets, that produce bird nests, and there is a huge demand for bird nests in China. So, I am looking at developing bird nest farming on his land, so he can have passive income. These people don’t have the skill sets, but I have friends who do this as a business, and they can do a JV with him, providing the capital and expertise, and he just provides the land, so he can have a passive income.

What other projects do you have here?

Last year, I bought seven acres just a few minutes upstream, and am in the midst of completing a building – quite a big one – which will be known as the Sukau Eco-Tourism Research Centre. Graduate students will be able to do research here from UMS and other universities, on how to make eco-tourism sustainable, and ensure the communities have a benefit, as much as the tour operators and lodges. We are raising the standards together, to work on long-term, rather than short term benefits. I love to pioneer and create long term strategies for the industry.

Will you be lecturing there?

I have actually been giving lectures in Australia, in Sabah already, I am going to Taiwan and Japan, speaking on ecotourism, for the past ten years. Once I technically retire, I will concentrate on that kind of work.

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Interior – the Sir David Attenborough villa – Sukau Rainforest Lodge – Kinabatangan

How do you describe yourself?

I wear different hats. Firstly, I am a businessman, tour operator and lodge operator. My business is about making profit. The profit is not just to maintain and expand the business to make it sustainable. Part of it goes to my second and third circles, which are the environment and the community work. It’s a triple bottom line. My business must be sustainable to be able to support my community work and my environment work, which is through my NGO. That is the definition of eco-tourism. I have to make sure that the community benefits from the business skill set that I have. I cannot just take care of my own interest, because the environment is where I make my money. I say I am in the monkey business, because without a monkey, I am dead. And if the community keeps chopping down the trees, there is no environment and wildlife to support my business. It’s a tricky balance. And all this is happening as the world has this climate change crisis hanging over our heads. So, I am in a way trying to create awareness of the fact that whatever business you are in, you have to be sustainable, thinking about the environment and the community. I can’t have these people living in poverty, while I am doing well. There has to be a business ethic in whatever we do. It’s very good that we can create employment opportunities, but there comes a point where you cannot expect everybody to be employed in tourism. This area has a higher percentage because a lot of the land here is part of the wildlife sanctuary; it is locked up, so how else can local people benefit than through tourism or supply of goods and services to the tourism sector. Tourism is a low hanging fruit here. But in Kiulu it’s a different story. It’s not a tourism area, it’s an agriculture area, and it is neglected. And if nothing is done, the people will get poorer and poorer as the cost of living goes up. Through inheritance, their land holdings are getting smaller and smaller, making it uneconomical to farm the land. If they don’t get out of self-sufficiency, they are going to be very poor. So, I am trying to use my business knowledge to help them break this cycle of poverty, bringing in tourism, adventure hiking, and cottage industries to build capacity. That’s why I call it “integrated community-based tourism”.