Sandakan Tourism Association was formed in 2015. It is a group of hoteliers, tour operators, lodge operators, tour guides, restaurant owners, event planners and other tourism related companies, who work together to promote Sandakan as an internationally recognised sustainable tourism destination. We met with Association president Johnny Lim – Director of the Sepilok Jungle Resort and Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure Sdn Bhd (pictured centre), along with association members Chee Kim Teo – Managing Director of Inspirasi Borneo – event planning (pictured left) and Cindy Loo – Manager – Hotel Sandakan (pictured right) – in a busy and picturesque over-water restaurant in the city.
The association has tasked itself with creating a link between the historic town and the natural environs, where nature-based tourism and local forest industries thrive and support each other.
Johnny Lim explains, “We are focusing on the ‘Four Esses’. The first ‘S’ is the Star. This is the wildlife attractions in Sandakan: the proboscis monkeys, the elephants, the orangutans, the crocodiles, the exotic birds… we have them all here. The second ‘S’ is the story of Sandakan, especially dating from World War II, when we were invaded by the Japanese, so we have a very special relationship with the Australians, who celebrate ANZAC Day here every year. There’s also the story about the Chinese coming here. The third ‘S’ is seafood. We are very famous for our seafood, and we claim to have the best, tastiest and freshest seafood in Malaysia. We also have a lot of local specialities and delicacies. Some of the restaurants here date from before WWII, and the third generation is actually doing the cooking now. The fourth ‘S’ is the sea. We have a few islands here in Sandakan, and most of the tourism is conservation based. We bring tourists to see turtles laying eggs every night. Just for the record, last year, we had about 4,700 nests on one island, so that means on average there are more than ten turtles per day coming on shore to lay eggs. These are the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle.”
The main source market has always been the UK, followed by Australia. “We don’t have a lot of Asians coming here. They want more places to go shopping, and here, it’s too quiet”, says Lim. “Our product is more suitable for westerners because of the nature and wildlife, and the eco-tourism is helping the locals by building the capacity and building the economy here.”
Reasons why Sepilok is a key nature tourism destination
The wildlife destinations in Sepilok are world renowned. The Sepilok orangutan centre is the oldest and largest rehab centre in the world. Likewise, the Bornean Sun Bear Centre is the only one of its kind in Southeast Asia. The Rainforest Discovery Centre also has one of the most impressive canopy walkways in the entire region.
The Kinabatangan River, according to the World Wildlife Federation, has the highest concentration of wildlife in Southeast Asia, and is one of only two places in the world where one can see ten species of primate in one location. 60 km long, Kinabatangan is the longest river in Sabah. The Gomantong cave is famous as being the “best managed” edible bird-nest cave in the world. Meanwhile, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary has been created by a local palm-plantation owner allowing visitors to get a close-up view of these incredible primates at close quarters.
The region has two 4-star hotels – the Four Points by Sheraton, and the Sabah Hotel (a local brand).
There are a number of 3-star hotels, including Hotel Sandakan – wholly owned by Tengis Sdn Bhd. The hotel opened 21 years ago, and has primarily twin share rooms. “We have just completed renovations to our lobby and also to our coffee house, and our hotel started, in January, to do the refurbishment of rooms – floor by floor ”, explains manager, Cindy Loo. “We are working on a new concept, wherein the chef does ‘live cooking’ of Malay cuisine directly in front of the guests. Further to this, the ‘Sandakan Heritage Trails’ take people to historic places, such as St Michael Church, Agnes Keith’s house, in town areas, within walking distance.”
The Hotel Sandakan’s key selling point is the room size – around 30 sq m. Management is working on energy saving, with movement sensors in public areas triggering lights only in the presence of hotel guests.
Sepilok Jungle Resort opened in 1995. “It was opened by my father,” says Johnny Lim, adding, “We were the first one in the area and are the largest one. We are targeting the middle and lower-end market, while the Sepilok Nature Resort targets the high-end market. We are focusing on giving the opportunity to travellers to stay in a natural environment in a clean and affordable accommodation. We have set aside 20 acres of our land where we have planted fruit trees for the animals in the area.”
MICE in Sandakan
MICE is a relatively new concept in Sabah. Chee Kim Teo launched Inspirasi Borneo four years ago, and explains, “I am working more with the incentive market. For example, they may have a conference in KL, and then they are looking for something different after the conference, getting away from the city, and that’s where we come into play. We take groups of between 50 and 100. A large proportion of these groups are Australian. We are also working closely with the Forestry Department where they have a couple of conferences during the year in Kota Kinabalu, and then bring people here. Our key strengths are the nature and conservation. People love coming and seeing what the NGOs are doing in the field with conservation projects.”
“Sabah offers a very unique product. A combination you can’t really find anywhere else, with the mountains, the national parks, the islands, the virgin rainforest, and all can be visited within the space of a week. This is something unique that we should be marketing to the world more actively.”