Albert Teo, Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours and Sukau Rainforest Lodge, in this interview shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of tourism development in South East Asia
Mr. Teo has been in the hospitality and tourism industry for over three decades and draws from his diverse experience as a pioneer of sustainable business.
- Albert Teo’s main personal and professional insights;
- Sustainable tourism operations;
- How to create Community Based Tourism packages;
- The impact of being part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World;
- Key priorities in Asia regarding sustainability in tourism;
- Capacity building through social entrepreneurship.
Albert, what was your view of sustainability and tourism when you started your company, Borneo Eco Tours, in Malaysia?
When I started Borneo Eco Tours 25 years ago, I wanted to move away from mass tourism and steer the company in a different direction. Although the majority of tour companies during this period were only catering towards mass tourism, I chose to focus on inbound tourism and niche travelers to showcase the wilderness of Borneo. I specialized in “Ecotourism”, even though I didn’t comprehend the entirety of the definition at that time.
Ultimately, “sustainability” can be defined by the concept of triple bottom line – the need to care for the environment and community while making profit.
Fast-forward to 2016, in what ways has your initial view of sustainable tourism changed?
It is getting harder to find a pristine spot to participate and develop ecotourism. What remains are areas with accessibility constraints, lesser attraction value, or biodiversity that has already been degraded. Even areas within protected areas and ecotourism sites have suffered from effects of mass tourism, as tourism arrivals continue to increase. Tourist influx resulting from low cost carriers will strain facilities and negatively impact these areas. What used to be ecotourism destinations are in danger of being lost.
Owners and operators need to focus on creating sustainable tourism practices that can support huge tourist influx resulting from low cost carriers. The danger will escalate in the coming years and this issue must be addressed through sustainable tourism development.
The majority of businesses are operating on very thin profit due to the cyclical nature of tourism in this region. Furthermore, many operators view the environment and community as the responsibility of the government rather than create solutions to better society. The reality is that many operators will continue to conduct business in the same manner until regulations are imposed on them.
We love Borneo Eco Tours’ Community Based Tourism (CBT) Packages! Can you tell us more about how community development and participation are integrated into these tours?
Over the last 25 years, we have tried different approaches to create packages which benefit the community, such as initiatives to combat poverty. One of our first projects aimed to create employment and build capacity through our investment in Sukau Rainforest Lodge. With training, employees gained skills and knowledge that gaves us the confidence to add more facilities. It has led our lodge to be selected as a charter member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.
Other relevant community and environment projects include medical camps, water tanks, tree-planting, among other initiatives aimed at benefiting society.
Community Based Tourism (CBT) has been linked to ecotourism by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). CBT goes beyond providing employment to giving the local people a sense of pride in their culture, improving living conditions, and helping them build a sustainable future.
Due to the limitation of working in one area, in 2007 we decided to register a non profit foundation, BEST Society. For every guest who stays at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, both company and guest contribute RM22/10 respectively to BEST Society. Over the years we have contributed RM1,272,266.00 in cash, which enabled us to implement projects in Pitas, Sikuati, Kiulu and Kiau. Even though some of these projects are outside of our tour program, they still bring value for the community.
Our latest project, Kiulu Farmstay, is an integrated approach to CBT that incorporates nature-based tourism, homestay, quad biking, and trekking, as well as rice farming using the SRI method. The idea is to focus first on local assets and resources, such as their farming skill sets, and build projects around their capabilities. Similar to Sukau Rainforest Lodge, for every guest who stays overnight at Kiulu Farmstay, we contribute RM30 to a local NGO, MUKEST, which we help to set up.
What are the most important aspects when developing products and arranging activities for your packaged tours?
If the local communities are interested and willing to support us, we will support them to realize their potential. It is not always easy and obvious in the beginning whether they will become good partners, but there is an element of risk in any investment.
There are some things that are out of our control, which we cannot foresee or prevent. For example, the 2015 Kinabalu earthquake and the subsequent heavy rain fall caused massive mud and rock slides, which destroyed our 16 beds community project, Camp Lemaing in Kiau.
Borneo Eco Tours is the recipient of many International Tourism Awards. How have these awards and global recognition impacted your businesses?
The business environment continues to change and our customers may not even be aware of our awards because their first priority is to look for value for their money while seeking a unique experience, regardless of what we have done for our community.
Awards recognize the projects we have implemented and reinforce our brand, but they don’t guarantee the future success of our businesses.
We do it because it is part of our core values to take care of our environment and community and not because it makes us more money in the immediate short term.
In 1995, you created Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST), an initiative to support rural communities in Malaysia. What was the inspiration and driving motivator behind it?
Our company started doing community and environment projects informally in 1995 to understand how to effectively handle these initiatives. As we began to understand the drawbacks of doing charity, we improved our model to hone in on community development, fund raising, submitting funding requests and other means to raise money in-house that would be sustainable for our business.
In 2000 we established Sukau Ecotourism Research & Development (SERDC), then officially registered Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies of BEST Society in 2007. As our credibility and experience increased, we were able to supplement our own internally generated funds and extend our reach to areas outside of tourism where we could implement solutions using our business, marketing and management skills, including the use of technologies like machinery..
In one project managed by BEST, we were able to increase profit by 500% over a period of a few years through branding, marketing and packaging. Helping other businesses and organizations and watching lives being transformed is exciting.
Why did you move away from creating a charity, and instead decided to focus on capacity building through social entrepreneurship?
For too long we have relied on NGOs and governments to provide relief to poverty, especially after natural disasters. We failed to migrate from relief to restoration of assets destroyed by fire, flood or earthquake and to develop social entrepreneurship through capacity building because it is harder to do.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – Maimonides
Yet few worked in the area of social entrepreneurship (teaching people how to fish). I believe that the first step to alleviate poverty is to create jobs. With new jobs come the development of skills through capacity building.
Some of these areas we worked in, like Pitas, are poor because they have annual cycles of drought and flood, which inhibit crop growth. The farmers are also far from the market, making their crops inaccessible to the market. We look for products that have longer shelf life and higher value through their labor input. So we are presently trying to help develop virgin coconut oil and ginger with seven villages.
You are the Vice Chair of the new Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) – Asia’s first and only functioning ecotourism body. What motivates you to dedicate your time and effort to building AEN?
An association of like-minded people helps the international community think outside the box and try different solutions in various cultural and environment settings. It is evident that global challenges require global efforts and solutions. Hopefully AEN will help raise our consciousness to sustainable tourism development.
Thank you, Albert.
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