Responsible tourism in Borneo

Borneo responsible tourism

Travel right in Borneo

One of responsible tourism’s most important achievements is creating value around unspoilt forest habitats – and few places have a more pressing need for this than Borneo. Over half of the forest cover on this enormous island has been lost to loggers and farmers over the past three decades, threatening the endemic flora and fauna as well as the livelihoods of indigenous communities – some of whom have lived sustainably in the forests for centuries.

But values are shifting. The importance of Borneo’s unique culture and nature is finally being recognised, and as the island becomes more accessible, responsible tourists from across the globe are travelling here to see these natural riches and to contribute to their protection. Far from the stampedes of mainland Southeast Asia, tourism here is largely being developed sensitively and sustainably. Income contributes to the wellbeing of communities, the preservation of the forests and of course, the orangutan rehabilitation centres. The steady yet controlled growth of tourism across this enormous island could provide hope for the survival of its most endangered species – as long as it is done well.

Wildlife & environment


Deforestation and the story of palm oil

“Deforestation” is a buzzword in Borneo. The island has lost over half its forests in the last 30 years to palm oil plantations and loggers (legal and otherwise), Many rare and endemic species live here, including the proboscis monkey – found only in Borneo – the sun bear, pygmy elephant and clouded leopard. To give a sense of the wealth of biodiversity found here, on average, three new species were discovered in Borneo’s forests each month between 1994 and 2004. Many will have become extinct before we were even made aware of their existence.

Palm oil by @orajoo

Palm oil is seen as a one-size-fits-all miracle oil. As the cheapest vegetable oil on the market, it is used widely in food as well as in toiletries - and ironically, it is now touted as a "biofuel". While it may pollute less than its petroleum - and coal-based alternatives when burned, forest clearance and altered land use make up a phenomenal 80 percent of Indonesia's carbon emissions*. Worse, intense monocropping requires high chemical input, and the soil is rapidly exhausted... meaning that yet more forest must be cleared to make way for yet more plantations. Suddenly this "clean" fuel starts to look rather filthy.
What you can do

  • Visit forests and research stations, pay park fees and spend your money in local communities. This demonstrates that the intact rainforest has a value which will last for centuries - rather than the short-term gain created by logging and farming.
  • Check ingredients lists - and avoid purchasing anything made with palm oil. Alternatively, look out for products with a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo.
  • Buy Fairtrade, sustainable products from Borneo's forests that encourage the preservation of the forest, such as wild honey, mountain salt, and locally made handcrafts.
  • Find out how else to get involved on WWF's page on how to support Borneo's rainforests.

Malaysia's biggest marine park

While the future of Borneo’s forests remains undecided, at sea it’s a cheerier story. In May 2016, after 13 years of planning, Malaysia declared its largest marine protected area just off Sabah’s northern tip; the Tun Mustapha Park (TMP) now protects 10,000 square kilometres of marine landscape including a vast coral reef, mangroves and over 50 islands. It is situated within the highly biodiverse Coral Triangle.

As well as thriving reefs, TMP encompasses commercial fishing areas and coastal communities – meaning that along with the gazetting of the park came sustainable management plans that will ensure fish stocks are allowed to recover and damaged reefs have chance to recuperate. Seagrass, fish, dugongs and green turtles thrive in this region, so the potential for developing well-managed, responsible tourism is high – and to prove that protecting this marine environment can prove more lucrative in the long run than destroying it.

What you can do
Simply visiting TMP while in Sabah is one of the most valuable things you can do – and ensuring you do so with a responsible operator with a commitment to protecting this fragile environment. For extra points, pack an eco friendly sun screen to wear while in the water to avoid contamination, and gather any discarded bottles or plastic bags you may find in the sea. Be sure to report to your holiday company any irresponsible actions on behalf of your boat driver or tour guide – such as dropping anchor on the coral, touching marine life or disturbing nesting sea turtles or hatchlings.

Volunteering – responsibly

After hearing about the plight of the world’s last orangutans, it’s natural to leap at the opportunity to volunteer with them, and to support their conservation. However, philanthropic travellers should take a step back: choosing the wrong volunteer placement is not just worthless – it can actually cause even more harm. A common cold can quickly kill a baby orangutan, and spread rapidly throughout the group. Additionally, fully wild orangutans will avoid contact with people; it is the ones who have become habituated to our presence that are caught straying on plantations or farmland – or attacking a human. So any contact they have with people reduces their chances of successful rehabilitation, and reintroduction into the wild.
What you can do
Pick your placement well. Most involve daily tasks such as cleaning, constructing and repairing enclosures, building climbing frames and maintaining paths. You should never be offered the chance to come into contact with the orangutans themselves to avoid the spread of disease.
Harriet, from our supplier The Great Traveller, explains more: “Now and again you do come across a project that allows hands-on volunteering – however, these volunteers will have been in quarantine for ten days, and the tests you have to go through are quite rigorous. There is also quite a significant amount of training – this just isn’t suitable for someone on a two-week holiday.”
Do your research – find out more about the place you will be volunteering, asking questions including the kind of work you will be doing there and where your money will end up. One way to do this is to check online traveller review sites; the reviews on Responsible Travel are also unedited and honest and you can find our recommended questions to ask when searching for a placement here.

Volunteering with orangutans by Ecoteer
Thea Powell, from our supplier Orangutan Foundation UK: “If you can, call or email the office of the people you are visiting. They should be able to tell you where their funds are spent, and what they are in need of most. If people don’t reply then you can usually find out more by reading their mission statements and comparing which projects they highlight on their websites. Keep in mind that smaller, younger sites may be organised differently to more developed or more tourist focused sites.”

Roger Salwey, from our supplier Oyster Worldwide: “People need to ask what volunteers have actually done – what have they achieved? Ask to speak to someone who has actually done it to find out more.”
Volunteer opportunities tend to be better managed in Sabah than across the rest of Borneo, thanks to them being dominated by a number of well-established projects, but don’t rule out volunteering elsewhere.
Roger Salwey, from our supplier Oyster Worldwide, explains why you should consider volunteering in Kalimantan: “If you look at a map of Borneo, you’ll see that the Malaysian side is tiny; almost all of the orangutans are in the Indonesian side, while most of the tourists are in Malaysia. It’s an awful lot of work to rehabilitate orangutans. They are rehabilitating maybe 50 a year, it’s a really small number, but it is significant, and they are also able to send them off to breed. They definitely need many more rehabilitation centres, but the awareness of them in Indonesia is just not there.
Finally, remember that helping rehabilitated wildlife is really sticking a plaster over a wound. Ideally, there would be no need for these centres in the first place. Look for initiatives that work with communities – on reforestation projects, or in community tourism which allows them to make money from the forest in its natural state, thus reducing the incentives for logging and poaching, and empowering them to stand up to big businesses. Planting fruit trees on the edge of a national park may sound less glamorous and exotic than snuggling a baby orangutan – but it’s far, far more helpful in the long term.

People & culture


“Dayak” is the umbrella term for Borneo’s inland tribes – but this comprises over 200 subgroups of people, each with their own dialects, cultures and beliefs. The Iban of Sarawak and the Rungus of Sabah are famous for their longhouses, and there are opportunities to stay in one with the local families. There are also opportunities to visit the Penan – who are as threatened by the palm oil plantations (and a proposed dam) as the orangutans are. While around 10,000 Penan still live in Borneo, barely 200 are able to maintain their traditional nomadic way of life.

But all of Borneo’s indigenous people are seeing their traditional lifestyles eroded by deforestation, urbanisation and the introduction of industries such as mining, and with the loss of these lifestyles, their knowledge of the forest, its wildlife and plants will also disappear.
What you can do
Community tourism is a way for visitors to learn about these traditions; for local communities to continue practising them and sharing the knowledge with younger generations; and for people who have faced ongoing discrimination by the government and businesses to demonstrate that their culture, their sustainable way of life and their knowledge is valuable – even in the modern world. Some of the best community tourism projects are in Sarawak, where you can stay in the communal longhouse, live alongside the tribe and your money should go directly into community and conservation initiatives.
Tom Hewitt, from our supplier Adventure Alternative Borneo, works with the Penan tribe in Sarawak: “We work with the Penan in an old rice-growing region bordering the forest, so our volunteers plant fruit trees which increases the amount of food that’s available for the orangutans. It also brings income into the community to persuade them to keep their forest intact. In rehabilitation centres the orangutans are all semi-habituated; they’re never going to go back to the wild. But there are still places to see them in the wild, and if the tourism dollars are coming into these places then that’s putting value on those forests and habitats.”

Harriet Whitmarsh, from our supplier The Great Projects: “Our project is in Batang Ai, where there are wild orangutans. You stay with a local Dayak tribe and go out trekking with them in the forest, which provides local jobs. Additionally, that particular community was on the point of being evicted from the forest by the government, but now that they’ve established themselves as a money making tourist centre, the government were less inclined to kick them out. It really does help.”
Read more about the Penan at Survival International

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Borneo

Harriet Whitmarsh, from our supplier The Great Traveller: “Women travellers must be careful with how they dress across Borneo – and even more so in Kalimantan. It’s so religious in Indonesia that you must cover your shoulders and wear at least three quarter length trousers. Definitely no strappy vests, even though it’s so hot – it’s just not the right thing to do at all. That applies in towns – but if you’re going to visit tribes you’re really going to shock them if you’re wearing very little.”
  • Sabah’s Selingan Island sees turtles laying eggs on its beaches most nights, which are then transferred to a hatchery for their protection. It’s an excellent project, but tourism here in recent years has increased to the point where there are frequently dozens of tourists standing around a single turtle – which is not fun for visitors – or for the turtle. Visit one of the other islands in the region for a less intrusive experience.
  • Never use flash photography with wildlife.
  • Borneo has some of the world’s top dive spots – but its reefs are suffering. Despite regulations exiting around some dive sites, such as Sipadan, not all operators are entirely responsible – check the company website for guide bios and customer reviews for testimonials. Local divemasters are often available – so if possible, book with one of these.
  • Bornean cuisine is excellent, particularly the seafood. Treat yourself – and your wallet – by eating at the night markets in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching, rather than at the expensive tourist joints along the waterfronts. And along the way, opt for smaller, locally-owned restaurants where you can, to support the local communities.
  • Two dishes you definitely want to avoid, however, are shark fin soup and bird nest soup. The former involves catching sharks – including some endangered species – slicing the cartilaginous fins off while the creature is still alive, then tossing it back into the water to drown. Bird nest soup is made using the nests of swiftlets found in caves, including those at Gomantong. The highly valuable nests are gathered by poorly paid workers climbing up to 20 metres up rickety bamboo ladders; the risk of injury or death is high.
  • Make sure you’re visiting a genuine wildlife rescue centre or sanctuary, and not a zoo. Harriet Whitmarsh, from our supplier The Great Traveller: “Zoos in Southeast Asia are just the most horrible places, especially in Indonesia, which is notorious for having some of the most despicable zoos in the world. They are just horrendous. So avoid zoos, and avoid any animal entertainment.”
Photo credits: [Palm oil plantation: Lian Pin Koh] [Volunteer with orangutan: Ecoteer] [Kalimantan woman: Franco Pecchio]
Written by Vicki Brown
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