Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bario, Sarawak - Welcoming eco-tourism

BY KIRSTEN CUNNINGHAM AND RHIANNON HOBBINS

With its cultural experience and natural beauty, Bario, Sarawak, is one of the most ideal places for an eco-tourist to explore.

ECO-tourism is the new black. Tourism with a conscience is the hottest thing since affordable space flights. Thousands of tourists are hitting the world’s ecological hotspots for a feel-good holiday.

And Malaysia is no exception.

Tourism is the world’s single largest industry and job creator, and eco-tourism is the fastest growing area of the tourism sector. Everybody seems to be jumping on the bandwagon and it’s not hard to see why.

Eco-tourism is all about low impact, environmentally and culturally aware travel. Operators go out of their way to ensure you have the best experience of what nature has to offer, unchanged and unaffected by your presence.

Bring on Bario. The idyllic hill station in Sarawak’s Kelabit Highlands is attracting eco-travellers interested in the unique cultural and natural diversity of the area.

With its cultural experience and natural beauty, Bario is one of the most ideal places for an eco-tourist to explore. Kelabit culture is rich despite modernisation, and the friendliness of a Kelabit longhouse people cannot be surpassed. Nor can the incredible array of flora and fauna in the area, some of the most spectacular in the world.

Sitting at 1,200m above sea level, Bario has a cool climate. However, it is not the chance to escape from the heat of the jungle that draws tourists here, but the Bario Loop, a five-day trek through some of Sarawak’s amazing virgin forests.

“The jungle is amazing, and the trees are so old! I never knew how good jungle food tasted!’’ says Kate Evans, a 22-year-old Australian photojournalist on eco-holiday.

The secret to the success of eco-tourism is sustainability, which is the development of tourism that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations.

Guides in Bario understand the importance of creating a future for their children, while at the same time, preserving their own heritage, and the forests that are their traditional livelihoods.

And it seems their efforts have paid off. Until now.

The Bario Loop has been operating for five years. However, recent logging in the area is threatening to damage the carefully constructed eco-tourism industry.

With virgin forest being replaced with logging camps, parts of the jungle are disappearing, rivers are slowly being polluted with muddy brown topsoil, and the Kelabit Highlanders are losing their livelihood in more ways than one.

The Loop has been getting more and more tourists but then the cancer comes. “Tourists come here for the beautiful forests and animals, but now Ramadu to Pa Berang is being logged, tourists don’t want to go there,’’ says Reddish Aran a local Kelabit guide.

The small amount of money that tourists bring to the longhouses is diminishing in proportion to the increase in logging in the area. Also devastating is the destruction of the surrounding forest that is making it harder for communities in the area to hunt, fish and gather plants. With less food and less money, many have been forced to leave their traditional lands and relocate to Miri or Kuching to find work and food.

Sinah Ngalawan Paran, 36, lives in a longhouse in Pa Mada, a village on the Bario Loop.

“We are quite dependent on tourism, and if the logging continues, tourists won’t come here anymore. If they do then they will feel they have been cheated and regret it,’’ she says.

While logging brings roads and employment, it cannot ensure the preservation of nature and culture in the Kelabit Highlands. This makes the further development of eco-tourism in Bario crucial for the people and the forest.

Apoi Ngimat, 37, is a local who hopes to establish his own eco-tourism business in Bario.

He believes that being critical about logging is not the answer, and that other ways must be found to replace the revenue that logging provides the Sarawak State Government.

“Logging does provide infrastructure and development, but there must be a balance. The people of Bario do want development. Like a road and more reliable electricity. But not at the cost of their forest and culture,’’ he says.

Gerawat Gala, the Kelabit Association president agrees.

“Our hearts tell us we want to keep the environment, but our minds tell us we must move forward. Tourism is an important economic activity, but we need to expand the scope,’’ he says.

The good news for eco-tourists is that locals are working hard towards this goal of creating a greater future for eco-tourism and preserving their forests. Bario is a diverse place full of natural and cultural wonders, and more than worth an ecological visit.

# Bario is accessible by the daily 19-seater Twin Otter plane service from Miri. The journey takes one hour. Check www.FlyAsianXpress.com.

Source: The Star

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