Sunday, September 07, 2014

Nurturing eco-tourism in Lawas

WHEN it comes to going off the beaten track in Northern Sarawak, Lawas is usually not the first on many people’s list of destinations.

Better known for its logging, timber and agriculture industries, the undulating hills of this small district which shares borders with Sabah, Brunei and Kalimantan, Indonesia, has been often overlooked by tourists and backpackers in favour of the highlands of Bario and Ba Kelalan.

However, the improvement of the road connecting Lawas town to Ba Kelalan in recent times has been a boon to the fledgeling local Sarawak homestay and eco-tourism industry, cutting down travelling time between the two destinations and opening more economic opportunities for locals as they take advantage of the improvement in road connectivity and increasing traffic.

Among them are operators of Metalan Homestay, Tom Imang Anyi and his wife Mariana Palong.

Originally, the thought of setting up a homestay business did not cross the couple’s minds. In fact, it was more by chance they came to acquire the property on which now stands a modest two-story building large enough to house up to 16 guests at one time.

“The previous owner was very insistent on selling the land to us, even after we had turned them down a number of times. The land was swampy and there wasn’t anything there which appealed to me at first,” Mariana recalled.

However, when the husband and wife team had the opportunity to take a closer look at the property, she fell in love with it, particularly the scenic clear water Matalan river which runs through it.

“The atmosphere by the river is so peaceful and beautiful. Our visitors have told us they like to sit by the riverbank to soak their feet in the water as they find it calming listening to the sound of riverwater running over the rocks,” she said.

They bought the property a few years ago, filled out the flooded and swampy areas and slowly began adding to it for their own use – first a small resthouse right next to the river then a garden.

Mariana, a traditional handcrafts maker, added a small workshop which also doubles as a small convenience store selling toiletries, snacks and souvenirs to tourists and visitors.

At first, it was just friends and family who stayed there but as word began to spread, more and more people approached the couple about renting the place.

Seeing the interest and after learning more about what a homestay is and what it would entail, they decided to set up Metalan Homestay, less than two hours’ drive from Lawas town.

The river is not the homestay’s only attraction. The surrounding area is teeming with wildlife, ranging from hornbills and macaques which often come out to feast on fruit trees in plain view just a stone’s throw from the front porch, to wild pigs and deer, so favoured by hunters.

Even though the homestay is not officially opened for business yet, the couple have already had a number of enquiries – from visitors from Brunei wanting to stay for the weekend, and church groups and government agencies, interested in conducting retreats, to outstation workers working on nearby oil and gas pipelines interested in renting rooms for a few months at a time.

This has convinced Tom and Mariana to continue expanding their property. Among projects in the pipeline are planting a greater variety and number of trees in their fruit garden and building a longhouse, public toilets and a hall to accommodate larger groups of visitors.

The husband and wife are also attending as many courses as they can to improve their knowledge and offer more services.

Tom, who works full-time in the civil service, has attended a homestay course while among the many Mariana has attended include entrepreneurship skills and aromatherapy and massage skills courses.

“Our goal is to offer products, services and experiences which other homestays don’t offer – like grapes and buah salak, cultural performances, fishing and hunting, padi planting and even buffalo riding. But we still need to train the buffaloes,” Tom shared with a grin.

“We are in a good location as it is only half an hour’s drive from Limbang and three hours from Brunei. I believe they are attracted to come here for the cool weather and also the activities such as wildlife watching and jungle trekking.

“Lawas’ biggest assets are its natural attractions,” he said.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Nurturing eco-tourism in Lawas