Responsible tourism in Sarawak

Travel right in Sarawak

Responsible tourism in Sarawak is about creating value around unspoilt jungle, natural waterways and forest habitats for local communities. The importance of the Sarawak’s unique culture and nature is finally being recognised by travelers, photographers, wildlife fans and adventure-seekers, and as it steps out independently from the shadows of both Sabah and Borneo, responsible tourists from across the globe are traveling 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 Sarawak could provide hope for the survival of its most endangered species and its unique way of life, just as long as it’s done well.

Wildlife & environment

Reforestation & orangutans


Huge steps are being made across Sarawak to conserve and manage its valuable and unique forests. In addition to some 800,000 hectares of Totally Protected Areas (TPAs) that are off-limit to logging companies, large areas of land classed as ‘terrain 4’ (steep and hilly) areas, ‘High Conservation Value Forests’, buffer zones and verified ‘Native Customary Rights’ land remain pristine. In addition, Sarawak has adopted a land-use policy that provides for the long-term economic well being of the State, which includes provisions for a sustainable forestry sector based on a targeted 6 million hectares of natural forests, and a further 1 million hectares of planted forests, and a robust agriculture sector based on a targeted 3 million hectares of agro plantations and smallholdings.

What you can do
Visiting Sarawak’s national parks and protected areas and paying fees contributes to the upkeep of these fragile forests – much of them pristine primary growth – and protects the unique wildlife that lives within them.

Some operators offer the chance to get involved in reforestation initiatives; park buffer zones are extremely important in increasing the available habitat for wildlife, so by extending the forest cover you are helping to protect what lives within it.

Orangutans: 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 travelers 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.

Stef Studley, from our supplier Regent Vacations, explains the company's stance: “I get so many requests from people who want to hold an orangutan, which is understandable because they’re so lovely, but it’s a really bad idea – they aren’t pets, they’re 96 percent the same as humans, so the chances of them picking up an infection is enormous if they’re handled by someone who might not be well. A responsible volunteer programme will make sure its handlers have lots of jabs and a thorough check over beforehand. We recommend sponsoring orangutans through reputable companies like Orangutan Appeal UK.”

Harriet Whitmarsh, from our supplier The Great Traveler, 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 vacation.”
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.

Do your research – find out more about the place you will be volunteering, 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 traveler review sites; the reviews on Responsible Travel are also unedited and honest.

Think outside the rehabilitation centres, and look for initiatives that work with rural communities and conservation. Community tourism allows local people 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.

Read more about Orangutan conservation here

People & culture


Positive community tourism

Sarawak is home to thousands of endemic species, 40 indigenous groups including sea gypsies, longhouse-dwelling communities and former head-hunting tribes, and one of the largest rainforests remaining in the world, so as well as the incredible wildlife, a Sarawak vacation has everything a cultural traveler could ask for. Longtail boat trips upstream through the emerald green waters of the Batang Ai reservoir are a truly mesmeric way to reach the remote villages of its near impenetrable jungle; the skilled Iban boatman will manoeuvre your boat around huge black boulders in the lake and treetops that emerge from the water as a visual reminder of the valley that flooded in 1980 to create the reservoir. And there’s plenty of chance to get stuck in locally too, with floating markets and living museums. Don’t overlook a rustic longhouse homestay; the Iban of Sarawak are famous for their longhouses, sharing communal life with dozens of local tribespeople. It’s a seductive and incredibly enriching experience.

What you can do
Community tourism is a way for visitors to learn about local traditions; for local communities to continue practicing them and sharing the knowledge with younger generations; and for people 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 a communal longhouse and live alongside the tribe knowing that your money will go directly into their 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. It really does help.”

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in sarawak

  • Never use flash photography with wildlife.
  • Avoid littering in any of the national parks - keep your rubbish with you until you can dispose of it properly back in Kuching.
  • Don’t stray from the set trails while trekking in national parks and the jungle; they are there so we don’t damage delicate flora and fauna, or disturb natural wildlife habitat.
  • If you’re going to stay with a local tribe at Batang Ai, don’t feel obliged to take a gift. Their longhouses are working homes and the fear is that the indigenous people that live there will become dependent on the tourist trade.
  • If you insist on showing thanks to a local tribe for accepting you into their homes, books and pencils are appreciated, but absolutely no sweets. Believe it or not, dentists are few and far between in the jungle!
  • Whenever you visit a longhouse, at the entrance you will be given a glass of tuak (palm wine) for warm welcoming - never say no, it’s disrespectful, but don’t knock it back unless you want a refill.
  • Touching someone’s head, be they Muslim or otherwise, is a no-no, as the head is considered sacred in Eastern culture.
  • The whole of Malaysia is quite conservative and conformist. Behaviour that draws attention to the individuals concerned is avoided.
Responsible Travel would like to thank the Sarawak tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide

Photo credits: [Holding baby orangutans: Ryan Albrey] [Culture: Dan K]
Written by Polly Humphris
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