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Ecotourism business provides livelihood to villagers
THE Sumbiling Eco Village in Temburong is one of Brunei’s most successful community-based tourism businesses. Its popularity among tourists who want to explore more of Brunei’s pristine rainforest has brought sustainable livelihood to the Iban community in Kg Sumbiling Lama.
Hasa Incentives Sdn Bhd conceptualised, funded, planned and manages the eco village. The villagers provide the manpower, outdoors and cultural expertise, as well as give suggestions and ideas that have sustained the business for over eight years.
Leslie Chiang (pictured), founder of Hasa Incentives, decided to set up the ecotourism site in 2007 as he wanted to provide more facilities to trekkers in Temburong.
He used to guide tourists at the Ulu-Ulu Temburong National Park, but noticed that there were no facilities for tourists — especially elderly ones — who needed to use the toilet or take a hot shower.
“Here is Brunei, a rich country, and there is no proper facility for tourists. This is not tourism,” Chiang thought at that time.
He then asked one of his associates to help him find a piece of land where they could build facilities. That was when he met Apai, a former army veteran who is now 70 years old.
“He’s a bit of a local hero. He knows the rainforest having lived there all his life,” he said.
Chiang said Apai was “quite generous” and allowed him to use his land.
“He said you can use my land to build your facilities, but in exchange, guarantee me a job,” Chiang said.
After securing land to build the eco village, Chiang hired Apai as a tour guide. Other members of the Iban community were likewise employed to maintain the eco village and cater to the growing number of tourists.
More than 20,000 visitors had visited the eco village since its establishment in 2007. The eco village also runs youth camps, exposing school children to the wealth and beauty of Brunei’s rainforest.
The eco village recently hosted about 100 primary school students from International School Brunei who learned more about the jungle from Apai.
“They learned that you can cook food in the jungle without modern utilities. They learned how to fish, how to gather vegetables. For two days they were banned from using their phones and there were no complaints,” Chiang said.
“These are the things that they will never forget...that they will grow up talking about.”
The eco village also changed the lives of the villagers. A stable income from the ecotourism business has raised the standard of living in the community. The villagers built their homes, bought cars and no longer have to depend on wildlife hunting just to survive.
“It is not as well paid a job as it is in the city, but these people, they don’t have higher education. Some couldn’t even get a job as a cleaner. But here, they live five minutes away from work and they are experts. They know how to cook the local food and they know the rainforest. This is what tourists want,” he said
Such success, however, didn’t come without challenges. For years, Chiang had problems getting regular electricity and potable water supply.
“When I first approached the relevant authorities, they told me I had to have proper structures and architects and everything and it was a major hassle, so I didn’t bother applying (for utility services),” he said.
But this had recently been resolved with the help of Darussalam Enterprise. After speaking with DARE officials and filing the application, the process went smoothly. Chiang encourages other entrepreneurs to contact DARE about their problems.
Moving forward, Chiang said he wants to develop tourism products with other local communities and to change the common perception on Temburong.
“A lot of people when they think about Temburong, they think about the trekking and hard work and ask themselves why they should spend over a hundred dollars to do hard work,” he said.
But Chiang said Temburong offers more than jungle trekking or hiking to tourists.
“Within the eco village, you could simply visit and relax. There is local food and if the water is good you can take a swim and go tubing. If not, you can just take the time to chill and clear your mind.”
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