The popularity of ecotourism in Malaysian Borneo has grown rapidly due to the region’s incredible landscape and diverse ecotourism opportunities. Differing from ecotourism in Peninsular Malaysia, ecotourism in Malaysian Borneo has been emphasised more by the government, and more resources have been directed towards the efforts. Conservation is the central tenet of Malaysian Borneo’s most popular ecotourism activities, such as scuba diving, visiting native orangutans, and climbing the region’s tallest mountain, Mount Kinabalu.
Malaysian Borneo has some of the best diving in the world, and the island of Sipadan is consistently rated amongst the top ten diving spots in the world. Its geographical position in the Indo-Pacific basin makes it exceptionally biodiverse – and likewise exceptionally vulnerable. Sipadan’s waters are home to over 300 species of fish and coral, as well as many green and hawksbill turtles.
In 2004, the Malaysian government moved all on-site dive operators off Sipadan, outlawed night dives, and implemented a daily passenger limit to 120, in an effort to conserve and preserve Sipadan’s legendary beauty.
Tucked away outside Sandakan, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok is one of the world’s only orangutan rehabilitation centre. Indigenous to the region, orangutans are present in only a few countries in the world, and Sepilok is one of the best places to visit them. There are two feeding times, in the morning and afternoon, and these are typically the best times to visit and observe the orangutans.
At the centre, orphaned orangutans are raised and taught behaviours and skills necessary for integration back into the forest. While most orangutans rehabilitated at Sepilok will remain on the 43 sq km forest reserve for their whole lives, many leave the comfort of the centre for the ‘wild’ of the rest of the reserve, living out their lives away from human interaction. Others will venture off, but return to the centre every so often. In rare cases, dominant male orangutans are set off into the true wild to attempt to mate and reproduce.
The centre at Sepilok provides educational and volunteer opportunities for travellers who are interested in more long-term involvement, however even if you only visit for a day, you’ll be well-informed and educated on the conservation efforts of the centre.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu
Many ecotourists who venture to Malaysian Borneo are headed there to tackle Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain – Mount Kinabalu. At approximately 4095 metres above sea level, with 8.9 kilometres worth of hiking trail up (and then back down again), the mountain is a beast to climb. Situated in Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mount Kinabalu is a popular Malaysia ecotourism bucket-list item, and for good reason.
Tourists are required to hire a local guide – most organised treks include personal guides – who accompany them up and down the trek, ensuring that they abide by the park rules (and clamber safely, of course). Tourist behaviour is strictly monitored, and carrying capacities are adhered to through the use of Laban Rata Guesthouse, virtually the only place to stay while hiking.
The hike takes two days – the first day takes approximately 4 to 5 hours to reach Laban Rata, at the 6km trail mark, and over 3000 metres up. Porters sherpa supplies up to the Guesthouse, where bottled water and much sought after chocolate costs nearly triple its city price, and hot water is virtually non-existent. With limited beds in the Guesthouse, availability can be tough at times, with booking typically needed months in advance. This is a good thing – it prevents the trail from being overbooked and saturated with tourists.
Ecotourism in Malaysia’s Borneo
Ecotourism in Malaysian Borneo is diverse and exciting, but also requires careful consideration and management. Due to the rise popularity of ecotourism holidays in Malaysian Borneo, there is increasing pressure being put on the region’s star ecotourism attractions. The government appears to be taking this seriously, particularly by implementing carrying capacity limits on most ecotourism activities.