The Ulu Ai Project – a partnership between tour operator Borneo Adventure and the local Iban community – offers an alternative to the usual ‘staged’ forms of cultural tourism found in Sarawak. It forges a sustainable partnership between hosts and visitors, whereby visitors experience the local lifestyle on the host’s own terms. Tours focus on society and environment, rather than on performances and demonstrations. The experience benefits hosts, visitors and local wildlife. Travellers to Ulu Ai stay as guests of the longhouse dwelling Iban people, who benefit economically by providing a range of tourism services. Borneo Adventure supports local entrepreneurship and various community & conservation projects.
In 1987 Philip Yong and Robert Basiuk, the co-founders of Borneo Adventure, set out to design a tourism product that provided real interaction between tourists and a longhouse community, while at the same time allowing tourists to enjoy the natural splendour of Sarawak’s interior. From the beginning, the key objective was to involve the longhouse community in a meaningful way.
This process began with a search for a suitable location. The search involved a number of trips into the interior of Sarawak. One of these was a journey to the upper reaches of the Delok River to Nanga Sumpa longhouse. After passing through pristine scenery and meeting the people at Nanga Sumpa, they knew that they had found a place that had the potential to offer visitors a unique travel experience.
Having identified the area, the next step was to talk to the longhouse community to see if they were receptive to the idea of playing host to visitors. The question posed was a simple one – Do you want foreign tourists to come here and visit you? The community agreed to become a partner in tourism but did not want foreign visitors to stay in their longhouse as they felt this would be too intrusive and disruptive. Instead they requested that a separate lodge be built to accommodate guests. In December 1987 a simple camp was built and the first group of foreign visitors stayed at Nanga Sumpa.
From the start, tourism in Ulu Ai has been carried out with the cooperation and agreement of the community. Borneo Adventure’s relationship with the community has been built on mutual respect and trust. Today, Borneo Adventure has close working relationships with three Iban longhouses on the Delok River – Nanga Sumpa, Jambu and Ta’ong. The community is fully involved in tourism operations through a Tourism Committee, which coordinates the provision of a range of tourism services for Borneo Adventure and its clients. This partnership has lasted for over 27 years and is the longest partnership between a tour operator and a community in Sarawak, and possibly in Malaysia as a whole. This model is in sharp contrast to the prevailing norms in Sarawak where partnerships between tour operators and community organisations generally last for relatively short periods of time.
Successful community-based tourism is about providing tangible benefits to the community in the form of employment and cash income. At Ulu Ai the community is a service provider for Borneo Adventure. In addition to regular operational services, the community derives income from projects such as constructing new lodges or facilities, major repairs and maintenance, cutting new jungle trails and location filming. From 2007 to 2011, Borneo Adventure paid RM 1.8 million to the community for various tourism-related services. In addition to direct payments from the company, the community derives revenue from handicraft sales, tips and gratuities. It is estimated that the community’s average revenue from tourism is around RM 450,000 per year. This is a significant sum for a rural community in Sarawak.
Improving Livelihoods & Development Projects
In addition to creating and sustaining employment and economic opportunities, Borneo Adventure regularly donates money and goods in kind to the community for development projects, community initiatives or medical treatment. For example, we have a long established micro-finance project that offers interest-free loans for villagers to buy outboard engines. Our Welfare Fund assists families with medical treatment or educational expenses. Over the years we have also donated funds for building materials for the longhouse, drainage repairs and sanitation projects.