Summary and Recommendations

The tourism industry plays a very important role in the political and socio-economic well-being of rural economies in Sabah as its main tourism products are nature-based. Tourism provides alternative sources of income and employment to local communities, thus helping to reduce the rural-urban migration. It also contributes towards the preservation of local arts and crafts and a broader understanding of the diverse local cultures and their way of life.

Tourism development has been shown to bring many benefits to the rural economy. In many rural parts of Sabah where the development of tourism has taken place, it has slowly replaced some of the main traditional economic activities and has become the main source of income for the local people. However, at many of these tourism attraction destinations, due to little understanding of the tourism industry and businesses, local communities have minimum roles in determining the future direction of tourism development. Most of the decisions are made by private sector investors who operate tourism facilities, for examples, tour operators and tourism, accommodation and transportation operators. Sometimes the local authorities are lagging behind in playing their management and regulating roles.

Based on the above background that the Seminar on “Development of Sustainable Tourism in the Rural Areas of Sabah” was held with the following objectives:

  • to increase a greater awareness on the current issues and challenges in managing tourism sustainably;
  • to provide updates on the government’s efforts in encouraging rural tourism;
  • to provide a platform for experts in relevant sectors to share their knowledge and experiences;
  • to highlight the roles of public and private sectors in managing tourism resources sustainably; and
  • to provide a platform for the meeting of Sabah’s economic players to solve a common goal of providing sustainable employment for the rural communities in Sabah while preserving the natural beauty and resources of the state.

The Seminar was held on the 6th September 2018 at Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, Kota Kinabalu. The one-day seminar was jointly-organized by the Institute for Development Studies Sabah (IDS) and Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) and in collaboration with Sabah Tourism Board (STB). The seminar was attended by 158 participants comprising of officials from government agencies and departments, community leaders, members of the civil society, entrepreneurs and business leaders.

The seminar was officiated by Dato Rosmadi Sulai, the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (MTCE) representing the Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah cum Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, Yang Berhormat Datuk Christina Liew.

Papers Presenters

Session I: Issues and Challenges in Managing Tourism Resources Sustainably in Sabah

Paper 1: Overview of the Tourism Industry in Sabah – Issues and Challenges by Ms. Suzaini Datuk Sabdin Ghani, General Manager, Sabah Tourism Board

Paper 2: Roles of the Government in Managing Natural Resources Sustainably by Mr. Indra Purwandita Henry Sunjoto, Sabah Forestry Department

Paper 3: The NGO’s Perspective on Sustainable Management of Community Tourism Products by Mr. Albert Teo, Director, Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society

Session II: Sustainable Community-Based Tourism Initiatives – Panel Presentation and Open Discussion


Ms. Suzaini Datuk Sabdin Ghani, General Manager, Sabah Tourism Board


  1. Rural Tourism and Sustaining Community-based Tourism by Mr. Julinus Jeffery Bin Jimit, Senior Product Manager, Tourism Product Division, Sabah Tourism Board
  2. KOPEL’s Experience in Managing Community-based Tourism by Mr. Rosli Hj. Jukrana, Representative, Community Ecotourism Co-operative (KOPEL)
  3. Community-based Tourism Development in Kadamaian by Mr. Walter Kandayon, Chairman, Kadamaian Tourism Association Sabah (KaTA)
  4. Helping the Communities in Managing Resources Sustainably by Ms. Anne Lasimbang, Executive Director, Partners of Community Organizations (PACOS) Trust
  5. How Tourism Malaysia can assist in Promoting Rural Tourism Products in Sabah by Datuk Ahmad Shah Hussein Tambakau, Chairman, Tourism Malaysia, Putrajaya
  6. Mr. Albert Teo, Director, Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society

The papers presented raised many discussions and various views among participants. This summary includes issues and concerns as well as recommendations that were identified during the course of the Seminar. In essence, these recommendations highlighted the important roles of both public and private sectors in managing tourism resources sustainably.

Issues and Concerns

  • Sabah’s tourism attractions are nature-based and that these destinations are not meant for mass tourism. The strong visitor growth and demand for nature tourism experience in Sabah have resulted in great pressure being placed on many of the state’s natural attractions to expand and accept visitors beyond their carrying capacity. If this situation carries on, the sustainability of these tourist attractions could be compromised.
  • The Second Sabah Tourism Master Plan (2011-2025) highlighted three key challenges that Sabah has to address to ensure sustainability of the tourism sector going forward which include: (i) addressing environmental degradation problems and carrying capacity issues in a number of prime nature tourism sites particularly in the east coast of Sabah; (ii) to overcome the skilled manpower shortage which currently exists in many areas of the tourism sector and to create stronger demand for Sabahan employment; and (iii) to develop cities and towns including Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Tawau, to be more visitors friendly and appealing in order to better manage tourism flows and their impacts.
  • Except for the tourist attractions developed by government agencies and private individuals, most of the tourist attractions in the rural areas emerged due to ad hoc demand from tour operators in search of new products. In the past five years, there was proliferation of river cruise destinations in the west coast from Weston to Kota Belud to meet the demand from China and Korea markets. Most of the river cruise businesses are owned by non-local tour operators. Those locals who are involved in the tour operation businesses either rent out their facilities and land or as joint venture partner to outsiders to operate river cruise operations while most of them work as employees at these river cruise establishments. Some locals who tried to start their own operations are struggling to survive due to lack of marketing skills and they continue to depend on outside tour operators for clients.
  • Security issue is still the major problem in Sabah. Other issues are related to overcrowding, unavailability of regulatory or accreditation body, cleanliness, human resource development, slow development in some beach or seaside areas in Sabah as compared to neighbouring countries, and strong competition from regional countries especially Danang in Vietnam.
  • The direction of tourism in Sabah is to promote rural tourism; however, the challenge is to educate and guide the rural communities to be digital savvy and to have certain language proficiency and standards. Sabah Tourism Board (STB) has been working with local universities and school to educate the communities such as developing a business plan and marketing campaign.
  • The eight key threats in managing the natural resource sustainably include changes in policies due to major changes in the political situation; habitat loss due to rapid development of residential, commercial and infrastructure development; illegal and conventional uncontrolled logging; land use changes from forestry to agriculture, mining, aquaculture, etc. and human intrusion and disturbances such as illegal felling and poaching. The other key threats are the growth of invasive and other problematic species and genes, e.g. acacia trees, pollution and climate change.
  • Many rural communities are unable to participate in rural tourism because they do not have land titles or ownership over the natural resources and land. Most of them also have limited knowledge and unaware on the requirements and procedures involved in the application for tourism development projects.


  • Visitor numbers to Sabah can significantly grow on a sustainable basis as long as the large scale and high-quality facilities and developments recommended in the two coastal tourism development master plans, i.e. the “Tourism Master Plan for the Coastal Area between Tuaran and Kota Belud’ and the “Tourism Master Plan for Northern West Coast Area between Kota Marudu and Kudat” are implemented.
  • Tawau and Sandakan airports need to be upgraded to become international airports so that international airlines, especially from China, can fly directly to these destinations.
  • Federal government to address the slow internet connection and road accessibility to the rural areas.
  • Reactivate the Council which comprised of Natural Resource Office, Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), and Land & Survey to resolve any outstanding issue pertaining to natural resources management.
  • Every agency should allocate a certain amount of fund for training and development. Training and development of staff are important to sustain the tourism industry.
  • The school of tourism in Sabah should expand its courses to include golf, diving or birding and other niche markets.
  • Establish a working committee under the purview of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment to address issues and challenges related to tourism. This working committee should comprise of representatives from the private sector, relevant government departments and NGOs.
  • Regulate the standards and quality of the community-based tourism in the rural areas of Sabah to avoid price wars among the operators and to ensure the profitability and sustainability of the tourism businesses as well as deliver value for money products.
  • Propose to carry out a feasibility study on establishing a state government-owned licensed airline for flight service between Kalimantan and Sabah.

Concluding Remarks

These issues and recommendations are therefore submitted for the consideration of the government whose initiatives are necessary to coordinate the activities of various stakeholders and interest groups which are involved in planning, developing and managing resources sustainably. The role of government is becoming increasingly more important when tourism is now facing sustainability issues.


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