Travel Features > Up the Ulu

Nanga Sumpa - Ten Years On

Wayne Tarman Visits Nanga Sumpa Longhouse And Finds Out More
About A Community-Based Tourism Project Which Is Ten Years Old

Longboats moored at the lodge
© 1998 Wayne Tarman
'Eco-Tourism' is a phrase thrown around at will. Ten years ago it had some meaning but now the phrase has been hijacked by all. It seems that any business remotely related to tourism claims that their project is eco-tourism. On the other hand the small number of companies that are hard at work on sustainable, community-based tourism projects rarely make any bold claims using the eco-tourism tag. They just get on with the work at hand.

One such project that can justifiably claim to come under the banner of eco-tourism (but on the whole prefers not to make any claims) is Borneo Adventure's Ulu Ai project, a community based tourism initiative on the Batang Ai river system involving the Iban people of Nanga Sumpa longhouse.

Borneo Adventure, a Kuching-based tour operator, doesn't use the phrase eco-tourism in any of its marketing literature but that has not stopped it winning a whole host of eco-tourism awards such a British Airways 'Tourism For Tomorrow Award', a PATA Grand Award for Heritage & Culture, and a Green Globe Commendation from the World Tourism and Travel Council. Guidebooks such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide also mention the company's innovative tours. These publications, which serve as bible-like reference books for countless independent travellers, are generally not noted for praising companies that offer 'organised trips'. But both these leading publications do just that. For example, The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei describes Borneo Adventure's as an 'Award-winning operation running excellent trips throughout Sarawak and Sabah, including some splendid treks around the Kelabit Highlands. Its jungle lodge, set beside the Batang Ai longhouse of Nanga Sumpa, is a triumph of eco-tourism.'

Iban longhouses are one of Sarawak's major tourist attractions and a longhouse visit is very much part of the whole Sarawak travel experience. 'Longhouse tourism' is not a new phenomenon. The Skrang River, the most heavily visited river, has been visited by organised tour groups since the 1960's. Whilst the Skrang has attracted a steady stream of packaged tourists the mighty Rejang River has tended to attract backpackers. With more time on their hands, these independent travellers opt for what is undoubtedly a unique river journey that often includes some kind of longhouse visit. Sarawak is not on the main SE Asia travellers' route so does not receive vast numbers of backpackers. The bulk of tourists that visit a longhouse therefore do so on an organised tour or river safari.

As the Skrang became more popular and tourist numbers increased, some of Sarawak's tour operators began to look for other river systems to reduce dependence on one river system. The Lemanak River, another tributary of the Lupar River, was identified and started to receive groups. To this day tour packages on the Skrang and Lemanak are very popular with foreign tourists.

In the mid-1980's Philip Yong and Robert Basiuk, the co-founders of Borneo Adventure, started to search for an area in Sarawak where they could offer their clients a opportunity of visiting an Iban longhouse in an area that also offered the chance of experiencing the natural beauty of Sarawak's rainforest. They also wanted to involve the longhouse community from the beginning of the project and minimise disruption to the daily longhouse life. The idea was to create a situation that would enable true interaction between tourists and the longhouse community and not a zoo-like tour where the tourists gawk at the locals.

The search involved a number of trips into the interior of Sarawak including a trip to the Batang Ai region to travel up the Ulu Ai to Nanga Sumpa longhouse which is located just outside the boundary of the Batang Ai National Park. After passing through the superb rainforest scenery of Ulu Ai and receiving a warm welcome at Nanga Sumpa, they knew straight away that they had found just what they were looking for. Ulu Ai was chosen because of the sheer natural beauty of the area, the scope for adventure-based activities and the cultural attractions offered by the Iban community of Nanga Sumpa longhouse. 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 simply one - 'Do you want foreign tourists to come here and visit you'?

Borneo Adventure first approached the Iban community at Nanga Sumpa in 1986. The community welcomed the idea of receiving guests but asked Borneo Adventure to build a lodge on land adjacent near to the longhouse so that visitors could spend the night there rather than sleep in the longhouse itself. It was felt that this was the best way forward. Visitors would be able to sample longhouse life without disrupting the community as they went about the daily lives.

Under the leadership of the village headman, the community formed a tourism committee to ensure that the economic benefits of tourism were evenly distributed amongst the various families of the longhouse. The committee was also responsible for ensuring that fair pay was awarded for work done. One of the most lucrative new activities for the community was the provision of a boat service to transfer visitors from the jetty on the Batang Ai lake to the longhouse. To avoid any problems the tourism committee set up a roster so that boat transfers were rotated amongst the various family groups wishing to take part in this operation.

During their initial discussions with community leaders at Nanga Sumpa longhouse, Borneo Adventure emphasised that they should view tourism as a way to generate additional income rather than replace traditional sources of income such as farming and fishing. Owing to seasonality and the ups and downs of global tourism industry, revenue from tourism-related activities rarely provides a fixed income month after month; monthly income can fluctuate widely. The basic message was that the community should continue with their traditional economic activities.

The soundness of this message became apparent during the Gulf War when the world stopped travelling. Tourism industries all over the world were hit by a dramatic reduction in the number of people opting to go on holiday. Sarawak was no exception with global politics having a knock on effect at Nanga Sumpa as the number of visitors plummeted. As tourism revenue dropped to almost zero, traditional sources of income remained stable. Philip Yong is justifiably proud that this message has remained consistent. Ten years on and the community themselves are well-aware of the ups and downs of international tourism.

Tourism has certainly brought changes to the people of Batang Ai. But the fact that the community at Nanga Sumpa are active participants in the tourism industry has allowed them to manage a lot of this change. Even before the arrival of tourism, the people of Batang Ai were well aware of the outside world. The Iban tradition of bejalai (going on a journey) meant that many people in the community had worked in cities such as Kuching, Miri and even Brunei. Furthermore, communities in the Batang Ai region had already been exposed to massive social change when the Batang Ai Hydro dam was constructed. Before the dam the area was very isolated. With the dam came an access road connecting the lake to the Pan Borneo Highway and the rest of Sarawak. Tourism may have brought changes but these have been small when compared to the wider picture.

Following Borneo Adventure's pioneering efforts at Batang Ai, a number of other tour companies started to send tourists to other longhouses at Batang Ai. And in late 1993, Hilton International opened their Batang Ai Longhouse Resort. In the space of ten years the Batang Ai region has been put on the Sarawakian tourism map. Although tourists numbers to Batang Ai have increased, Nanga Sumpa retains the same qualities as ten years ago. The longhouse is the one of the furthest away from the lake and this adds to the whole experience as visitors can enjoy the pleasures of a unique upriver journey.

Furthermore, Borneo Adventure are mindful of the carrying capacity at Nanga Sumpa. The company has already built a second lodge at nearby Tibu longhouse so as to avoid sending too many visitors to Nanga Sumpa. This will also allow another community to receive the economic benefits of tourism. In addition, Borneo Adventure encourages large groups who wish to visit Batang Ai to stay at the Hilton Batang Ai Longhouse Resort so as not to swamp the community with a large group of people in one go.

Comments penned by tourists in the Visitor's Book at the Lodge at Nanga Sumpa are proof of the company's responsible approach to tourism. The bulk of visitors wax lyrical about their stay and the beauty of the area and its people. Borneo Adventure organises a number of activities for guests who stay at the Lodge. There are jungle treks accompanied by experienced guides who point out various trees and plants used by the local community for traditional herbal medicine. Extended jungle treks can also be arranged. These are often operated from a base camp situated upriver from the longhouse.

Iban man preparing a tasty picnic lunch of bamboo chicken
© 1998 Wayne Tarman
The Ulu Ai area is also home to a sizeable population of Orang Utans. Obviously, luck plays a part in sighting one but a quick flick through the visitors book shows that many visitors have had the unique experience of seeing wild orang utans whilst on a jungle trek at Ulu Ai. Trips to the waterfall about 35 minutes upriver are also popular. Whilst visitors plunge into the dip pool for a refreshing swim, guides set up a riverside campfire on one of the many pebble beaches that line the river. Here they prepare delicious meals of steamed chicken or fish cooked in bamboo and accompanied by jungle vegetables.

Borneo Adventure recently held a party at Nanga Sumpa Longhouse to mark the 10th Anniversary of Borneo Adventure's Lodge. Staff and friends were invited along to join the community in celebrating this historic occasion. It was a night of fun and games with traditional dances, a spread of food and, of course, a free flow of tuak (rice wine).

Iban girls
© 1998 Wayne Tarman
Borneo Adventure also distributed money from an Education Fund set up by the company to assist the students of Nanga Sumpa with the costs of their education. Each student, smartly dressed in his or her school uniform, came forward to receive their monetary award to a round of applause. One proud mother accepted an award on behalf of her daughter who is now studying at university in West Malaysia, the first member of the community to enter university.

For those people who were involved in setting up the project ten years ago it was also an emotional occasion as thoughts turned to some of the village elders who played an important role in setting up the project but have since passed away. As is the case with any kind of longhouse celebration there were a number of speeches and expressions of gratitude from both parties.

Jonathan Juggat , the secretary of the tourism committee, explained that since tourists started visiting Nanga Sumpa the longhouse has grown in size from 24 to 28 doors (i.e. 28 family 'apartments' within the longhouse), an indication that the community has benefited economically from tourism. In many areas of Sarawak longhouse communities are actually shrinking as the young migrate to the city in search of jobs. With the young gone, only the village elders remain and many of the longhouse's family apartments are locked up and are only opened when the whole family returns for the annual Gawai celebration.

Although Borneo Adventure's Ulu Ai Project at Nanga Sumpa is recognised as one of the best examples of village-based tourism in the Southeast Asian region, Philip Yong, the managing director of Borneo Adventure, said there is still much work to be done. Ten years of hard work and co-operation have laid the foundations but Philip emphasises that Ulu Ai is an on going project and work and planning must continue. However, both Borneo Adventure and the Iban community at Nanga Sumpa are confident that their tourism partnership will continue to develop, and visitors will continue to have the opportunity of staying in a pristine rainforest setting and interacting with the Iban community for and a unique and enjoyable travel experience; in short, a true Borneo adventure.


Anyone interested in finding out more about Borneo Adventure's Ulu Ai Project can visit their web site or contact them at the following address.

Borneo Adventure
55 Main Bazaar
933000 Kuching
Sarawak Malaysia

Tel: 6082-245175
Fax: 6082-422626

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