MIRI: After nearly two weeks of familiarising ourselves with Miri City, the Borneo Post Adventure Team (BAT) was finally back on the road to pick up from where we left off on our journey last year — to highlight life in Sarawak’s rural communities.
Our destination was the small town of Bekenu, about an hour’s drive from the city centre.
We could not have asked for better weather as we traversed the coastal highway, with crystal blue skies forming the perfect backdrop to the rolling waves of the South China Sea gently lapping against the sandy coastline.
While taking a scenic detour through some villages, we found ourselves at Pantai Bungai, famed for its powder-fine sandy beaches and clear, aqua seascape.
It is a popular weekend destination for visitors, mainly local teachers and government servants as well as visitors from Brunei.
Infrastructure available appears to be well-maintained, with good roads, large playgrounds for children and a marketplace catering to visitors.
However, all these facilities are rather basic, despite their reasonably good condition.
For instance, the road should be widened to better cater to two-way traffic while seating, lighting and waste disposal facilities could be expanded to create a safer, cleaner and more enjoyable atmosphere for the hundreds of locals and visitors.
After successfully getting directions from a nearby homestay, we managed to find our way to Bekenu. This predominantly Malay community is currently experiencing a spurt of construction activity.
Twelve new units of shop houses are being built to give a facelift to the town and are due for completion next year.
Besides that, the pace of life appears to remain mostly idyllic in this riverine town of a few thousand.
Villagers from upriver and down river still berth their sampans at jetties next to the town’s esplanade by the Sibuti river while going about their daily activities and settling their personal affairs at the busy wet market or within the town.
School children paddling with oars or using outboard motors to power their boats from across river to go to school and back again after school is done are a common sight.
We were told by a community leader that the number of crocodile sightings in the river have increased in recent years.
Locals know to keep their distance from the water’s edge and are wary of their reptilian neighbours.
On the surface, Bekenu is a charming town and residents appear content with what they have.
However, like Pantai Bungai, Bekenu would greatly benefit from additional public infrastructure and facilities.
Due to their close proximity to Miri, the tourism and hospitality potential for both these picturesque places as well as similar surrounding locations is as yet, mostly untapped.
This is where policymakers and decision-makers could do a lot of good for the development of these areas but they must tread with caution.
It is very tempting to sweep in with a whole host of new construction projects and declare these places developed and ready for the tourism money to start rolling in.
However, construction does not necessarily translate into developing tourism sustainably and responsibly.
Pantai Bungai and Bekenu’s tourism potential are indistinguishably entwined with maintaining the unspoilt nature of their surroundings.
Managing the balance between development and nature is crucial so that tourists will have good reasons to return again and again.
It’s not just local infrastructure that needs development but human resources as well.
We were given to understand that there is much potential to develop homestay programmes in and around Bekenu, with a few local residents already having dipped their toes into this sector of the tourism industry.
But it is a fledgling industry and locals need government and non-governmental organisation (NGO) support to access the education, facilities and business know-how to do well in tourism and hospitality.