MIRI: Ulu Baram can be tapped as a lucrative natural source of tourism dollars for Sarawak if properly managed.
Much has been reported about the woes of the city’s tourism industry in living up to its image of a resort city. This could be tackled with the right lead from the government to diversify its attractions to include the vast Ulu Baram interior.
“The tourism industry is a highly profitable source of revenue if managed properly, and Ulu Baram can be tapped as another natural source of tourism dollars, especially for the city and the large northern region of Sarawak,” said SUPP veteran Lee Kee Bian, 80.
He then related his experiences and involvement in local tourism industry from 1974 to 1985.
During those 10 years when Lee operated as tourist guide from his hometown Long Lama, he had welcomed foreign tourists in groups of about 20 in Marudi town.
“They were mostly Europeans of Swiss origins attracted by Borneo’s natural charm. They started by climbing Mount Kinabalu after flying into Kota Kinabalu,” said Lee who served as Baram councillor in Marudi district office for two terms in 1986 to 1990.
In those days, land routes were lacking, and tourists travelled by river from Miri up Baram river by express boat to Marudi, hence on to Long Lama where they stopped for lunch.
Lee would then contract his Kenyah friends Maping Apoi and Dora Tatan. Maping, now in his 80s and Dora, 74, used to collaborate with him in the tourism trade.
Maping drove one of his two longboats to bring tourists around Ulu Baram, while Lee’s Penan worker called Beran operated the other longboat. Each boat carried about 10 tourists and their luggages.
Dora was involved in the business of supplying longhouses, and had helped in organising visits to different longhouses along the river, as well as coordinating events like eating, dancing and performances.
The elderly couple now stays in Miri, and are still active in the trade of supplying longhouses in Ulu Baram.
Lee got his start in the tourism business after working as a contractor for a UN agency that did forest research for six months back in 1972, and earned the respect of a Swiss colleague who recommended him as potential business partner in tourism.
“The foreigners really enjoyed staying in longhouses overnight, jungle trekking, visiting birds’ nest caves in Long Lama, visiting Penan settlements in the forests, beside Sg Akah like in Bua Abang,” he explained.
Unfortunately, the number of tourists to Ulu Baram had declined and they finally stopped coming.
“They had complained that our rivers were seriously polluted by logging debris, and our forests overlogged,” he lamented.
Lee was also involved in the hotel industry in Marudi, but that too eventually ended, and he went into the insurance industry late at 55, making a successful career out of it.
Recently, Lee went on a two-week vacation to China with 42 fellow colleagues in the insurance industry, before driving across the border with six others to visit Vietnam in the second week.
“In China, the government takes the lead everywhere from cities to the remotest regions in promoting local tourism,” he pointed out.
Though not his first visit to China, Lee was impressed by what he saw in southern China, and found the active role played by the government in China’s massive tourism market to be most effective.
“The government must go beyond talks to prepare the infrastructures to take tourists where they want to visit, and promote attractions with the help of local people,” he added.
Lee will be making another visit to China early next month, and hoped to share his experiences in the tourism industry.