Similar to Tao on the Philippines, we were extremely impressed with the tour we did with Orou Sapulot in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. (For a detailed report on our tour with them please also read our other blog post “Borneo Murut Adventures“). This is definitely EcoTourism at its best. In this post we would like to deconstruct the activities of Orou Sapulot and analyze why this is such a fantastic and sustainable tourism model.
Founders and first steps
Richard, a member of the Murut tribe, established Orou Sapulot in 2013. He and his son Virgil are the driving forces and the visionaries behind it all. When Richard retired he thought about what he could do with the land he owned and told himself there has to be something else other than selling out the land to grow oil palm. To quote their website, the objectives behind their activities include:
- To create awareness and empower villagers on their social and economic right and privileges.
- Minimize the rural-urban migration among the young generations in search of employment.
- To create awareness and educate the villagers on the importance of preserving their god given environment and beautiful culture for their future and generations.
- To reduce and finally eradicate relative poverty among the villagers.
To achieve this, Richard started to build simple camps at beautiful spots next to a river and a waterfall and invited guests to the area. Luckily among some of the first guests was a writer for the Lonely Planet guidebook who clearly had a good time. After being included in the guidebook, more and more guests came and the business started to thrive.
Apart from visiting these beautiful places the real USP however is that guests are so warmly welcome by Richard’s whole family. They cook for you, drive you around and explain you everything from animals in the rain forest to ancient Murut traditions. This is what makes the experience so unique and special.
Farm and future projects
Those who had the chance to get to know Richard and Virgil will not be surprised to hear that they are not simply satisfied with what they have already established. Both are agricultural scientists and this led them to starting their own organic farm, right next to their home. However, this is no ordinary farm. The idea is to experiment and optimize the land not for revenue but for yield. Ultimately the results of their experiments should help other farmers to use their findings and thus achieve better results. Examples of what they are working on include reducing the amount of fertilizers used, using different arrangements of cocoa plants (straight rows vs less orderly planting patterns, more or less shade from banana trees etc…) as well as various ways to grow agar wood.
In the future Richard and Virgil want to invite guests to explore their farm and learn more about it. In combination with other activities such as cooking and handicraft lessons we are absolutely convinced that demand will be high and this will become an enormously successful part of their EcoTourism organisation.
Summary of success factors
We thought about what makes Orou Sapulot such a big success and identified the following (not exhaustive) success factors:
- The core business of having guests stay with Orou Sapulot seems to be profitable. This allows to invest in future projects and even experiment a little with crazy ideas
- Richard and Virgil are extremely passionate, resourceful, creative and well respected and connected in their community
- There isn’t a lot, if any, tourism infrastructure in this part of Sabah. This makes it a bit easier to stand out and attract tourists
- The large family provides many people to help out as well as a unique personal experience for guests
- All this leads to amazing reviews (e.g. on TripAdvisor) and word of mouth promotion which helps to attract more and more guests without any special marketing activities