Batu Puteh in Sabah is not your typical kampung. It made headlines in December 2021 after the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) named it as one of the best tourism villages in the world.
Malaysia Minister of Tourism Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri said Batu Puteh is a model of responsible rural tourism as well as ecotourism and community-based tourism. “This tourism niche is one the country's main areas of strength considering the abundance of natural assets, heritage, and cultural diversity with which we are blessed," she said.
Batu Puteh is the only village in BIMP-EAGA that made it to the list last year. A report on the best examples of sustainable ecotourism, agriculture, and fisheries in BIMP-EAGA featured the village among the case studies.
UNWTO launched the Best Tourism Villages initiative to advance the role of tourism in safeguarding rural villages, along with their landscapes, natural and cultural diversity, and their local values and activities, including local gastronomy.
Recognized for its high potential to stimulate local economic growth and social change, rural tourism is a type of tourism activity in which the visitor’s experience is related to a wide range of products generally linked to nature-based activities, agriculture, rural lifestyle and culture, angling, and sightseeing.
UNWTO said rural tourism activities typically take place in nonurban areas with low population density, landscape and land-use dominated by agriculture and forestry, and traditional social structure and lifestyle.
Tourism is one of the pillars BIMP-EAGA has identified to spur development in remote and less developed areas in the four participating Southeast Asian countries. To this end, the Sabah Tourism Board works with rural communities to develop destinations and travel experiences that would appeal to tourists who want to go off the beaten path. As of last year, it has identified 30 rural tourism destinations across the state.
In the case of Batu Puteh, UNWTO noted how community members worked together to protect wildlife and nature, implemented tourism quality standards and certification systems, and ensured locals can participate in tourist activities.
Located in the Lower Kinabatangan River in Eastern Sabah (Northeast Borneo), Batu Puteh boasts of highly diverse ecosystems. Its freshwater swamp forest and rainforest are home to diverse wildlife, such as monkeys, hornbills, birds, and elephants.
To protect wildlife and nature in general, locals established a program where tourists can plant trees and help restore forest cover, which also gives guests the opportunity to see Sabah’s natural attractions.
Batu Puteh’s push to implement tourism-quality standards and certification systems was also noteworthy. Started by the village tourism association cooperative KOPEL, the initiative included introducing organic certifications for farmers. The cooperative also provides farmers with organic inputs and high-grade compost to rehabilitate soil.
One of the ways locals made sure more members of the community are able to participate in tourist activities is through a village homestay program. The community also set up a village riverboat service, forest guide services, village culture and arts program, and an eco camp—all aimed at providing jobs to locals.
Batu Puteh took the first steps toward rural tourism in 1996. A group of young people decided to earn a living from tourism in a way that creates jobs and sustainable income, all while conserving the community's traditional culture and forest ecosystem.
UNWTO’s Best Tourism Village Initiative
A total of 44 villages from 32 countries made it to the UNWTO’s Best Tourism Village list in 2021. All of the villages stood out for their natural and cultural resources as well as for their innovative and transformative actions and commitment to the development of tourism in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
They were evaluated based on nine areas:
- Cultural and natural resources;
- Promotion and conservation of cultural resources;
- Economic sustainability;
- Social sustainability;
- Environmental sustainability;
- Tourism potential and development and value chain integration;
- Governance and prioritization of tourism;
- Infrastructure and connectivity; and
- Health, safety, and security.
“Tourism can be a driver of social cohesion and inclusion by promoting a fairer distribution of benefits throughout the territory and empowering local communities,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili in announcing the list in 2021, the inaugural year for the initiative. “This initiative recognizes those villages committed to making tourism a strong driver of their development and wellbeing.”
The UNWTO is now accepting applications for the 2022 edition of the list. Deadline is on 28 June 2022 and the chosen villages will be announced at the end of the year.