Wed, Feb 02, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Tourism aims to please

A decline in Taiwanese tourists to Malaysia after the devastating tsunami is based on misconceptions. Tourism industry officials are doing all they can to lure people back to the beaches

Words and photos by Mark Kennedy  /  STAFF REPORTER

The first thing you notice when you arrive in Borneo this time of year is the warm breeze that compels you to shed the heavy clothing you were wearing when you boarded a plane in Taiwan. The current monsoon season brings the breezy summer-like weather to the city of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, where conditions are milder than the unbearable humidity of a typical summer day in Taipei.

Malaysian Borneo is a popular destination for tourists from Taiwan and elsewhere because of its near consistent year-round 30-degree temperature, its lush rainforests, coastal mangroves and unspoiled beaches. Developers here have been careful to not disturb the beaches to preserve the coastline's feel of an "untouched paradise."

Towering above the capital city is Mount Kinabalu -- at 4,095m it's the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. For the more adventurous, scaling the mountain is possible for anyone in-shape enough to trudge up the slope. Mountain climbing experience is not required. It takes about two days to complete the climb, and accommodations are provided on the mountain.

Another main attraction of Sabah is its diving and watersports. Situated just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu are a cluster of islands that collectively make up Tunku Abdul National Park, where novice to experienced scuba divers can see the coral reefs and various species of fish in the shallow, clear South China Sea.

The largest of the islands, Gayana, is home to a resort that styles itself an eco-tourist destination. Here, visitors can learn more about the reefs they've explored while scuba diving or snorkeling at the Marine Research and Rehabilitation Center and Museum. The straw-roofed beach house accommodations on this island hover over the ocean on wooden stilts, which sway slightly in the tide, giving the sensation of being out at sea. Vacationers here can take a kayak trip around the island, try windsurfing, snorkeling or scuba diving, or just relax on the white-sand beach.

About 64km southwest of Kota Kinabalu is the island of Pulau Tiga, home to another eco-tourist resort. The uninhabited end of this island made a name for itself as the site of the first season of CBS' reality TV show Survivor.

The allure of Borneo is also heavily connected to its rich cultural diversity. Sabah is perhaps one of only a few places in the world where people from several different ethnicities live together in relative harmony. "Malaysians are proud that different cultures can live next to each other," says tour guide Louis Lee, an ethnic Chinese. "I like knowing all kinds of people. I'm a Christian, but my parents' neighbors are Muslim, and we are all friends."

At just over 50 percent, the biggest ethnic group in this predominantly Muslim country is the indigenous Malays, who together make up 32 subgroups that speak over 80 dialects. People of Chinese origin account for about 20 percent of the population, and the remainder can trace their roots back to India.

Chinese traders came to Borneo in the 10th century, exchanging ceramics, jade and other commodities for plants, medicinal products and exotic birds coveted by China's emperors. Early records indicate the Chinese began to settle along the north coast of Borneo, now modern day Sabah, around the 14th century. In the late 1940s, a significant influx of Chinese immigrants came to the island as the Nationalists and their supporters fled communist rule.

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