Sunday, June 7, 2009

Similajau National Park, Bintulu - Conservation Zone or Tourist Spot?

IS Similajau National Park, 30km northeast of Bintulu town, a tourist destination or a conservation area?

Some say it is not listed among the premier tourist spots in the state. True or just a misperception?

According to Sarawak Forest Corporation (SFC) regional manager, Mohammad Jirin Anis, the first thing people should know is the park’s origin and how it got to where it is today.

He said this had to be made clear to avoid any misunderstanding on the park’s status and its attraction to the tourism sector.

“Similajau National Park was gazetted on December 1, 1976, to provide a conservation zone for the unique geographical features along the Bintulu coast and protect the flora and fauna of the surrounding areas. It covers

7,064 hectares of coastline with 1,932 hectares as the water-body area under the sea,” he added.

Some say the park was established chiefly because of its natural beauty but is that enough?

Jirin apparently doesn’t think so.

“Unlike other parks, we don’t have a dominant icon as a main tourist attraction and as you might know, the park was initially set up for conservation purposes before it was opened to visitors,” he noted.

Jirin, who has been with the park’s management for many years, believed there were two main reasons why people came to the park — relaxation and research.

However, he hoped the scenario could be changed once SCORE (Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy) took off in earnest.

“At the moment, the percentage of researchers at the park is small — mostly foreigners. Actually, we’re now looking forward to the implementation of SCORE projects near the Similajau area. When this is done, many people will come to Bintulu and work for the industries.

“With more people here, new opportunities can be created and we’re waiting for the right time to promote the park as a tourist destination and perhaps in the process, come up with new products to cater for the tourists,” Jirin enthused.

With the global economic slowdown and its negative impact on the tourism industry, the park is now, understandably, focusing more on attracting domestic tourists.

“The downturn has affected us directly in terms of decreased foreign tourist arrivals. As for the tourism products, they are still there and not affected as much because, as you might know, we are offering Nature tourism.

“This year, we are targeting 80 per cent local visitors but as of now, we’re still receiving quite a number of foreign visitors though not as many as before,” he said.

He disclosed that last year alone, the park recorded a total of 1,700 foreign visitors — most were independent researchers but some came with their families just to enjoy Nature, bird-watching and other recreational activities.

“This year, we’re hoping to get more domestic visitors. Our facilities are being upgraded, so those who like adventure such as trekking and camping and just to relax, can come here,” Jirin added.

Presently, the park’s management is building six new chalets and two new eight-room hostels and upgrading the other facilities.

“When these are completed by April next year, the park will be ready to provide better facilities and accommodation to both local and foreign visitors,” Jirin said.

Asked whether the park would introduce more tourist attractions, he said it all depended on the government’s plan and allocation.

Some people believe the reason why the park is not really favoured as a tourist destination is that except for its ‘golden beach’, there are no other natural attractions such as pristine waterfalls, mountains and such like.

Jirin said an artificial waterfall should be a good start if that was what people really wanted although he personally felt the natural environment should still be a top attraction.

According to him, what the locals may not realise or appreciate is the park’s location.

“What makes this park different from others in Sarawak is its location close to the town centre — about a 30-minute drive. This is an advantage to the local people,” he added.

However, what do other people think? Do they like the park, if so, why, or maybe they will reject it?

A 35-year-old private company employee who wanted to be known only as Jimmy, said the park had its own unique attractions like the natural surroundings but he pointed out it was not enough to lure visitors if the management concentrated solely on the park’s natural beauty without thinking of improving or diversifying its current tourism products.

“They should provide more up-to-date facilities and infrastructure — a canteen, for instance,” he said, adding that there should also be more choices on food.

Jimmy urged the management to capitalise on the park’s natural beauty and make it a safe and enjoyable place for visiting families.

“I feel this place is good for weekend family gatherings, so I hope more facilities can be built for children.

Hopefully, the park could move with the current change and development taking in the Division.”

Asked why some people considered the park a nonentity, he said it could be due to the lack of facilities and the predominantly jungle landscape.

“This is all right for people who love Nature. Energetic people are likely to look for such a place where they move around and enjoy the scenery. But for people who like a quiet stay and playground facilities for their children, they may not find the jungles and the natural beauty to their taste,” he reckoned.

Meanwhile, Bintulu Taxi Owner’s Association chairman, Simon Alan, said the percentage of foreigners using taxis to the park had decreased due to the economic downturn.

“Nothing much has changed since last year — just an average figure from my point of view but I’m not sure if they are using other transportation like rented vans or transport provided by their travel agencies,” he added.

He noted that more foreigners than locals were using taxis to go to the park.

“To some locals, it may not be worth spending RM50 per trip by taxi to the park but it seems nothing could be done about the fares.

“I know there are some interesting places like the ‘golden beach’ at the park but it’s quite far for some people to get there. That’s why I hardly ever see locals charter a taxi to the park. Maybe, they use their own transport,” Simon said.

“Even if they do visit the park, there is nothing much to do there, especially for their children, except to see the scenery — and not all people like doing that kind of thing.”

On the taxi drivers’ responsibility towards promoting Similajau National Park, Simon said to some extent, the cabbies had done their part by giving passengers, particularly foreigners, information on places of interest, including the park, in and around the Division.

According to him, the park management had once held a dialogue with the Bintulu Taxi Owner’s Association on how the association could seriously help to promote the park.

In his view, to enhance the park’s popularity among especially the locals, there is a need for the management to think outside the box and come up with more ideas besides just promoting Nature tourism.

“I think they should jointly organise activities with the local communities or associations to make the park more interesting — quite part from its natural beauty,” he suggested.

Among the activities he has his mind are water sports, games and any activities the different communities can enjoy.

By and large, the park still remains a conservation zone for some types of flora and various species of fauna although it does offer an unforgettable experience for visitors who enjoy the tranquillity and beauty of its natural surroundings or watching the various species of wildlife within the park.

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