A Time to Thrive: Promoting and Sustaining Rural Community Tourism

By Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson

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One of the caves in the Lenggong complex of caves where the remains of Perak Man were found.

WITH COVID-19, the idea of travel became unthinkable for most of us. So when state borders finally opened, travel-starved Malaysians began exploring their own backyard. Many Malaysians took a few days off to reconnect with family, make day trips and discover what their own country has to offer. For me, that turned out to be quite a lot.

Being one of these people who are rediscovering small towns and remoter locations in Malaysia, I found myself experiencing a simpler, more interactive connection with local communities, and finding out how different they are from each other.

If rural community tourism is ever to thrive, it would be now. 

The difficulty in arranging any form of rural community tourism is getting the “authenticity” right and aligning the expectations and goals of all the participating stakeholders. The owner of a homestay, for example, can just provide a room with no thought to service, comfort or maintenance. They can also build a cluster of pretty wooden houses in a compound away from the local community where tourists can enjoy impeccable service, manicured gardens, soy lattes and an experience wholly distinct from how the locals live.

For me, staying in a rural area is not just about the unique houses or eating a homemade and special meal. It is about immersing myself in local experiences, which might not be entirely agreeable to all visitors. And most importantly, it is about interacting with people I would not normally interact with and finding common ground with them.

Amazing Lenggong

I recently made trips to the Lenggong area in Perak, which is just a two-hour drive away from Penang. Lenggong touts one of the most important archaeological and geological sites in the country, going back to between 1.83 million and 1,700 years ago. The discoveries of wonderful cave sites dating from the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages, as well as the Perak Man, one of Southeast Asia’s oldest and most complete human skeletons, have put it on the UNESCO map. An impressive 2,068km2 of it was also made a national geopark in 2021 after it was found to be the crash site of a 1.83 million-year-old meteor that had deposited suevite stones in various locations upon impact.

Cave complex.

With its lush jungles, numerous waterfalls, rivers and streams, Lenggong is graced with natural beauty. The old small towns with various traditional and heritage architectural styles are inhabited by a mixed community of Malays, Chinese and Indians. 

Thanks to a local guide named Nash who wove everything together for us, we did a full-day trip which encompassed seeing the UNESCO site, visiting the town of Lenggong and fully immersing ourselves in the diversity of the community. Nash gave us a guided tour of the archaeological and geological sites – the caves, meteor crash site and the aftermath of the eruption of Toba Volcano around 75,000 years ago. He arranged wonderful meals cooked by local housewives at their homes, where we wove pandanus mats, ate banana chips and homemade kuihs, chatted and interacted with each other on a one-to-one level. Later, we explored the Cenderoh Dam on a small boat.

Boat trip on the Cenderoh Dam.

This very personal and intimate experience could not have happened without a local guide as dedicated and attentive as Nash. It was the epitome of “slow tourism”, and enriched the lives of both the visitor and the participating stakeholders.

Ten days later, still unable to move past our amazing experience in the rural community, we arranged with Nash to go back to learn how to make kuih limas, eat more banana chips and home-cooked food and spend time in town where we bought vegetables at the market. This time, we had the good sense to spend the night at Nash’s house. 

Weaving pandanus mats.

If something makes you want to return, it must be good.

During our stay and in interacting with the locals, we also learnt how the government has failed to provide these rural communities with basic infrastructure. This is happening not just in Lenggong but across the board in rural Malaysia.

Amid its idyllic backdrop, Lenggong has been identified as an impoverished area where members of the orang asli, in particular, are impacted by the lack of an infrastructure programme that is inclusive.

It is also a sad fact that nutrition and hygiene education are lacking in many rural areas. This is glaringly evident when you live as the locals do and have to use inadequate bathroom facilities or cook in family kitchens where the only sink in the house is used for food and ingredient preparation, as well as to wash dirty nappies.

The amount of sugar and processed fried foods, so cheaply available at the markets, which make up the daily diet of rural communities, is shocking. Rubbish collection and disposal are also virtually non-existent. All these issues impact the long-term health and safety of the villagers, which in turn affects their productivity and mental health. 

Local market produce, banana flowers and jering muda.

Community Leadership

What has been positive is that Nash has been advising the households he works with to ditch the plastic plates for ceramic dishes, both for health and waste disposal reasons. As households generate more income, they can make these improvements bit by bit. This is trickle-down at work.

He has also started taking local young people (whom he calls his “partners”) on the same tour he takes his visitors to train them in the hope that they can become independent guides in the future and stay in the area rather than leave. As many of the locals do not understand the value or importance of the place they live in, Nash is helping to create awareness and to build pride in the local community.

Nash welcomes feedback and uses it to advise his partners on how to improve not only the visitor experience, but also the longer-term health and lifestyle choices of the partners he works with. It is a slow but positive process.

During our trip, we also met the head of the local Muslim community hall by chance, who talked about setting up English language lessons and soap-making lessons for all members of the community regardless of race.

The wider community, however, does need help with setting up basic infrastructure for hygiene, nutrition and waste. Authorities need to find solutions that can be managed at the local level by the community, for example, community washing areas, laundry areas, as well as toilets and baths designed with the cultural norms of the community in mind.

Getting to know the ladies while making kuih limas and curry puffs.

Tourism for Tourism’s Sake

The danger of hastily growing tourism over the short term without understanding the limitations in the community leads to the wearing down of authentic experiences. It undercuts quality experiences and has a negative impact on the local community.

In any potential tourist area, there is a need to first learn the work ethics, habits and cultural and daily norms of the local workforce to make long-term improvements to their skillsets. This needs to start at the most basic level. For example, rural villagers who do not own or use big white bedsheets cannot be expected to know how to make a bed with it. They need help to learn and adapt to the kind of hospitality town folks expect.

While the UNESCO listing is generally welcomed for attracting people and investments, it can also be a double-edged sword. To be eligible, a place is required to display a range of Outstanding Universal Values. But what are Outstanding Universal Values anyway, other than an academic checklist? Does an impoverished community concerned only with improving their lives even understand the meaning of jargon such as Outstanding Universal Values? How do they understand the definition of “universal” when most of them have lived in small wooden houses their whole lives and are preoccupied with earning a livelihood, usually by tending small orchards, selling vegetables at the market or fishing from the lake? How do they understand “value”?

A Malay lunch of keresik, coconut sambal, pucuk paku and tamu lemak.

Who are the Stakeholders?

When places listed as UNESCO Heritage Zones cater only to tourism-related businesses and activities, local small businesses and quality products in the area might suffer. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this has proven particularly detrimental, as in places as far apart as George Town and Venice, where tourism temporarily collapsed. 

The danger with a relatively pristine location such as Lenggong is “too much too fast” tourism development. The approach of thinking of the place only as a cash cow without involving the communities within the wider area is fundamentally wrong. Such an approach leads to projects, some set up with state funds, that listlessly take up space without proper maintenance and management. A better way of doing it is to identify the strengths in each of the communities and work to get these strengths to overlap.

One also has to identify the weaknesses that can be turned into opportunities. We found out that the pandanus used to make the lovely mats we bought from one of the households are sourced from Terengganu even though there is pandanus growing aplenty in Lenggong. It turned out that they do not have the skillset to harvest and process the raw pandanus on their own, though they were keen to learn this as well as adopt ideas to make their products more saleable.

Equipped with handicraft and food-making skills, the local community can be given tools to make a living that does not solely revolve around tourism. This is empowerment, especially for the women of the area. 

Ideally, the stakeholders involved in any community tourism should come from the community itself. This is why community leaders who are passionate about the place and interested in improving the lives of the communities are important. These leaders should have the overview to organise training programmes led by outside experts in the hospitality industry to help mentor, train and guide them to facilitate a better experience for visitors.

The Pioneers Fade Away

In many rural communities, there are pioneers who hosted tourists even before the area was involved in tourism. Often they were ahead of their time, but are now in need of help to move forward.

SukaSuka, a lake retreat that was established 26 years ago in Lenggong, is such a place. The owners had collected and rebuilt 10 wooden Perak-style kampung houses to host tourists in the area, but are now finding themselves unsure of how to navigate their future in the tourism business. Stakeholders like these need to be identified and brought into the conversation of how to grow the community together, and not be side-lined for new investors from the onset. 

SukaSuka Lake Retreat.

The enrichment you get from travelling is a two-way street and the best results are achieved when the visitor and the host are on the same wavelength – both need to know what they would like to get out of the experience and manage expectations.

It is still unclear how the tourism and hospitality industry will settle as the world starts to live with Covid. For now, there is still a need in most places to keep things small-scale. Malaysians may no longer opt to travel domestically when overseas travel opens up. However, if the experiences are good and consistent, rural destinations will benefit in the long run. For many foreign tourists, these rural locations link the popular points of interest such as Pulau Redang or KL with smaller scale, more authentic Malaysian experiences. 

The challenge with rural community tourism, like most good adventures and holidays, is to reach a balance between taking people out of their comfort zones and giving them a place of comfort to return to at the end of the day. With the right guidance and training, modern hygiene standards, basic nutritional knowledge, quality service, comfort and a good night’s sleep are not unattainable in rural community tourism.


Where is the Perak Man?

The bones of Perak Man are resting in an unopened museum in Lenggong. The museum is apparently still under construction so I did not manage to see him during my trips. I look forward to another trip in the near future to visit the museum and see how the museum has interpreted and put into context the important archaeological findings in Lenggong and tell the story of the people who provide the living wealth in the area.


Note: I have avoided the use of kampung tourism or kampung life in this article because any opportunity in rural community tourism anywhere in Malaysia has to involve all parties, races, cultures and religions. Our diversity is our greatest strength.

In Lenggong we stayed and were guided by Nash of Rumah Tiang 16 (https:rumahtiang16.com) so our experience was solely with him. There may be other guides who offer similar services but we have not found them yet. The idea is to return and try out different things to broaden the picture I have written about in this article. 

Rebecca Duckett-Wilkinson

To know more about her works, visit her Facebook @RebeccaDuckettWilkinsonArt or her Instagram account @atravellingartistsdiary.