His companies Borneo Eco Tours and Sukau Rainforest Lodge have won numerous international ecotourism awards. Sukau Rainforest Lodge was Highly Commended in the Best Small Hotel / Accommodation category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards. The success of Sukau Rainforest Lodge has encouraged him to share his experience of running the lodge in Saving Paradise which he co-authored with fellow ECOCLUB Member Carol Patterson in 2005 and which documented the ten years of operation of the lodge.
A graduate in Economics from the University of London in 1977, Albert Teo has been in the tourism industry for the last thirty years. Over the three decades, he has been a hotelier, tour operator, lodge and backpacker owner and operator.
A keen photographer, he has trekked over 1,000km in Borneo and published over 150 postcards designs of Borneo and seven books including Sabah -Land of the Sacred Mountain, Journey through Borneo, Saving Paradise-The Story of Sukau Rainforest Lodge among others.
Over the last few years, Albert Teo has organized three highly successful international ecotourism conferences in Malaysia including the World Ecotourism Conference and Field Trips in 1999, the 1st Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference APeco2002 and Borneo Ecotourism Conference in 2005. He will be organizing the Borneo Tourism Conference BTC2007 with Professor Ross Dowling of Edith Cowan University, Australia in September 2007.
Albert has served in various positions in the tourism industry including Sabah Chapter Chairman of Malaysian Association of Tours and Travel Agents MATTA, Chairman of Sabah Tourist Association, Advisor of The International Ecotourism Society, USA, and marketing committee of Sabah Tourism Board among others.
In the last few years Albert started to travel around the Asia Pacific countries as an ecotourism speaker on ecotour and ecolodge operations and marketing through his consulting company, Borneo Integrated Services Pte Ltd. In October 2006, Albert was recognized by Edith Cowan University, Australia for his contribution to the university where he was appointed as the Adjunct Lecturer for three years.
(The Interview follows:)
ECOCLUB: In what way is Ecotourism better understood and practised today in Malaysia , compared to when you started, 30 years - a generation - ago? Have domestic and foreign tourists perception and attitudes changed in a significant way?
Albert Teo: We are very fortunate to have in place Malaysia Ecotourism Plan which was done in the mid 90s and used by the government to guide their developments. As a result ecotourism is better understood by the serious practitioners including academics, NGOs including WWF which assisted the government in drafting the ecotourism master plan, government departments directly responsible for developing ecotourism and a few special interest tour and lodge operators. Many tourism players have also been exposed to ecotourism through several international ecotourism conferences that I have organised under Malaysian Association of Tours and Travel Agents MATTA including World Ecotourism Conference WEC1999, Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference APeco2002, Borneo Ecotourism Conference BEC2005 and the forthcoming Borneo Tourism Conference BTC2007 in September 2007. Over the last few years, MATTA have also been organising the bi-annual APeco conference in different parts of the country. The general level of understanding among Malaysians in the tourism industry is therefore increasing though at a slower pace than the foreign tourists especially those who choose to come to Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where ecotourism products are more varied and better developed.
ECOCLUB: Your book, co-authored with Carol Patterson, on Sukau bravely informs the readers about some of the challenges you faced, and indirectly indicates some of the weaknesses. How easy was it for you as a business person to reveal some of your secrets? And how transparent can Lodge and Tour Operators really be, in their quest to safeguard their reputation from competitors and malicious others?
Albert Teo: I have personally acquired most of my knowledge on ecotourism through books that I read and have been asked countless times to share my experiences by potential investors, developers and tourists alike. I have also seen many mistakes and countless cases of wasted funds from people who did not understand the challenges and level of commitment required before they started their projects.
My book is to give them an idea of the potentials and pitfalls for them to check themselves whether they really have the skills, funds and stamina to do this type of business. This business is not for everyone and is full of challenges. I hope my book will help those who are genuinely serious in doing this business so that the country will benefit from better ecotourism products and raise our standard.
I also indicated that some of the government policies were anti-poverty policies although this was not their intention but unfortunately it is the case. More private investments would have taken place in rural areas with potential for employment opportunities in ecotourism products if not for restrictive land and bank lending policies.
If I don’t speak out on the problems and challenges that I have encountered, we will not be able to change and improve nor overcome the challenges. I understand that some policies are in place due mostly to insecurity. Given the rapid pace of globalisation and the shift towards knowledge economy, I am afraid the old perception that land ownership being most important is depriving the rural people of investment opportunities and thus of skills that they desperately need to raise their self confidence and engage in the global economy to reduce their dependency on government welfare programs.
At the end of the day, given the power of internet and global presence, the customer is the final judge and not our competitor. Our biggest competitor will be ourselves, both individually and as a country. Neither is knowledge static and with the power of internet, we can use our knowledge through positioning our product as a brand. As ecotourism is a niche market, the more we tell and the more people know about our unique product, the more potent is the branding.
ECOCLUB: You have won many prestigious international tourism awards in your career, both personal, and for your businesses. You are also a member of the jury for other awards. So how important for business are major tourism awards, compared with say certification? Do you feel major tourism awards are transparent enough, or is there considerable ground for improvement?
Albert Teo:Awards are given based on certain criteria. It is also a form of benchmarking for us whether our operations and products have achieved a certain standard based on those criteria. Certification does the same thing only that sometimes you have to pay a fair amount of money which you will rather invest in improving the product.
I still believe that awards give me more mileage in publicity than certification especially when your products win several different awards. However, certification is very useful especially when it can help improve the system and save cost in the long run and improve profitability.
Just as business can be improved, so also tourism awards criteria. For example, criteria should be designed in such a way that a billion dollar chain hotel company in a developed country does not compete unfairly with an independent small Ecolodge operation in a third world country. So also a giant tour company employing 2,000 employees compete with 20-person company.
ECOCLUB: With Sukau you have made a miracle in developing a world class Ecolodge in what was not really a virgin environment, as primary vegetation had been destroyed mainly for plantations, while also engaging in major reforestation projects. Forest fires are of course a major problem, in your neighbours Indonesia. Do you see Ecotourism as a realistic way of stopping forest fires, forestry and plantation expansion in the broader region, or practically as a neutral add-on?
Albert Teo: With Sukau Rainforest Lodge, we are trying to create a unique travel experience with limited funds. We are trying to use the lodge as a tool for educating the locals and tourists alike on the idea of practising a more sustainable living and sustainable development; that they is value in preserving the natural environment including the wildlife such as Borneo pygmy elephants, orang utans and proboscis and the other primates in Sukau; that maximum land utilisation need not be at the expense of wildlife and the natural environment; that locals prefer to work in tourism enterprises instead of in palm oil plantations; that there is a place for commercial oil palm plantations and also ecotourism business and they need to co-exist in some areas.
So they cannot cut the native vegetation right to the river's edges as stipulated by law which affects wildlife viewing and migration. Reforestation is not only expensive but also hard due to the compacted ground as we have found out in our Kinabatangan wildlife corridor rehabilitation project KWICORP.
As Malaysians become more affluent, they will want to seek out places like Sukau for their spiritual encounters with wild orang utans, wild elephants and wild proboscis monkeys and generally with nature and we need to protect the area for our future generations to enjoy.
Ecotourism will not stop the fire and global expansion of palm oil so long as there is a market for them but it will raise the consciousness of both the government and all the other stakeholders on the need to enforce our existing laws, that the development of one industry stakeholder cannot be at the expense of the other stakeholders.
ECOCLUB: A most successful eco-entrepreneur, you have rightfully ventured into the consultancy field. Does this create any ethical dilemmas or conflicts of interest? For example, what would you say to clients requesting advice for Golf & luxury tourism developments in Malaysia? Would you try to direct them towards Ecotourism, or do you see merits in those type of developments as well?
Albert Teo: Ecotourism may not be feasible in all areas. It all depends on the resources available in the area concerned. For any business to be sustainable in the long term, we have to look at the triple bottom line, social, environmental and economic and all developments should include three areas concerned. This is very challenging naturally as will become more so as pristine resources become more scarce. There may be a place for golf and luxury lodges then depending on the marketing segments we want to tap and the USP of the area.
ECOCLUB: You have great experience in organising and hosting Ecotourism Conferences. Beyond the topic, what is needed to make such conferences truly "Eco"? And how satisfied are you with the amount and level of discourse about Ecotourism at the global level today?
Albert Teo: I am tempted to suggest that we should do more local conferences and less international conference so as to minimize the need to fly long distances. I have attended a few conferences where some delegates come for two days half way round the world. We may be able to afford to fly but the cost to the environment has not been taken into account. I have taken this step by focusing now on just organising a regional/local conference to minimise the need to travel long distance.
For those in the know, there is an increasing number of organisations producing ecotourism and sustainable tourism newsletter. The level of consciousness is growing and is picking up in momentum with the growing interest in global warming and global warning through the increasing frequency in natural calamities.
ECOCLUB: How satisfied are you with the public sector's approach in terms of physical and legal infrastructure, and appropriate funding in Malaysia. Did such state assistance play any significant role in your business?
Albert Teo: While I learned to live with and adjust my expectation, it is natural for any private entrepreneur to move faster than what is possible. The bigger the project, the longer is the decision-making process and implementation process and the government is no exception.
Unfortunately, this does result in implementation of policies which though they have good intention come too late. Though we have our hiccups, Malaysia has done pretty well with five year plans and the government has been pro-active in many instances too including providing loans with lower interest and tax free holidays have been granted to investors and tourism companies.
ECOCLUB: If you could name just one ingredient of the recipe for a successful Ecolodge, what would it be?
Albert Teo: Keep improving and don’t quit.
ECOCLUB: How easy and how important have you found cooperation with NGOs in the course of conducting your ecotourism business? Do you feel that dividing lines between "for-profits" and "non-profits" are perhaps becoming more difficult to detect in the ecotourism world, and would that be a good or a bad thing?
Albert Teo: We enjoy working with many NGOs. The disadvantage NGOs have over us is that they have a time line and strict agenda and this lack of continuity is often a cause for disillusionment for the local community whose hopes have been raised high only to be abandoned when the project or funds runs out. Capacity building does take at least ten years to bear fruit and it is therefore vital NGOs work with organisations that have long term presence in the local area to ensure momentum is not lost and earlier investment is not wasted.
ECOCLUB: Is there anything else you would like to say to our Members and readers, or perhaps about your future plans?
Albert Teo: I have made a lot of mistakes in the past and still continue to learn. I want to make the best of my knowledge and time by looking for strategic partners and by sharing my knowledge. I am hoping to put all these together by creating a new model ecolodge as best I can with partners and specialists as a legacy for the future generations.
ECOCLUB: Thank you very much
Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here