Borneo Eco Tours Travel Advisory
Latest Advice: 14 June 2017
2017 has thus far been a peaceful and safe year for travel to Borneo with the exception of the sinking of an overloaded tourist boat to Mengalum Island. The boat was licensed to carry 12 persons but was overloaded with 30 Chinese national tourists and local crew when it sanked. The boat owner and operator have since been charged and are under trial in court.
The ongoing fighting between the Phillipines army and the Maute Rebels (Islamic State) in Marawi City, Phillipines has not had any impact on Borneo's safety and security. Marawi City is on the island of Mindanao and is 730km away from Borneo (the same distance that London is from Frankfurt), seperated by the Sulu Sea and on the other side of Mindanao mainland. In some ways, the Marawi fighting has made Borneo safer by drawing militants away from Borneo back to the Phillipines.
Since the Malaysian police and navy intercepted an attempted kidnapping on 8 December 2016, there has not been a single reported or attempted kidnapping from Malaysian waters. We believe that the situation has improved sufficiently to once again consider travel to areas offshore of Sipadan and Semporna. Unfortunately, due to foreign travel advisories, bear in mind that your insurance may not cover you for travel in these areas (Sipadan, Mabul, Pom-Pom and Mataking islands) until they are lifted.
We advise that our clients exercise every precaution when traveling to Sipadan and islands off Semporna due to the heightened threat of kidnapping for ransom. This includes ensuring that you're travelling with a licensed tour operator who has safety procedures and emergency protocols in place. Security at these islands have been bolstered but there remains a residual risk of incursions due to these islands' relatively close distance with the Phillipines border. These island resorts continue to enjoy brisk business and our advise is precautionary on our part.
Travel to Sukau, Danum Valley, Tabin Reserve and Sandakan remains very safe. That said, we take every precaution necessary, have emergency measures in place and avoid where possible crowded areas and outlying areas vulnerable to danger. All boat transfers offshore happen only during the day. We only have boat transfers to areas deemed safe and avoid other areas altogether.
In spite of travel advisories from some countries to Selingan island and Langkayan island, we still believe that travel to Selingan island (Turtle island) and to Langkayan island is very safe due to their permanent military presence, further enhanced with the deployment of police and military personnel at all tourist attactions in Sabah by the Defence Minister. An enforced nightime curfew on boats also helps by restricting undetected incursions.
There has not been any Islamic State activity in Sabah. There has not been any threats nor change in the security situation related to terrorism in Sabah.
On 8 December 2016, at 9:30pm at night, 3 suspected kidnappers were killed in a firefight with police and another 3 were apprehended during a kidnap attempt in Merabung, close to Lahad Datu. The six persons were part of a kidnapping group out of Tawi-Tawi, Phillipines responsible for 6 of the 9 kidnappings to have happened in 2016. This incident we believe will improve the security situation significantly as it will strongly deter any further attempts of incursions as it displays evidently that security forces are able to intercept incursions and are willing to use deadly force if necessary. Read more HERE.
During the course of an 8 months period in 2016, a number of kidnappings of locals and foreign workers/fishermen occured off the east coast of Sabah, summarized below. The kidnapper's bastion on the island of Jolo is under assault by the Filipino army that commenced on 16 September 2016. Read more here (article from 16 September 2016) and here (article from 18 November 2016).
- 8 December 2016 - Three suspected kidnappers were killed in a firefight with police and a further three were apprehended during a kidnap attempt in Merabung near Lahad Datu
- 19 November 2016 - Two Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped in waters of Merabung near Lahad Datu
- 5 November 2016 - Two Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped in waters of Kertam
- 28 September 2016 - A local boat owner was kidnapped from in the ocean off Semporna
- 10 September 2016 - Three Filipino fishermen were kidnapped near the shores of Pom Pom Island in Sabah, Malaysia.
- 3 August 2016 - One Indonesian sailor was kidnapped but 2 of his crew were left unharmed in Malaysian waters. He was released on 22 September 2016.
- 9 July 2016 - Three Indonesian fishermen were kidnapped off the south-eastern coast of Sabah before midnight. They were offshore fishing in Malaysian waters when they were intercepted and taken. The three Indonesian fishermen were released on 17 September 2016.
- 1 April 2016 - Four Malaysian crewman of a Malaysian freight boat were kidnapped by armed Filipino gunmen off the south-east coast of Sabah in Phillipines waters. The four crewman were released in early June.
2015 was a very eventful year for Borneo, in particular Sabah: the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that claimed the lives of 18 people on the summit of Mount Kinabalu and the kidnapping of two local Malaysians in the east coast area. Since then, the Mount Kinabalu climbing trail has been reopened, albeit now only limited to the Timpohon Gate trail, and no further kidnapping / safety incidences have affected Sabah.
While no tour operator or government can provide a 100% guarantee of safety for visitors, we can offer some compelling assurances that it is generally safe to travel to/within Sabah. Recent incidents have led law enforcement agencies to increase and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety of the people and visitors.
There is a general threat in the east coast of Sabah due to its close proximity to the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines. All travels to islands, dive sites and associated tourist facilities will have a certain level of risk. That said, the safety and well-being of our guests is our top priority and we take necessary measures to ensure all of our tours are run safely by avoiding crowded public places and areas vulnerable to intrusions. We would also like to remind and advise our guests to exercise normal safety precautions when travelling along the east coast and within Borneo.
Safety measures by Borneo Eco Tours and Law Enforcement Agencies in Sandakan:
- The ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command) oversees the security stretching from Kudat in the far north to the entire east coast including Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau. Dusk to dawn curfew are strictly enforced out at sea to ensure the safety of all guests.
- The jetty where our guests embark and disembark is situated between the ESSCOM and the Police Marine Base.
- 24 Hour air (helicopter) and sea (speed boats) surveillance.
- Army bases are set up at the mouth of Kinabatangan River in Mumiang Village (first 30 minutes boat ride to Sukau), Abai Village (another 30 minutes) and at Sukau.
- All our open sea speedboats are equipped with long range radio communication equipment including walkie-talkie coverage that can be received by Sandakan and Sukau Rainforest Lodge offices during the entire boat ride.
Safety measures by Borneo Eco Tours and Law Enforcement Agencies in Sukau:
- A police station is situated 5 minutes away from Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It has six military personnel attached to the station.
- Daily river patrols are conducted by the military attachment.
- Sukau Rainforest Lodge is located 1.5 hours away from the river-mouth heading towards the sea.
- There is another police station situated 45 minutes away (Kota Kinabatangan) from Sukau Rainforest Lodge by land.
- Almost daily roadblocks are conducted. All vehicles are stopped and inspected.
- We have members of The People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA) working at the lodge – Mr. Jamri on day shift and Mr. Shahrin on night shift.
- Sukau Rainforest Lodge admin and operation staff are connected 24-hour via phone (Whatsapp) to all security forces, where daily security updates and warning are communicated. A 24-hour communication by long range radio is also kept with our office in Sandakan.
Travel in Sabah is Safe
We would like to reiterate that it is safe to travel throughout Sabah (Borneo). Be assured that in saying this, we also take every precaution possible to avoid areas vulnerable to intrusions. We advise precautions be taken when travelling to the islands off Semporna that include the Sipadan Resorts, Pom Pom island and Mataking island. Although security has been bolstered at these locations, the recurring incidents in this area in 2014 casts sufficient doubt that compels us to advise our travelers to exercise extreme caution when visiting these areas and if you're uncomfortable with the risks, to avoid these areas altogether. There has been no further incidences in the Semporna/Sipadan areas since July 2014 however we continue to remain vigilant and take precautions where necessary to ensure the safety of our guests.
We still believe that it is safe to travel to islands off Sandakan including the Selingan Turtle island and also the Langkayan Resort island as they both host military outposts that presents a significant deterrent to any attempts to intrude on the two islands. The Sandakan abduction is the first time local Sabahans were specifically targeted for abduction alludes to the fact that the kidnappers now believe areas frequented by foreign tourists are now too heavily policed.
Our tours to Sandakan and the Sukau-Kinabatangan areas, we believe, remain safe. Sukau is approximately 2.5hrs each way inland from the sea and thus the significant distance forms a huge deterrent to any threats from the Philippines. Armed groups usually target the offshore island and coastal areas because it is easier for them to make a getaway across the Malaysian-Philippines border. There is a permanent military-police presence in Sukau village that is only 10 minutes by boat away from Sukau Rainforest Lodge. The river also forms a natural deterrent because there is only one way in and out. A military outpost was recently constructed in December 2014 and is currently stationed with 15 armed military personnel at the entry point of the river that continuously monitors all boats entering and leaving the river and provides a quick response military presence in the area. All our speed boats are equipped with high-powered outboard engines and longe range radios that maintain continuous 24 hrs communication with our base in Sandakan and in Sukau. The areas that we bring our guests on the east coast all host a sizable military presence on location or guarding key entry points to the areas.
Other inland jungle lodges including Borneo Rainforest Lodge (Danum Valley) and Tabin Wildlife Lodge remains safe to travel due to their inland locations and military presence stationed at entry points.
Most of Sabah with the exception of the Sipadan region in our view is very safe to travel. There has never been any history of security or criminal acts in the Sukau-Kinabatangan area, Danum Valley, Tabin, Selingan island and Langkayan island. With the exception of an isolated incident on the outskirts of Sandakan, all previous incidents were confined to the Sipadan and Semporna areas due to its proximity with the Philippines border and the Filipino islands just across the border.
If we feel that there is an element of threat to the safety and security of our clients visiting the various part of Sabah, we will take immediate decisive actions and alert our clients and partners of the situation. We will not jeopardise our integrity and long term relationship with our partners and clients to paint a misleading picture of the security situation in Sabah.
If you have any queries or specific questions, feel free to ask your Tour Coordinator. The management reads all questions and enquiries and will strive to provide the best and most accurate information.
Travel to Sipadan / Semporna area (2013 - 2015)
In 2014, we saw repeated incidents in the Sipadan / Semporna area that caused us to adopt a cautious approach and suspend all our tours to the islands off Semporna including Sipadan Mabul Resort, Sipadan Kapalai Resort and all resorts and lodges on the islands of Mabul, Pom Pom and Mataking. The motive for the spate of kidnappings have all been for ransom, with all those kidnapped being Chinese nationals due to their willingness to pay a ransom. Today, the resorts on these islands continue to enjoy healthy occupancies and are operating as usual. If you are aware of the risks involved and are mindful that your travel insurance will not cover you in this area, we can assist you in planning and booking your trip to Sipadan with the disclaimer that it will be at your own risk. Incidents that have occured in this area in the past few years are:
On 15 May 2015, 2 Malaysian nationals, a male and a female, were kidnapped from Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan. The female was released in November 2015 but the male was subsequently killed by the kidnappers.
On 12 July 2014, Filipino gunmen killed a policeman and kidnapped one other policeman around the Sipadan Mabul Resort area. Some have suggested that this was a revenge attack on the police as the assailants left soon after the attack and ignored the tourists and hotel workers working on the island. Negotiations for the release of the kidnapped policeman have been kept under wraps.
On 6 May 2014, a Chinese citizen who worked as a manager in a fish farm at Baik Island, an island 30km south of Lahad Datu was kidnapped by Filipino gunmen. He was released on 10 July 2014 after a ransom was paid by his company based in China.
On 2 April 2014, Filipino armed men abducted 2 women, a Chinese tourist and a Filipino hotel worker, from Singamata Reef Resort which is near to Semporna. Both were released on 31 May 2014 after a ransom was paid.
15 November 2013, 2 Taiwanese tourists were attacked by Filipino gunmen while staying at Pom Pom island resort. The husband who resisted the kidnappers was killed while his wife was kidnapped. She was released on 20 December 2013 after a ransom was paid.
Foreign Travel AdvisoryTravel advisory from USA, UK and Australia on Sabah security situation are normally based on their assesment at the time of the incident and not based on the current situation on the ground and thus tend to the side of overcaution. These travel advisories take months if not years to be downgraded regardless of actual conditions on the ground.
The following are links to the travel advisories from the respective countries.
UK Travel Advisory updated 14 November 2016
Australia Travel Advisory updated 21 November 2016
USA Travel Advisory updated 23 June 2016
Sabah Tourism Advisory updated 9 November 2016