Eyebrow-raising Asean Sustainable Tourism Award
Published on: Sunday, March 13, 2022
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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An aerial view of the island.
THE eyebrow-raising verdict is out: The Asean Sustainable Tourism Award (Rural) 2022 goes to Walai Penyu Conservation Park, Libaran – an unsung island 40 minutes from Sandakan, which was excluded from the 1,740ha Turtle Islands Park Sabah set up between 1966 and 1968.

Why Libaran and not its hugely more famous neighbouring peers like Selingan, Gulisan and Bakungan Kechil?  

And why did this surprise come at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic which had sent the entire tourism industry to its knees.           

Flipping back to a spirited interview I did in Libaran with Tourism Malaysia, Mohd Faharuddin Hatmin, on 23 July 2021, the underpinning reasons come alive.

In that interview, Hatmin underscored what comes first must be clear to everybody.

Alex Yee receiving the Asean Sustainable Tourism Award from Mohd Zambri, Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture on March 7. 2022.

Sharing the glory – Alex (centre) with Honorary Wildlife Warden Sardin bin Baral (left) and Ketua Kampung Sarief Nasidip Uyung.  

The future of tourism: Protect nature first, extra attention to sustainable products  

“This is the future of the tourism industry under the new national tourism policy – protect mother nature first, encourage things long lasting , focus more on responsible and sustainable tourism, to reach out to products that are more sustainable ,” he said. 

“The lesson learnt from the pandemic is – protecting mother nature first is the responsible thing to do for lasting (sustainable) tourism.”              

“We have to do something during the pandemic and this is one of the moves we do – reach out to, pay extra attention to sustainable tourism. That is our job and our role. We reach out to all the products that are more sustainable,” Hatmin articulated emphatically. 

Given Asean’s and Malaysia’s new found realisation that Mother Nature is the foundation of sustainable tourism and reaching out to it with extra attention is a must, small wonder they took notice of Walai Penyu Conservation Park located remotely in unsung Libaran Island and accorded it a large reputation worthy of Asean inhabited by 655 million people. 

But it is not just mother nature which won the day, it is very much about a real conservation work on the ground done by a real private conservationist.

Daily Express interviewed Alexander Yee – founder and Chief Executive Officer of Walai Penyu Conservation Park, for an insight into this top award-winning project.       

Daily Express: Asean consists of Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, populated by 655 million inhabitants. Did it ever cross your mind that one day your modest but very uncommon private sea turtle conservation project in an obscure Libaran island would attract such big regional recognition and honour?

Alexander Yee:
When I started on the sea turtle conservation work 11 years ago, getting an award was the last thing on my mind. I had wanted to just do the job and do it right. Never in my dream did I expect landing a recognition as reputable as an Asean Sustainable Tourism Award which came hot on the heels of Sabah Tourism Board’s ‘Best Tourism Product’ Award in 2019 -2020. So I feel fantastic about it.

Daily Express: One big irony is while international tourism had virtually collapsed, your tourist receipt dependent turtle conservation project is winning award big time. We know that at the height of this tourism crisis, crypto currency Aquagoat which has an ocean conservation agenda chipped in to help finance certain expenses. You were picked for funding support because they deemed what they call ‘a real conservationist’ doing ‘real conservation’. In other words, Aquagoat’s crypto currency funding helped you to circumvent the crisis of collapsed tourist flow and kept your project sustainable. Am I correct?

Alex Yee:
When the judging team came to Walai Penyu Conservation Park, they were looking at the works that we have done and the records go as far back as three years ago, before the Covid pandemic hit us. So it was for work done during Covid otherwise we won’t stand a chance since nothing happening during Covid as far as visitor flow is concerned. When I made contact with Aquagoat, they were pleasantly surprised to read my resume and work on Libaran. They came on board as they felt that it is a real project done by a real person. Their funding came at a right time when tourism receipts per se plummeted to zero since Malaysian borders were closed to international travellers due to Covid 19. Other agencies such as Sabah Tourism Board, Tourism Malaysia and the Ministry of Tourism Arts & Culture (Motac) did extend a helping hand. So, the funding from Aquagoat and other agencies was timely.

Alex Yee and Dr Alin James watch nesting turtle digging and throwing sand in Libaran. (Pic: Yusup Tuppo) 

The new hatchery funded by Aquagoat crypto currency. 

Daily Express: Daily express was there as early as 2015 and was then shocked to see the beaches were nothing but heaps and kilometres of trash and rubbish - the worst environment possible for turtle landing and nesting. So what made you think you could turn around what looked like a hopeless situation?

Alex Yee:
I still have pictures of those times and I can still remember standing within the mountains of rubbish and wondering how the sea turtles could come ashore to lay their eggs. I just never thought of not being able to solve the problem. I usually like to take on a challenge and this mindset keeps me going. I must add that this sea turtle conservation tested my limits. 

Daily Express: On how this essentially a project started, Daily Express is aware that the Sabah Wildlife Department first approached you for help after some repeated complaints to them by a police officer cum land owner that islanders and dogs were scavenging turtle nests on his land. You then visited Libaran with a SWD officer following which you accepted the vanguard task of building and operation of egg collecting and maintenance of the hatchery with SWD technical advice. Can you briefly describe that episode how it all started the journey to the Best Sabah Tourism Product award 2019-20 and then this epic Asean honour?

Alex Yee:
Trying to summarise 10 years into one or two sentences seems more challenging than doing the work on Libaran (laugh). Suffice it to say I answered a call from Sabah Wildlife Department to collaborate on a sea turtle conservation work on Libaran and subsequently faced numerous challenges along the way including those from authorities and rubbish (man made) as well as from nature in the form of land erosion and climate change. I had wanted to throw in the towel on one occasion. However, I had support from friends and decided to keep going. Along the way, we went on to release more than 30,000 baby sea turtles and won prestigious awards such as Best Tourism Product by Sabah Tourism Board awards in 2019 and this Asean Sustainable Tourism Award.

Daily Express: Being involved in covering your project on a regular basis, Daily express is aware not everything is a bed of roses. There was one point in 2016/17 when you confided you wanted to quit because of a host of human problems. We did our utmost best to persuade you to desist from abandoning such a unique and wonderful private conservation project, citing the popular maxim: ‘Quitters don’t win, winners don’t quit’. So finally, you proved us right – winning big. So, first of all, we are curious how that persuasion help you carry on. Secondly, what were the distressful problems that drove you to the edge of giving up? 

Alex Yee:
This project almost did not last till today. Those were really challenging times which I have documented in a book “A Tale of 30 Thousand Turtles” authored by Dr James Alin and myself. It has been published and will be launched at the end of this month. I urge everyone who is interested in conservation work and in the development of Walai Penyu Conservation Park to get a copy of it. 

Daily Express: One of your original objectives was scientific research and education of sea turtles in Libaran island. So Daily Express suggested you bring on board Universiti lecturers and researchers, such as Dr James Alin and local turtle expert like Dr. Juanita Joseph. How has that helped?

Alex Yee:
While I have the passion and wanting to do the work, it is important to have the know-how. So having Dr James and Dr Juanita Joseph added that extra dimension. Dr Juanita has since sent in students to learn from the work and Dr James has even helped me to pen a book together, documenting the important work. 

Beach condition of Libaran in 2015 – heaps of trash. 

Beach condition of Libaran now: Clean and common sight – turtle nests. 


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December 20, 2014