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Sustainable Tourism – National Geographic Lodges

National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World:

Spotlight on Sukau Rainforest Lodge as a Sustainable Tourism Destination

My name is Kerran Olson, and I am a postgraduate student at Edith Cowan University. I am currently pursuing a Master in Business by Research within the field of geotourism, following on from undergraduate degrees in Tourism Management, and Writing & Indigenous Studies. I am passionate about environmental issues and sustainability, so throughout my studies at ECU I have become interested in sustainable tourism and the ways in which this fast-growing industry can contribute to positive change.

National Geographic Unique lodges of the world

Tourism is a global industry that can have huge impacts on natural resources, environments and communities. As sustainability has become more of a global focus in light of the climate crisis, resource depletion, and wildlife loss, sustainable forms of tourism have grown in popularity. Put simply, sustainable tourism is tourism in which the environmental, socio-cultural, and economic benefits of tourism outweigh the negative impacts so that destinations can be protected and enjoyed by future generations. Sustainable tourism encompasses and overlaps with various niche forms of tourism, including community tourism, eco-tourism, and geotourism, and is considered an alternative to traditional, or ‘mass’ tourism.

There are various programs or organisations in place aimed at supporting and promoting sustainable tourism development and destination management, some of which are managed on regional or local levels, and others which are globally recognised, like National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.

boat on the lake in the forrest

National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World launched in 2015 to connect unique accommodations which share National Geographic values by “supporting exploration, discovery, and the protection of our natural and cultural diversity”, with the collection now including 61 lodges spanning 34 countries. National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World must work to protect and enhance natural and cultural heritage; connect with and provide benefit to local communities; provide an authentic and enriching experience; and provide outstanding service. National Geographic recognises the global impact of travel, and works to provide “immersive and meaningful guest experiences rooted in the principles of sustainable tourism” through the Unique Lodges of the World program.

In September, 2018, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to travel to Sabah, Borneo as part of a study tour with Edith Cowan University. The tour was led by ECU’s Foundation Professor of Tourism, Ross Dowling, and accompanied by ECU Fellow Albert Teo, who is the founder and Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours and Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Beginning and ending in Kota Kinabalu, the tour allowed us to see a variety of tourism types around Sabah, including community-based tourism in Kiulu, cultural tourism in Kudat, and nature-based tourism in Sandakan. After travelling around Sabah for the first week of the trip by bus with Borneo Eco Tours, we left Sandakan by boat and travelled up the Kinabatangan River to Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which was without a doubt the highlight of the trip.

A National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, Sukau Rainforest Lodge is committed to protecting the natural environment and community within the sensitive region of Sukau along the Kinabatangan River. Following the success of Borneo Eco Tours, established in 1985 to provide guests to Borneo an opportunity to explore areas of interest, Albert Teo felt that an eco-lodge in the remote Sukau area could allow visitors to have a more “complete” wildlife watching experience, and could show that economic and conservation interests could be balanced and achieved through tourism, with neither having to be sacrificed.  Additionally, establishment of an eco-lodge on an area of land along the Kinabatangan River would allow for protection in this area from the impacts of development, logging and palm oil plantations.

Sukau Rainforest Lodge was designed in line with eco-tourism principles so that the capabilities of the site were considered, and minimal damage to the surrounding natural area occurred. This meant that sustainability was considered from the very early stages of construction, with stilts decreasing the likelihood of flooding, reducing the incidence of snakes and insects inside, and allowing for air circulation, and the positioning of the building allowing for movement of wildlife. The lodge began welcoming guests and was officially opened in 1995, and has since expanded to include luxury villas, boardwalks, and an extended restaurant.

Considering the natural surroundings, the lodge utilises green technologies such as solar power, rainwater collection tanks, and generators, ensuring that the lodge worked within ecotourism principles whilst providing guests with comfortable lodgings. The cultural implications of tourism in the area are also considered, with “hire locally, buy locally” ecotourism principles applied. A majority of staff employed at Sukau Rainforest Lodge come from local villages and are trained to a high standard, and National Geographic calls Sukau Rainforest Lodge “an integral part of the Kinabatangan River community, promoting sustainability initiatives to preserve the forest and sustain its people”. Guests engage in green practices by refilling water bottles, maintaining an appropriate distance from wildlife, and appreciating the Kinabatangan area through educative and enjoyable river cruises led by experienced local guides.

boat cruising on river

Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Eco Tours are partnered with Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering communities and focusing on conservation efforts in Sabah, Borneo. In order to focus on conservation efforts alongside sustainable tourism development, BEST Society established the Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre (SERC) near the lodge, which officially opened in 2019 as a “collaborative space for research and education”.


Visiting the Kinabatangan area of Sabah, Borneo was an unforgettable experience I will forever be grateful for, and Sukau Rainforest Lodge confirmed to me that it is possible to balance conservation and economic interests through sustainable tourism. I encourage anyone passionate about sustainability to consider the impacts of their travel, and to choose destinations which are aligned with sustainable tourism values.


BEST Society. (2018). Borneo Land Conservancy. Retrieved 8 8, 2019, from Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies Society:

Borneo Eco Tours (1). (2018). Welcome to Borneo! Retrieved from Borneo Eco Tours: The Borneo Specialist:

Borneo Eco Tours (2). (2018). Sukau Rainforest Lodge: About. Retrieved from Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Borneo Eco Tours (3). (2018). Albert C.K. Teo. Retrieved 8 8, 2019, from Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

National Geographic. (2019). Sustainable Tourism in Action Impact Report 2019. Retrieved 8 8, 2019, from National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World:

National Geographic Unique Lodges. (2018). Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Retrieved from National Geographic Unique Lodges:

Teo, A., & Patterson, C. (2005). Saving Paradise: The Story of Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Sabah: Sabah Handicraft Centre.

Eco tourism

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