TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - THE protected forest in Merabu village, Berau Regency, East Kalimantan, can rightly be considered a hidden natural gem: it is home to a variety of endemic plants guarded by magnificent karst hills, prehistoric artifacts sequestered in caves, and has an exotic underground river.
In his day-to-day work as a tour guide, Bheny Wijaya takes visitors to marvel at these natural wonders ensconced in Merabu's village-managed ecotourism area, made up of 22,000 hectares of forest and 7,500 hectares of karst landscape. The 24-year-old man believes that a guide must do more than accompany travelers and explain the stories behind the Merabu Tourism Village. "When I'm not busy working (as a guide), I usually do a clean-up of the destination area with other youths," he said.
Bheny's invovement in his village's tourism activities began in 2016, when a friend, who was already a guide, persuaded him to take part. His skills as a professional guide were improved in a training course organized by the non-profit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 2017. In the four-day program, not only did Bheny learn the precepts of being a good tour guide, he also received training in environmental preservation and emergency rescue.
The decision to become a tour guide and take part in advancing tourism in his village did not come easily to Bheny, who was working for a private company in Berau, collecting swallows' nests. His work demands had him explore caves, hunting for what is believed to be a health product. He was making Rp5 million per month-five times his current pay as a tour guide.
Bheny does not mind the pay dive because he now understands that harvesting swallows' nests meant damaging the birds' habitats and reducing their population. "Why should I be given a high salary to harm the environment?" he mused. "Better to have lower pay and benefit many people."
But being a guide has not been easy. Bheny had to learn to adapt to guests who came from different cultures and who spoke various languages. Merabu has become a rather popular destination for tourists from overseas, including the Netherlands, France, the US, the Czech Republic, Brazil, and Switzerland. Domestic tourists only started pouring in later on. Tourists have helped locals promote the Merabu village, including through Lonely Planet's website popular among travelers.
Bheny's not-yet-fluent-English forces him to communicate non-verbally at times. "If a tourist brings along an interpreter, our job will be much easier because we won't have to use 'primitive' communication," said Bheny.
Travel packages have been designed to capitalize on the area's tourism potential. One such package is called the "cultural trail," which takes tourists to explore an ancient cave called Beloyot. The cave has been a favorite haunt of humans since thousands of years BC, with prehistoric handprints on its walls as evidence. A historic open burial ground can be found inside, referred to by locals as lungun. Similar burial grounds are found in the nearby karst areas, such as in Merasa, Nyapa and Suaran.
Another tourism package offers to take tourists to see the blue waters of Lake Nyadeng and reach the summit of Mount Ketepu. At the peak, tourists may enjoy a picturesque sunrise and sunset. Locals are now working on a safari through Merabu, rich in flora and fauna, including the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Soon, the Dayak culture will be included in the cultural package.
Merabu residents have been mentored in organizing the village's tourism sites by TNC since 2012. Taufik Hidayat, TNC's Community Engagement and Protected Area manager, explained that the organization became involved because of Merabu's location in a karst region that needed to be protected. "Also because the area is an orangutan habitat," said the 47-year-old.