Despite its decline in importance to Malaysia’s economy, the plantation sector still contributes significantly to the nation’s coffers.
In my days as a labour officer, I visited many estates in places like Teluk Intan, Bagan Datuk, Rawang, Kuala Selangor and Sabak Bernam.
My chief concern then was the enforcement of labour laws to safeguard workers’ rights in line with their employment contract terms and to ensure that the housing and accommodation they were provided with, complied with the law. Never did it cross my mind that those plantations could also promote agritourism for the country.
Only after a recent trip to Carey Island with friends did I realise our plantations contain untapped charms for tourism. Sime Darby’s estates on the island enlightened me about the immense potential for the promotion of agritourism in Malaysia.
The conglomerate’s estates offer tourists an insight into the oil palm industry, its evolution and potential, plantation activities and the current buzzword in the industry, sustainable development. Oil palm is grown in 43 countries, within 10 degrees north or south of the equator.
Our tour began at the Palm Oil Experience Centre, where a company representative presented an overview of the oil palm industry in Malaysia.
Sime Darby is currently the world’s largest producer of ‘certified sustainable palm oil’, with an annual production of 2.1 million metric tonnes per year.
As a globally integrated plantation company, Sime Darby Plantations is involved in a broad range of activities covering the entire palm oil industry value chain. These activities encompass upstream and downstream activities, R&D, renewables and agribusiness.
Each part of an oil palm tree has many uses. The trunk of the tree is used for bridges, furniture, building materials, medium density fibreboards and paper. The frond is used for brooms, roofs, food wrappers, handicraft, fibreboards and paper.
Palm oil is used in food products, including cooking oil, margarine, vegetable ghee (vanaspati), confectionery fats and consumer food items such as mayonnaise and soup mixes.
It is also used in non-food products and oleochemicals – in the manufacture of soap, shampoos, cosmetic products, detergents, softeners and paints.
After the briefing, we visited the company’s palm oil mill. We were given an insight into the activities of the mill and the various processes to extract oil from the fruit.
After lunch at the golfers’ clubhouse, next to an 18-hole golf course, we visited the estates’ two guest bungalows and, on the way, saw a mini-zoo with a few animals. Both guesthouses, which are modelled on colonial-style architecture, are available for daily rent.
Many are not aware of the rich legacy of the estates. The Plantation Heritage Museum and Hatter’s Castle showcase rich culture and history and the origins of the island.
The museum holds exhibits of an old steam train that carried palm oil and a vintage Land Rover used by the manager. Artefacts on display include the early tools, implements and equipment in rubber tapping, as well as an illustration of the process involved.
These allowed visitors a nostalgic glimpse of an era when we were the largest rubber-producing nation in the world.
Our final stop was at Hatters Castle, which looks more like a colonial-style bungalow – the first colonial-style building built on Carey Island. Built in the 1920s, the name Hatters Castle was inspired by AJ Cronin’s novel of the same title.
The hat in the name originated from the domed roof, which was built over the first-floor terrace in the original design. However, the dome was removed in the 1950s due to the wooden structure’s decay. Today, it is used as a guesthouse and for fee-paying visitors interested in staying here.
The national tourism policy (2020-2030) regards agritourism as one of the sustainable forms of tourism. Agritourism supports the creation of rural entrepreneurs and fosters the consolidation of vibrant rural tourism corridors.
Being in harmony with nature is ideal therapy for those wanting a break from the hectic city lifestyle. It is rejuvenating to live amid the serenity, tranquillity and lush greenery.
Our country faces negative publicity arising from the way palm oil is produced, especially the health hazards and the destruction of natural habitat. Not many Malaysians are exposed to these issues, which are raised mainly in international forums.
As such, plantation companies should invite students to visit their plantations to enlighten them on all aspects of the oil extraction process. NGOs should be invited to estates for study tours for the same purpose.
Encouraging tourists from Europe, the US, Japan and South Korea to visit plantations presents an opportunity to enlighten them on the palm oil industry in Malaysia while in a leisurely setting. Such visits will provide the government the opportunity to dispel the misconceptions that have marred palm oil’s reputation.
Perhaps it is now time for the government to offer plantation companies incentives for promoting agritourism. The spin-off benefits to the economy – both at the micro and macro levels – could be considerable.