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A dreamy view of Kuching waterfront at dawn.
Tea Leaves

Kuching's rise offers both inspiration and caution

Sarawak capital's tourism boom risks growing rift with hinterland


Nine years ago, when I sat for the first time on a bend of the Sarawak river in Malaysian Borneo to soak in a glittering pink sunset, Kuching's riverfront was a seductive but deserted place.

Behind me, the 19th century Old Court House -- the magnificent administrative building constructed by the Brookes -- the "White Rajahs" who founded the kingdom of Sarawak and ruled it peacefully from 1841 to 1946 -- lay mostly abandoned.

The tiny Sarawak tourism office slept quietly in one of the building's regal wings, and the sun-baked Chinese shophouses that line the riverfront showed no hint of gentrification. The city felt like an old engine in need of a spark; yet it was a magnetic location that I hoped would never change.

Fast-forward a decade, and Sarawak's capital has pushed the development pedal down flat. The Old Court House has become a full-fledged Western-style bistro, serving cafe lattes, lava cakes and American patty melt burgers to well-heeled locals and tourists seeking comfort food.

The skyline has soared, the suburbs have spread, and real estate prices have exploded. A new and modernist bridge has made the city's romantic river boat crossings redundant, and a 10-billion-ringgit ($2.51 billion) light rail transit network, the first in Borneo, is set to connect Kuching to the satellite towns of Samarahan and Serian by 2024.

Goodbye charming Borneo backwater, welcome arty new town of endless possibilities. Young locals who fled dead-end Kuching for more enticing shores a decade ago are returning in droves to set up boutiques, hotels, bars and art studios.

Thanks to the well-established Rainforest World Music Festival, which packed in 19,000 visitors last year, tourism and the arts remain the Sarawak state government's priorities for investment in Kuching. From July 6 to 15, a new Rainforest Fringe Festival, in its second edition this year, will host concerts, art shows, films, and photography events. Paired with local crafts and food fairs to showcase local fare, the Fringe will neatly package the state's exotic charms for the convenience of international visitors.

It doesn't end there: A short walk from the river, the Sarawak Museum, built in 1891, is also being restored and expanded into a sleek complex that will dwarf the town's biggest shopping malls. The previously unused Fort Margherita has bloomed into a museum celebrating the Brookes' exotic history. Within walking distance of the historic waterfront, fine restaurants, boutique hotels, chic hostels and bars have popped up around Carpenter Street, the principal artery of the old town.

There is, of course, a seamy side to all this development. Tattoo parlors spear the hard-earned traditional designs of the region's Dayak headhunters into gullible customers with cash to splash, and ever-growing hordes of cars and taxis clog the narrow and once deserted roads around the waterfront. Like a rebellious teenager, Sarawak's prime child is growing more technological, hip and unrecognizable at each visit.

Kuching is hardly alone: indeed it is just the latest of Asia's charming small towns to embrace gentrification to quench the continent-wide thirst for development and tourist dollars. Examples are scattered far and wide, from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Kathmandu in Nepal, from Yangshuo, Dali and Lijiang in southwest China to Luang Prabang in Laos. Don't forget Siem Reap in Cambodia, Yogyakarta in Indonesia, and Kuching's Malaysian siblings George Town and Melaka, the nation's heritage boom towns.

For those who loved the old Kuching, all this is hard to swallow. But charming Asian towns cannot be expected to see themselves forever as museum pieces for the entertainment of discerning middle-class visitors. Local people want jobs, opportunities and rising incomes, just like their counterparts in Singapore or Jakarta. The downside of development, though, is that it can transform quaint and distinctive backwaters into bustling tourist hubs that sometimes seem to have more in common with each other than with their own hinterlands.

This is a clear risk in Kuching, which is rapidly distancing itself, economically and culturally, from rural and isolated Sarawak neighbors such as Serian, Samarahan, Bau and Lundu, which are coming to depend on Kuching's newfound wealth -- and its local tour operators -- for jobs and resources, without sharing its growing integration with the cosmopolitan world of international tourism.

The Sarawak state government must think carefully about the cultural and conservation problems being created by Kuching's dash for growth. Otherwise, the city may turn into Borneo's prime urban success while leaving less fortunate local towns choking in its dust.

Marco Ferrarese is a Penang-based author and journalist.

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