The islands of Semporna: The perfect getaway to chase away the blues

Water resorts like this one are aplenty in Semporna today. — Photos: MELODY L. GOH/The Star

Years ago, Semporna in Sabah’s east coast was mostly known for one place: Pulau Sipadan or Sipadan Island. The small coral island was considered a bucket list destination for many tourists, especially divers, thanks to the diverse marine life that surrounds it.

It’s also a bird sanctuary, a migration stop for species such as wood and sand pipers, sea eagles, kingfishers, sunbirds, starlings and megapodes.

Of course, Sipadan – and to a certain extent Semporna and Sabah – became globally known when a major kidnapping incident took place in April 2000, with as many as 21 people taken from the island by the Abu Sayyaf militant group. Thankfully, everyone was safely released.

Today, Sipadan remains a diving paradise, even though the island itself is heavily guarded by the army, and a large part of it is off-limits to the public. Only 120 divers with official permits from Sabah Parks are allowed to enter the Sipadan water space each day, and these permits are divided among 12 resorts and dive companies in Semporna.

This means that in order to dive in Sipadan, you must first make your way to these resorts or dive companies, and use their services. This is not just a good way to ensure the safety of the divers, but it also allows local tour operators – as well as divemasters and boatmen – to earn some income.

Tourism is such a big part of Semporna’s economy, second only to fishing, one could say. This is because there are numerous islands nearby, and almost every one of them feature white sandy beaches, clear blue waters and a thriving marine life, with many species endemic to the area.

They are also accessible – or have been made accessible throughout the years by the government or by resort developers – and tourists are most likely to spend a lot of their time on these islands or out in the sea, rather than on the mainland.

A visit just before the pandemic saw the town centre bustling with activity, with mostly foreign tourists filling up the many seafood restaurants around. Back then, Sabah was a top destination for Chinese tourists, who usually favour island holidays over city explorations or jungle adventures.

They came in droves, and most had serious money to spend, which then prompted local businesses to cater to this specific market for a while. Resorts provided amenities and services that were supposedly “preferred” by the Chinese, like spots for photo-taking and entertainment spaces equipped with mahjong tables.

Menus and signboards were written in Chinese, and there were more Mandarin-speaking workers around, too. It wasn’t uncommon to hear some local children saying “ni hao” to any tourists they thought were from China.

When we visited Semporna again last month, we could only see a few Chinese tourists milling about in Semporna, and these were mostly FITs or free independent travellers. (Things are expected to change soon, as tourists from China – as well as India – no longer need visas to enter the country.)

Instead, we came across more domestic tourists – folks from Peninsular Malaysia and from around the state. This was refreshing to see as it shows how domestic tourism in Malaysia continues to grow. Though it is pretty surprising why Semporna, with its abundance of picture-perfect islands and underwater life, does not seem to get as much attention as the islands in the east coast of the Peninsular.

The small district welcomed 377,717 tourists (domestic and international) as of October this year, and this number could potentially double within the next few months.

New developments

Recently, a new resort project in Semporna was launched, a collaboration between the Sabah Urban Development Corporation and Borneo Semporna Resort. This project will see the development of a water resort, meaning it will be built on water. It is said that the resort will have a total of 202 chalet units, as well as restaurants, swimming pools and a lobby lounge.

In a statement, Sabah Chief Minister said that the project is proof of the confidence of tourism players and investors in the recovery of the tourism sector in Sabah, particularly in Semporna.

Water resorts have always been one of the best man-made attractions in Semporna, and it is a reflection of local culture, too. Semporna’s Bajau Laut people are known for their seafaring and nomadic way of life. Traditionally, they either build their houses on stilts in the ocean away from the mainland, or live in their boats, relying on the catches they get from the sea to survive.

One of the best-known water resorts in Semporna is the Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, a luxury accommodation near Sipadan. Another popular establishment is the Sipadan-Mabul Resort on the neighbouring Mabul Island, which has chalets both on land and on water.

Over the years, more resorts and hotels have cropped up, both on the mainland and smaller islands like Mataking and Pom Pom. Before Covid-19, there were only a handful around, but during our recent visit, we saw nearly a dozen “new” water resorts built just minutes away from Semporna Town.

Dayang Resort, for example, is a 10-minute boat ride from the main jetty at Semporna. Because of its close proximity to town, business has been good so far, says one of the locals working there. Opened early this year, the water resort currently has five chalets, but expansion plans are already underway. Each chalet has its own direct access to the water at the back, so guests can easily climb down the ladder and straight into the sea.

Most tourists head to Semporna to snorkel, as diving requires one to take a licence first.Most tourists head to Semporna to snorkel, as diving requires one to take a licence first.

When the tide is low, you can head down into the water and wade or float around the resort, where you will see lots of fish of different sizes, colourful corals and other marine creatures.

Another new establishment is Sisipan Island Resort, which is about 30 minutes from the Semporna jetty. This place opened less than six months ago; it is so new even the boatman had a hard time looking for it!

The resort is located in a massive sea area with shallow waters, near the tiny, uninhabited Sisipan Island. This area is large enough to accommodate a dozen different water resorts, all lined up one after another, including Starz Water Village, Sky Water Village and Nusakuya Resort.

Sisipan Island Resort also only has five wooden chalets, but each one is large enough to accommodate at least three guests. Every room also has its own private access at the back, with steps that lead straight into the water.

Enjoy lunch in the middle of the sea, in the comforts of your private hired boat.Enjoy lunch in the middle of the sea, in the comforts of your private hired boat.

If you stay at a water resort, meals are most likely included in the package, though you may not have much of a choice in terms of variety. This is simply because resources are usually limited, and one would have to head to the mainland by boat to get ingredients and supplies. And in case you did not know, the Eastern Sabah Safety Zone Movement Control Order is still in effect in the Semporna waters (up to three nautical miles).

Under this curfew, residents in areas covered by the order are required to stay home between 6pm and 6am, while outsiders are not allowed to enter the curfew zones. This curfew is necessary to ensure everyone’s safety, especially at sea.

So, if you’re worried about getting the munchies in the middle of the night while staying at a water resort, it is best to get them in town before you check in to your accommodation. Some resorts may have their own convenience stores too.

Arcadia Beach Resort has an infinity swimming pool that overlooks the sea.Arcadia Beach Resort has an infinity swimming pool that overlooks the sea.

Not all the new properties that opened up this year are water resorts. At Pandanan Island, you will find the luxurious Arcadia Beach Resort that opened a few months ago. The island is about 45 minutes from Semporna town, which means that you may not have any telecommunications network here.

That’s actually great for folks looking to have some quite time, away from pesky phone calls, messages, email ... and social media.

Arcadia has 65 rooms so it’s a pretty big property. There’s a pool that faces the sea, an open-air dining space, an entertainment room and other amenities.

Some turtles come by the island at night to lay their eggs, and if you’re lucky enough to see them, please be mindful and don’t get too near, or they will be spooked. Don’t shine a light at them either!

There are lots of sea creatures that you can see from the resort’s jetty. We only saw one huge turtle when we were there, but apparently there are small sharks swimming about regularly too.

Every day, the army will patrol the waters once the curfew kicks in. There are also army personnel on every island, so guests as well as resort workers can rest easy when it comes to safety.

Time to go up

One of Semporna’s top attractions is the Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP), gazetted as Sabah’s seventh park in 2004. It is the largest marine park in the state, covering 340sq km of sea and coral reefs, and 10sq m of land.

There are eight islands situated within the park: Bohey Dulang, Bodgaya (or Bugaya, as the locals call it), Tetagan, Selakan, Maiga, Sebangkat, Sibuan (pictured on the cover) and Mantabuan. Bohey Dulang is perhaps the most popular thanks to the breathtaking aerial view one can get at the top of the hill of TSMP.

Bohey Dulang is the second largest island in the cluster, after Bugaya. Tourists head to Bohey Dulang to hike the 700m-high hill, in order to see that famed gorgeous aerial view.

In recent years, the trails leading up to the peak have changed – today, the new route is a one-way loop, where you go up one trail and walk down another. This is because Bohey Dulang has become a lot more popular with tourists, so there are times when the trail gets too crowded.

In order to ensure the safety of all hikers, new rules have been implemented. This includes wearing covered shoes to hike (you can rent a pair at the Sabah Parks office), and going up with an official mountain guide.

The hike is fairly easy for those who are fit, but those who aren’t may find it a little strenuous. Do take your time climbing, and don’t worry about getting lost as your guide will be with you at all times. If you decide not to make it all the way to the top, just let your guide know and he will either walk back down with you, or call another guide to lead you.

Bohey Dulang is open daily from 8am to 4pm, and there is a climbing fee payable to Sabah Parks. There’s a separate entrance fee too, one that gives you access to all the islands in TSMP. To find out more, just head to the Sabah Parks website (

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