Snorkellers in Tioman (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

Please Stop Loving Our Corals to Death

The new airport for Tioman has been averted. Now, tourism needs a good relook, writes Reefcheck Malaysia’s Julian Hyde.

AS SCIENTISTS grow increasingly concerned about biodiversity loss and the accompanying loss of critical ecosystem services, the time has come to revisit tourism policy – and practice – in Malaysia.

This is particularly relevant following the recent decision by the government to abandon plans for a new airport on Tioman. The plan projected a four-fold increase in visitor numbers – from 250,00 per year to a million.

(Feature pic: Seeing fish or people? Tourists galore at a snorkelling site in Tioman |  Pic by Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

The implications for biodiversity loss were highlighted in numerous submissions to the public consultation on the Environmental Impact Assessment report (EIA) for the proposed project.

Tourism is sadly one of the big threats to coral reefs. The phrase “loving our reefs to death” is sometimes used to describe the impact of large numbers of people visiting reefs to enjoy and appreciate them.

Worrying numbers

Even without the new airport, during a recent visit to Tioman, I was surprised at just how many tourists descend on a small place like Paya village at the weekend.

How do we manage tourism in such a way that we provide access to coral reefs to the greatest number of visitors, while at the same time minimising the impact they have?

Travel, waste, sewage pollution, physical impacts – all play their part in damaging coral reefs; all are inevitable by-products of tourism.

Tioman's corals are among the healthiest in Malaysia and a huge draw for tourists (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)
Tioman’s corals are among the healthiest in Malaysia and a huge draw for tourists (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

Taking Tioman as a case study, the need to manage tourism seems clear: nature, infrastructure, and community.

Nature. Tioman Island is the largest island off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Measuring some 20 km long by 12 km at the widest point, the island has an area of 135 km2 and a coastline of 169 km.

Home to a population of nearly 3,700 islanders living in 7 villages, Tioman is recognised as a haven of biodiversity, both terrestrial and marine.

The southern half of the island is still heavily forested, much of it virgin rainforest that provides a habitat for a wide variety of flora and fauna, including a number of endemic species. The island’s coral reefs are among the healthiest in Malaysia.

Tourists visit Tioman for its unspoiled nature – clear water, quiet beaches, intact forests. The impact of unmanaged tourism growth to these largely pristine and intact ecosystems is predictable.

Over capacity

Infrastructure. Comments to the EIA also pointed out that we have reached – in fact breached – the maximum number of visitors for the current infrastructure on the island.

Tioman currently has periodic water shortages. The incinerator is operating at capacity and is unable to manage any increase in waste generated on the island.

Transport infrastructure would not be sufficient to move increased numbers of people around the island. Electricity generating capacity is limited and blackouts are increasingly common. There is no sewage treatment system.

Further growth in tourism would need additional infrastructure – which would further harm the natural environment.

Tioman's corals are among the healthiest in Malaysia and a huge draw for tourists (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)
Tioman’s corals are among the healthiest in Malaysia and a huge draw for tourists (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

Community. We have also reached “peak tourism” as far as many members of the local community are concerned.

“Enough is enough” was the attitude expressed during the Social Impact Assessment, and RCM’s own consultations on the villagers’ views on the proposed new airport. Islanders are supportive of tourism, but many expressed the view that they don’t want to see significant increases in numbers of visitors.

Regional warning

Cumulatively, the impacts of tourism can be significant. Recent experience in 3 neighbouring countries serves to demonstrate what could happen if we don’t control tourism on Tioman.

In the Philippines, the government forced the closure of all resorts on the popular tourist island of Boracay in 2018.

After 6 months, some resorts re-opened but visitor numbers were reduced from the pre-closure level of 20,000 per day to 6,400 per day and additional requirements were introduced for approved sewage systems.

Single-use plastics were banned and steep fines introduced for littering. Just for comparison, Tioman currently receives an average of about 830 visitors per day.

Four year closure

In the same year in Thailand, Maya Bay was closed for four years due to damage by tourists. When it re-opened, visits were restricted to 1 hour, with only 380 tourists per hour allowed on the beach.

It was also closed again recently for 2 months during the monsoon season to protect it from over-use.

In Indonesia in mid-2022, authorities announced plans to limit the number of visitors to Komodo National Park, based on carrying capacity studies.

What’s the alternative?

Instead of a “free for all” tourism market, we are advocating for limits to the number of visitors – and resorts – on Tioman. Several steps are possible:

  • Set a target for number of visitors based on a study of current capacity for transport, resort rooms, power, water, etc, or a Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) study;
  • Introduce planning restrictions to ensure new resorts are constructed within strict ecological parameters;
  • Introduce regulations that require new resorts to fully manage their own water, sewage and waste management; and
  • Provide assistance to island communities to ensure their continued participation in tourism operations on the island.
Snorkellers in Tioman (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)
Limiting tourist numbers limits physical impacts on biodiversity (Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia)

Manage tourism, protect biodiversity

If these restrictions are introduced, tourism development can be managed so that wholesale damage to the island’s ecosystems is avoided:

  • Restricting the number of resorts will protect biodiversity as the intact forests and coastal ecosystems will be undisturbed by land clearing and construction;
  • Managing the number of visitors will help to control physical impacts, as well as reducing waste and other pollution;
  • Limiting visitor numbers will also help the tourism market on the island move up the value chain, as people are attracted to the island’s intact ecosystems and tranquillity. Better 100 visitors paying RM1,000 per day than 1,000 visitors paying RM100 per day; same revenue, different ball game in terms of impacts; and
  • Ensuring local stakeholders are engaged in the process will enhance their role as natural custodians of the island – after all, it’s their home we are visiting. Should we not behave with appropriate courtesy?

Julian Hyde helped to establish Reef Check Malaysia which he now leads. A Brit who has lived in Malaysia for over 20 years, he also used to own a dive centre in Tioman.

[Edited by SL Wong]


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Macaranga.



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