- A proposal to build an international airport on Tioman Island in Malaysia would destroy coral reefs in the heart of one of the country’s most biodiverse marine parks and have wide-ranging impacts on local communities and biodiversity.
- Plans for the airport were rejected by authorities in 2018 due to the scale of the environmental impacts it would cause, but government officials are again considering an environmental impact assessment for the development.
- Many of the island’s 3,000 residents have been left in the dark about the plans, which could wipe out livelihoods in two of the island’s seven villages.
- Critics of the project recommend authorities focus on upgrading an existing airstrip on the island to accept larger aircraft and in the meantime invest in sustainable, meaningful, nature-based tourism.
Proposals to build an international airport on the Malaysian island of Tioman have reignited opposition from conservationists and local communities who say they’re “shocked” the project that environmental studies had previously revealed could destroy sensitive coral reefs has been allowed to resurface.
Plans for the airport were rejected by authorities in 2018 due to the scale of the environmental impacts it would cause. But the Department of Environment is now considering a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project, which observers say closely resembles the development proposal rebuffed five years ago.
Lying roughly 30 kilometers (19 miles) off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia in the South China Sea, the 19-kilometer-long (12-mile) Tioman Island is the largest of several islands that make up the Pulau Tioman Marine Park. It’s home to pristine sandy beaches, rugged and untouched rainforest, and biodiverse underwater ecosystems that sustain a tourism sector that underpins the livelihoods of the island’s roughly 3,000 residents.
In addition to a wealth of marine life, from coral reefs to nesting turtles and reef sharks, much of the interior of the island is steep and cloaked in intact rainforest. The Tioman Island Wildlife Reserve, designated in 1972, is home to 45 species of mammals, including binturong, mouse-deer and pig-tailed macaques, 138 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 48 species of freshwater fish.
The new airport’s footprint would cover 186.4 hectares (460.6 acres) of the island’s west coast between the villages of Kampung Paya and Kampung Genting. Due to Tioman’s rugged and inaccessible inland terrain, some 76% of the development area would need to be land reclaimed from the sea within Pulau Tioman Marine Park, according to the EIA report, which was prepared by Asia Pacific Environmental Consultants Sdn. Bhd. for Tioman Infra Sdn. Bhd., a subsidiary part-owned by the Berjaya Group, a Malaysia-based corporation that also operates a resort on the island.
The airport project is part of plans to expand tourism on the island by increasing its international connectivity. Tioman Island already has a small airport, but the runway is only long enough for small domestic jets. The proposal to build a new airport at a separate site would enable larger aircraft to land on the island with capacity for more than 20 flights per day, including direct flights from countries such as Australia, India and China.
Project proponents say the direct flights would offer tourists an easier and faster way to reach the island compared to the two currently available options of a ferry from the mainland, or the smaller domestic flights with limited luggage allowance to the existing airstrip.
But critics of the proposal are concerned that in addition to direct destruction of coral reefs and coastal habitats, the development could displace local businesses, extinguish tourism revenue in two of the island’s seven villages, and have cascading effects on the island’s already limited natural resources.
Wider impacts on the marine environment cited in the EIA report include underwater construction noise, pollutant runoff, artificial lighting, and plumes of silt and sediment.
Many sources Mongabay spoke to advocated upgrading the existing airstrip to accommodate larger planes from regional hubs, such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, instead of destroying an unspoiled part of the island for a new facility with international capacity.
“Upgrading the existing runway would relieve the environmental impact while giving the islanders who depend on tourism a more steady income, and international travelers and those with dive equipment the opportunity to reach Tioman faster,” Martin Ritter, owner of Tioman Dive Resort and B&J Diving Centre on the island, told Mongabay.
Ritter said he’s particularly concerned about how the development would impact healthy reefs outside the development boundary that serve as important dive sites generating important tourism revenue.
“The land reclamation process would silt up everything, and then if the currents were to drift all the sediment and the sand over to the surrounding reefs, it would be devastating,” Ritter said. “So far, most of the talk has been about the coral reefs where they’d try to build the airport, which are important, but they’re not really prime reefs.”
The healthiest and most important reefs in terms of tourism are located to the north of the development site, Ritter said. “What I fear is that currents could carry sediments that cover the coral there and the coral will start to die. Then we have no more dive sites. Not to mention all the runoff of pollutants and plane fuel once the airport is operational and the environmental damage that would cause,” he said.
“People come to Tioman to swim, to snorkel and to scuba dive,” Ritter said. “So if there are no more reefs, a lot of that income would be gone. The clients who come to dive with us stay in local hotels, they eat in local restaurants, so it’s a chain reaction. Everybody on the island depends ultimately on a healthy ocean.”
Lack of community engagement
News of the development plans moving into the impact assessment phase came as a particular surprise to residents of the two most affected villages of Kampung Paya and Kampung Genting. Community representatives say they’re struck by the lack of transparency around the project and the dearth of information sharing from the developers and authorities involved in the proposal.
Shahril Azman, the local head of the Belia Association, a national youth organization, told Mongabay that young people whose lives would be profoundly affected are “confused” by the appearance of the plans for an international airport right on their doorstep. “The [EIA] report was just suddenly put out there for everyone to read themselves (with all its hard to understand terminologies) and no explanation whatsoever from those that proposed the plan … there has been no dialogue,” Azman said in a mobile message.
The EIA report states that 54% of 300 island residents surveyed about the development viewed the development positively. However, the report concedes that many respondents were residents of Kampung Tekek, a village in the northern, most developed part of the island, far from the development footprint and close to a large resort linked to the project developer.
In contrast, representatives surveyed from the affected villages of Kampung Genting and Kampung Paya typically held a negative view of the airport proposal.
While the EIA report recommends offering tax reductions to resort operators and local tourism businesses for at least five years, there has been no direct engagement with communities to find out what they will require in order to cope with the short- and long-term impacts of construction and operation of the airport.
Azman said he’s particularly concerned about the disruption of local livelihoods, which depend on hospitality and tourism. The fact that the construction phase alone is projected to last seven years is worrying, he said.
“Within that timeframe, we will lose our main source of income, because who wants to come for a holiday at a place where major constructions are being done?” he said. “[I]n the short term, it will not improve our quality of life. It might even force many of us to leave the island.”
Services already struggling
Julian Hyde, general manager of marine conservation organization Reef Check Malaysia, told Mongabay there are also many unanswered questions around how the island’s existing infrastructure and facilities would cope with the influx of tourists the new airport would bring.
There are few roads fit for vehicles on the tiny island, he said, and many other services are already struggling. “During busy periods, rooms are hard to get; there are problems with water and electricity supply, and the incinerator struggles to deal with the load.”
By Hyde’s reckoning, the new airport could bring a fourfold increase in daily visitor numbers. He said it’s inevitable that additional habitat would be cleared around the island to make way for the roads, accommodation and services necessary to deal with more people staying on the island.
Given Malaysia’s recent signing of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, Hyde questioned whether the government should be considering an airport development that will categorically reduce biodiversity on the island.
Tourists typically visit Tioman to immerse themselves in nature, he said. But if the new airport is built, it would drive large-scale mass tourism development on the island at the expense of much higher revenues that could be generated by serious investment in long-term, sustainable tourism, such as providing visitors with the peaceful, natural environment they seek.
“Tourism studies are showing that tourism is moving toward niche market, it’s going small volume, toward authentic experiences in pristine environments,” Hyde told Mongabay. “People want to go somewhere that’s peaceful and quiet with proper interactions with people and nature. But this [development proposal] is going in the opposite direction.”
Catering toward mass tourism also risks shifting business away from small-scale locally managed resorts toward larger resorts that would spring up, Hyde said, which could take revenues and jobs away from local people.
Tourism development must include nature
As a way of mitigating some of the development impact, the EIA report details a marine conservation and rehabilitation plan that proposes to transfer corals to four relocation sites around the island and to establish two coral propagation “farms.”
However, environmentalists caution that fragile corals are so sensitive to their specific environments and to the stress of relocation that such efforts are impractical and rarely, if ever, succeed. “Relocating corals from their natural habitats to new sites can have an adverse effect on their survival and the ecosystems they support,” Mogesh Sababathy, co-founder of Project Ocean Hope and a youth climate activist, said in a recent commentary published in the New Straits Times.
Sababathy urged the government to reconsider the airport development and to instead engage in sustainable alternatives that focus on respecting Tioman’s ecosystems, which he said are valuable assets for climate mitigation. “The long-term sustainability of the island should not be compromised for economic benefits,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hyde from Reef Check Malaysia called on the government to seriously focus on improving and upgrading the existing airport, as well as the island’s drainage, waste treatment and power services. He also said more studies assessing the impact of increased tourist numbers on the wider island’s communities and biodiversity are vital.
“What tourism means when we talk about Tioman island is its beautiful natural resources,” Hyde said. “Developing tourism cannot exclude the protection of the natural environment.”
Banner image: Aerial view of the proposed development site, the coral reefs and the villages that would be affected. Image courtesy of Reef Check Malaysia
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11.
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