The last few days I spent on Pulau Tioman, another one of those beautiful islands in the South Chinese Sea. It is a relatively undeveloped place, with rare internet access (though intermittently available through mobile broadband), few roads, and no sprawl of high-rise seaside resorts. A bit like Koh Chang Noi, or to a much lesser degree Koh Phangan.
Tioman island is reachable by ferry from the town of Mersing, which, other than providing an overnight stay in case of a missed last ferry, isn’t much of an attraction. I took an 11:30 ferry, which required queuing at 10:30 for registration, passport control, stamping some documents… and the payment of a RM25 (about $7.5) ‘conservation fee’.
I applaud it when a government makes a dedicated effort to preserve its natural heritage, so I was happy to pay the fee (even if a bit steep by local standards). This kind of money can pay for keeping the island clean, protecting marine and wildlife, and preserving the island’s natural beauty. I imagined the programs the government would have put into effect: waste recycling, wildlife management, education, traffic restriction, frequent cleaning up… a lot of way to keep the island beautiful. After paying and having to wait for another 55 minutes in the queue ‘just because’, I was happy to embark on my journey to a pristine and well-preserved island.
The reality of Malaysian conservation efforts
Reality was much different, unfortunately. upon arrival at the Air Batang (ABC) pier I was confronted with a light sprawl of run down houses, old pipes, vehicles that seemed to be moving no longer, and general waste thrown around here and there. There was only one small concrete road, just wide enough for a motorbike with sidecar to travel on. I took a right on the road and walked to my guesthouse, having to step aside about every two minutes to let a motorbike pass. With a lush and verdant jungle beckoning in the background, the nearer and human inhabited part of the island had very little of a paradisical feel to it.
It seemed like very little was being done here to conserve the natural beauty of the Pulau Tioman. The only effort that I noticed towards some form of waste management was the collection of tin cans by the guesthouses. Perhaps they get a reward for those. While tourists got around on foot, the locals moved everywhere with their noisy stinking motorbikes. The kind that would not be allowed on the road in Europe for being too polluting. If they had any kind of trash to get rid of, it would just be thrown somewhere alongside the road. Not sure if anyone ever picked it up.
Natural beauty as a resource
The sad thing is that the greatest economic value of Tioman probably lies in tourism. And tourists love a quiet and clean sandy beach. True, they also love comfort and convenience, and they create a lot of waste of their own. That is exactly why the government should make a conservation effort by limiting plastic packaging, providing waste bins at arm’s reach, collecting and recycling waste, and keeping the roads free from noisy and polluting motorbikes. That would preserve the economic value of the island for tourists, and benefit the local people who live there (and get their income from tourism).
So where does the ‘conservation fee’ I paid end up? Does it just disappear into the general bureaucracy? Does it end up in some corrupt politician’s pocket? Collecting the fee is one part of conservation. Now the government should see to it that it is actually spent in the right places.