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The Price Of Progress: The Real Cost of Tioman’s Ambitious Airport Project

Pulau Tioman has been a popular tourism destination for decades. Acclaimed as both a geological wonder and an ecological paradise, Tioman ranks as one of the most beautiful vacation spots in the world. A gazetted marine park, Tioman boasts prime diving and snorkelling experiences where one can witness colourful coral reefs and marine life. And much of the island is still covered in pristine rainforest, home to several endemic wildlife species and providing unique nature experiences.

Located 32 nautical miles off the mainland, the main way to reach the island is via ferry from Mersing (Johor) or Tanjung Gemuk (Pahang). Although there is an airport, it is a small affair, and its only facilities are a cafe and a duty-free shop[1]. It serves chartered 12-seater single-engine flights (ever since Berjaya Air ceased services several years ago) and also a 19-seater turboprop plane, flown by SKS Airways from Tioman to Subang since last year.

But being small is the least of the airport’s worries; the runway, besides being too small to accommodate more than one take-off/landing at a time, is only accessible from the north with a backdrop of mountains in the south. This means incoming aeroplanes will have to[1]:

  1. Come in at speed facing the wall of mountains to the south,
  2. Dodge the mountains by making a sharp right turn onto the runway, and then,
  3. Stop the plane before it overshoots the short runway.
Pulau Tioman Airport Terminal. Source: Airports Worldwide

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly dangerous means of entry, which is why ferries still remain the primary means of entering Tioman despite their comparatively low efficiency and reliability.

In light of this, an improved bigger and safer airport was proposed to boost tourism to the island. But unsurprisingly, this plan was met with much resistance from both Tioman locals and environmentalists alike.

Let’s dive into the history of the proposed new Tioman airport proposal and why people are so critical of the plan.

A Bigger And Better Airport: The Chronology Of Events

2003: The Federal Government planned to build a RM 120 million airport in Kampung Paya on the island. The airport would feature a 2,000m-long and 45m-wide runway to accommodate Boeing 737 aircraft. However, then transport minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat cancelled the project in 2009, citing environmental concerns[2].

2014:  The Federal Government said it was mulling realigning the airport’s existing airstrip to accommodate the Aerei da Trasporto Regionale (ATR) turboprop aircraft, but the project never took off. This proposal was to lengthen the 992m airstrip in Kampung Tekek to 1,200m to accommodate 72-seater ATR aircraft. The airstrip only caters to Berjaya Air’s 48-seater DeHavilland Dash 7 aircraft[2].

2017: During the table of Budget 2018, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that a study was being undertaken on building a new airport in Kampung Genting.

This was met with positivity by then State Tourism Manager, Datuk Ishak Mokhtar. He hoped the construction of an airport would become a reality as it would boost tourist arrivals on the island. He also hoped that the new airport would improve people’s lives as it would boost the economy of Pulau Tioman. This would ensure the island would be accessible even during the monsoon season[3].

The island needs a new airport to allow bigger aircraft to land. Currently, tourists can only reach the island by ferry, but during the monsoon season the sea is stormy and the ferry services will be suspended. We hope a modern airport will be built as it will help place the island on par with other famous resort islands in the world. – Datuk Ishak Mokhtar, then State Tourism manager[3]

2018: Berjaya Corp Bhd founder and non-executive chairman Tan Sri Vincent Tan announced the company’s plans to build the new Tioman airport at a cost of up to RM1.2 billion (and financed from the group’s internal funds and borrowings)[4].

Tan Sri Vincent Tan. Source: New Straits Times

Even in 2018, concerns about land reclamation were raised. Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) warned that the island did not have enough space to occupy an airport of the size proposed by Vincent Tan. MAHB’s former Managing Director Datuk Mohd Badlisham Ghazali noted that such a project required extensive land reclamation[6].

Even MAHB’s earlier plan to build an airport on the island of Pahang had hit a dead end due to environmental concerns. We have thought about it, but there is no suitable area to land the plane unless you extend the runway towards the sea. That would need reclamation which would in turn damage the environment. – MAHB MD Datuk Mohd Badlisham Ghazali[6]

2019: The most recent proposal is the new Tioman International Airport which is planned for development in seven years, from 2024 to 2030, and will encompass an area of 186.36ha within the gazetted marine park boundary, with an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)  report written[5].

The proposed airport development involves the construction of a runway with dimensions of 2.5km in length and 45m in width, catering to Code 4C aircraft with a flight range from 5,100km to 6,100km. The project aims to cover flights to and from airports in Malaysia, Asean countries, eastern India, south to mid-China and west Australia.

The site lies just off the coast between Kampung Paya and Kampung Genting which is separated by a low hillock or headland. – Tioman International Airport EIA report[5]

2020 – 2021: The Pahang Exco approved the project on the 28th of January 2020 and the National Physical Planning Council approved it in principle on 16th November 2020[5]. Reportedly, the social impact assessment of the project was approved on 23rd July 2021[5].

A Dance With A Double-Edged Sword

Given Tioman’s designation as a natural heritage site, it is no surprise that environmentalists have cried foul towards this plan.

According to changemakers on the ground, the proposed airport will be built within a gazetted Marine Park, 17 km from Tokong Burung, an Important Bird Area that has been classified as Level 1, Environmentally Sensitive Island.

Perhaps the most damning thing about the current project is the fact that 76% of the area or 142.70ha will be reclaimed from the sea. This will no doubt destroy Tioman’s precious reefs[5], the island is home to an extensive species of coral reefs, in comparison to other islands on the East Coast of Malaysia.

Further, the proposed project site is in close proximity to the areas of Blacktip Reef Sharks and Hawksbill Sea Turtle sightings. The two species have been classified as Vulnerable and Critically Endangered respectively.

Breaking Down Tioman Airport’s EIA

EIA or Environmental Impact Assessment is used to evaluate the environmental consequences of any proposed plan, project or development. The EIA report for the new international airport noted that its location would cover 21 coral reef locations.

A survey conducted for the EIA found that:

  • A total of 122 hard coral species from 42 genus and 11 soft coral species from 7 genus in those sites, with two being critically endangered, one endangered, and 19 vulnerable. 
  • Also recorded were 125 species of fish from 24 families, with 1,371 individual species documented, although none of them were endangered[7].

The EIA noted that the reclamation and construction projects will risk: 

  • Unsettling the sediment creates more turbid conditions that hinder the corals’ ability to absorb nutrients and oxygen. 

Other detrimental effects that the airport will potentially inflict on Tioman’s marine environment include: 

  • Noise pollution from the airport’s construction will cause behaviour changes in marine life
  • Possible oil spills from construction machinery contributing to water pollution and artificial lighting from the airport will disrupt the corals’ photosynthetic activities[7].

The main attraction of the island is its beautiful coral reefs, which will face irreversible damage if the construction is carried out. It can also cause a change in currents and sand movements, which may lead to beach erosion. – Alvin Chelliah, Programme Manager at Reef Check Malaysia[8]

Waste And Water Remains A Problem

The locals are concerned that this new airport may turn Pulau Tioman into another Boracay Island (the Philippines) or Maya Bay (Thailand), which had to be closed due to severe environmental damage brought about by uncontrolled tourism expansion. – Alvin Chelliah, Programme manager at Reef Check Malaysia[8]

According to Alvin Chelliah, the programme manager at Reef Check Malaysia, Tioman Island is home to just over 3700 islanders across 7 villages. These include Kampung Tekek, Kampung Genting and Kampung Paya.

Although the supposed boost to tourist numbers should be attractive to locals given that tourism is Tioman’s primary source of income and employment.

Many local communities believe that the island currently does not have the resources or facilities required to provide for the increased number of tourists predicted by the plan and have also expressed their fears that the airport’s environmental impacts will cascade down and affect their businesses and livelihoods.

Back in 2018, Tioman residents were already against the Kampung Genting airport. The village head claims the new airport would be built on reclaimed land near Kampung Genting[8].

I urge the government to reconsider this plan. We, the people of Tioman, do not feel that this new project will benefit us. Why is there no transparency in communicating information about this airport to us? The authorities have not sought our feedback. – Tioman village head[8]

Despite being surrounded by water, Tioman continues to suffer from frequent water shortages which are only amplified by its tourism industry. It certainly doesn’t help that September and October, the driest months on the island, are also the peak tourist season. This sets the scene for a conflict between locals and tourists[9].

Waste disposal is another problem plaguing the island.  Tioman’s sole waste incinerator has a capacity of 15 tonnes per day, at a cost of RM520.70 per tonne. Daily waste disposal is about four tonnes but grows to between six and eight tonnes during the peak tourist season[10].

There is a running incinerator, however, it cannot process electronic waste. If tourist numbers increase, daily waste generated would exceed the incinerator’s capacity[8].

Source: The Star

Lessen The Blow, Brace For Permanent Impact

Despite the clear backlash against the new airport, the EIA reported that 54% of households and 42% of business operators surveyed agreed with the new airport project[7]. As such, a compromise must be made and mitigation measures undertaken if the project passes through.

The EIA report proposed several marine conservation and rehabilitation measures to mitigate airport development’s possible issues. 

  • These measures included coral relocation, the practice of relocating coral from areas with unfavourable conditions i.e. bleaching, algal blooms, and high water turbidity. 
  • Four relocation sites and two coral farms have already been proposed in the plan to be carried out before construction works[5].

As of now, however, only corals classified as near threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered are prioritised for relocation if necessary.

Other environmental mitigation methods include:

  • Setting buffer areas and working in phases to reduce the amount of sediment unsettling,
  • Sound controls and water stream management during the construction phase and use of low-intensity lights

Additionally, the report further urged developers to continue monitoring the coast during and after the construction of the airport[7].

As for the potential socioeconomic impacts caused, the report recommended that:

  • Incentives be offered in the form of tourist tax reductions to all resort operators and related businesses for at least the next five years[5]
  • Improving existing waste collection and disposal facilities and scheduled waste management to better handle potential waste generated from the construction and operation of the airport.

The report also highlighted the new business and skill opportunities provided by this project, which are especially important in a post-COVID society[5].

The EIA report concludes that the project development would cause both positive and negative impacts on both Tioman’s natural environment and local communities. Even with the mitigation methods recommended, however, it is clear that the construction and operation of this airport will have a permanent effect on Tioman’s natural beauty.

Changemakers on the ground have shared that there are some repercussions that the local community will face. The irony is, instead of boosting tourism, Tioman’s highly praised aesthetics may now be tainted by concrete infrastructure reaching out to the sky. The island’s attraction lies in its diving areas and its rich ecosystem. It would put pressure on critically endangered species and fade coral gardens away.

Ultimately, what we really need to do is listen to what the locals have to say. They are, after all, the ones with the most stakes here.

The needs and views of the locals should be considered. Pulau Tioman is a marine protected area and it should remain pristine and protected[8]. – Alvin Chelliah, Programme Manager at Reef Check Malaysia[8]

If you’re interested in hearing more about this project and its potential effects and whether we should be invested in such a project for our feature tourism, listen to this BFM interview with Julian Hyde, General Manager at Reef Check Malaysia.

Explore our sources:

  2. S. Latib. (2019). Tioman Airport project gets go-ahead. New Straits Times. Link.
  3. T.N. Alagesh. (2017). Proposed Pulau Tioman airport can boost tourism. New Straits Times. Link.
  4. J. Rosly. (2018). Berjaya Group plans to build RM1.2b airport in Tioman. New Straits Times. Link.
  5. EIA reviewing new Tioman airport. (2023). The Star. Link.
  6. D. Kaur. (2018). New Pulau Tioman airport ‘impossible’. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  7. A. Ayzzat. (2023). Hundreds of Tioman’s marine species at risk from airport project: report. The Vibes. Link.
  8. A. Chellian. (2018). Proposed Tioman airport will not benefit locals, environment. New Straits Times. Link.
  9. M. Ismail. (2018). Losing our water to tourism. The ASEAN Post. Link.
  10. L.C. Ying. (2014). What a load of rubbish. The Star. Link.

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