“Tioman Island Airport Development Revival – More Expense than Earnings” by Serina Rahman

2017/43, 26 July 2017

During the recent launch of the Tekek Makmur affordable homes on Pulau Tioman, Pahang, it was announced that cancelled airport development plans would be revived. Initially announced in 2003 by then-PM Mahathir Mohamed, the project would entail the reclamation of a 2km long, 45m wide airport runway stretching out over coral reefs and seagrass meadows off Kampung Paya. The complete infrastructure plan costing RM120 million at the time also required the destruction of half a hillside adjacent to the village. That project was scrapped in 2009 by the then-Minister of Transportation, Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat, after multiple protests by the community and NGOs. Scientific presentations also showed that the value of the habitat in its current state as contributors to tourism and other ecosystem services was far higher than potential earnings from airport development – especially when coupled with the economic costs of environmental destruction.

In all discussions pertaining to development in Pulau Tioman, the importance of preserving the environment has been upheld, yet in 2003, Tun Mahathir mentioned that ‘the beauty of Tioman would be meaningless if more people could not enjoy it’. 14 years on, current PM Najib Razak has proclaimed that the island needs to develop more attractions to receive more tourists and enjoy more economic benefits. Research by University Teknologi MARA shows that Tioman residents are open to development for increased tourism, but they are also acutely aware that more development and tourist arrivals can have negative impacts on their marine environment. However the almost 4000 islanders are almost wholly dependent on tourism for their survival. Acceptable tourism development for them are those that bring direct benefits to themselves. My conversations with Tioman folk reveal that they are wholly supportive of projects such as new roads around the island and the new boardwalk, but the benefit of the new airport is yet uncertain. It is vital that those tasked with reviving this project re-examine the actual costs of development before pushing through irreversible and expensive losses for all.
Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Research Fellow under the Malaysia Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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