Rethink Travel – stories by Leong Siok Hui
Terengganu’s Perhentian Islands are “arguably the most beautiful islands in Malaysia,” so says the Lonely Planet guide. Though the islands have dodged major developments so far, they are starting to creak under the strain of burgeoning tourist arrivals.
For the past 16 years, expatriates Bill and Sally Addington have been soaking up the sun and exploring the glorious underwater world in the Perhentian Islands with their family.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, the Addingtons have holidayed in most islands in Peninsular Malaysia, but find Perhentian irresistible.
We used to like Tioman and went there quite a bit. Then a friend recommended Perhentian and we haven’t gone anywhere else since,” says Bill, 52. “Our kids are keen divers, the diving here is superb, and we like the laid-back, peaceful lifestyle.”
Sandy beaches, clear waters and great diving aside, the islands also boast forests that harbours a rich diversity of flora and fauna. This year, herpetologist Dr Lee Grismer from La Sierra University in California discovered a few new gecko species that are endemic to Perhentian.
“We have had tourists who have visited Taman Negara, come here and tell us they wished they hadn’t bothered because they see more wildlife here,” says Peter Caron who manages the Watercolours Resorts and Dive Centre in Perhentian Besar.
Caron, who joined Grismer and a couple of other researches on their expedition this year, says, “You can spot monkeys, monitor lizards, and various insects in a 30-minute stroll just behind our resort.”
Issues cropping up
Though repeat visitors to Perhentian like the Addingtons think the islands haven’t changed dramatically compared to destinations like Redang and Tioman, they are starting to notice the effects from the increasing tourist arrivals and new resorts.
A 2007 Reef Survey done by Reef Check Malaysia (RCM) found the reefs in Perhentian have the poorest health as its live coral cover is only 34% compared to Tioman, Redang and Tenggol which have 50% or more. Also the islands have a high number of algae-coated reef, indicating nutrient pollution, probably from poor sewage treatment.
Poorly planned tourism development, ineffective sewage treatment and solid waste disposal, and illegal fishing are some of the factors affecting the health of Perhentian’s reef.
During peak season, in July and August, visitors are likely to spot a mound of overflowing black plastic bags on rickety pontoons scattered around the islands. These are waste left on the pontoons by resort operators. A rubbish barge, sub-contracted by Besut District Council, is supposed to collect the bags daily and dispose the waste on the mainland.
“After an evening storm, you’ll see black bags bobbing in the sea because they fall from the overflowing rubbish platform,” says Caron. “The amount of plastic is phenomenal, and the leachate from the rubbish pollutes the sea.”
The thing is, every resort operator already has to fork out a monthly fee for the rubbish collection.
“Sometimes when there is too much rubbish, the contractor just dumps the rubbish somewhere without bringing them back to the mainland,” claims Azman Sulaiman who runs the Flora Bay Divers. “No one is monitoring. And with the number of tourists here, we need a twice-a-day collection, and not once every couple of days.”
Stinky smells in ‘algaeland’
Originally from Kuala Lumpur, Azman has been running a dive shop in Perhentian for 14 years.
“Thank God, there are no major developments like golf courses and mega resorts here,” says Azman, 35, who also trains dive instructors. “But if you put the number of small chalet resorts together and each has 10 to 15 rooms on average, you end up having a lot of sewage.”
The proliferation of alga-coated reef on the beaches in front of the resorts hint at a problem.
“The resort next to ours is so crowded, and when you walk by, you smell the overflowing sewage,” says Sally. “Six years ago, when it’s low tide there was no smell and you don’t see the algae.”
Septic tanks overflow due to the increasing number of tourists and the limited capacity of these tanks. Some resorts apparently release their untreated sewage directly into the sea.
“There was a state initiative last year to try to get resorts together to share the cost of treating their sewage effectively. However, some resorts have 100 rooms while others have five rooms. Not all are owned; some like ourselves are on short leases,” says Caron, a former environmental consultant.
“If we don’t know whether our lease will be renewed next year, why would we invest all this money on tertiary treatment? What we need is the state government’s intervention to hook up the resorts.
“The cost can’t go to the resort operator in one go but it needs a system (like instalments or subsidies) so we can afford it.”
Where is ‘Nemo’?
To some of Perhentian’s regular divers’ chagrin, the fish stock in some of the dive sites are declining.
“No longer can you dive at Tokong Laut, the best site on the island, and see big schools of trevally this year. We heard a local fisherman made an illegal RM15,000-catch on trevally last year,” Caron says.
“Every year, we are seeing less of the big fish,” chips in Sally, 52, an avid diver. “We used to be able to see humphead wrasse and swim along with them but now they’re harder to see.”
Most divers come for the charismatic species like turtles, black-tip sharks and whale sharks, Azman explains. But with the degradation of the reef and rampant illegal fishing, divers may eventually shy away.
“I think the snorkelers are the biggest culprits — they trample on the corals, the smokers will flick cigarette stubs into the water or throw empty plastic water bottles,” says Azman.
“To please their clients, some boatmen gets into the water, grab the turtle by its carapace, pull it up to the surface to show the snorkelers,” adds Caron. “Some snorkelers actually hitch rides on the turtles and hold their fins, distressing the turtles.”
Frequently, kids will scoop up clownfish (popularly known as Nemo because of the Hollywood movie), keep them in small bottles and release them at a different spot later. But the fish, which forms a symbiotic relationship with sea anemones, will die if it’s placed in an environment with no anemones, Caron says.
“It’s all 90% education, but is anyone educating the boatmen on the do’s and don’ts?” Caron asks.
“Can the marine park introduce training schemes for boatmen to be ‘eco’ operators. They can learn how to brief the snorkelers – don’t stand on the corals, touch the turtles, and stop feeding the fish. Resorts can cooperate by using only responsible operators.”
Each visitor to Perhentian has to pay a RM5 conservation fee when they enter the marine park.
“A lot of tourists are annoyed, and I know some who refuse to pay or ask for their money back because they can’t find much information at the marine park centre,” says Caron, who signed up for the volunteer warden programme set up by the Marine Park.
However, there has since been no follow-up activities by the park.
“Where are the patrol boats? Why are some local villagers or operators fishing within the marine park?”
The Perhentian ‘loyalists’
The lure of Perhentian keep tourists like the Addingtons and Giampaolo Gepesio of Rome, Italy, coming back over and over again. Gepesio, 33, first came to the islands in 1999.
“Of course, there’s a big difference in the number of corals now, and I meet many Italian tourists in other resorts,” says Gepesio.
“Ten years ago, I was probably the only Italian here. Italians are not usually independent backpackers so their presence here means the tour companies are selling Perhentian packages in Italy. I’m a little worried for the islands in the next 10 years. This place is in my heart — the sea, the nature and the people,” Gepesio says.
If you develop the place responsibly, bring in income for the locals and take care of the environment, the islands will remain a sustainable destination, Bill says.
“A couple of years ago, a friend of ours came here to dive and then he went on to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And he sends us an e-mail saying ‘I don’t know why I bother coming to the Barrier Reef, Perhentian is so much nicer,’ “ adds Bill.
The Addingtons usually stay for a week each time they are in Perhentian. Two days before they went to Perhentian on the most recent trip, they asked their four kids, ages ranging from15 to 21, where they preferred to go for their holiday.
“It was a choice between going to JW Marriot in Phuket with the Playstation, videos, soft hotel sheets and five-star restaurant, or coming to the basic chalets here and eating local food,” says Sally smiling. “And they go, ‘Oh, Perhentian of course.”
For now, I guess the Perhentian folks are — as Sally concludes — “doing something okay here”.
But if the authorities don’t nip the emerging problems in the bud, this sandy paradise may become yet another casualty of irresponsible tourism.
Rethink Travel is a series of monthly articles on responsible tourism in collaboration with Wild Asia, a Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group. Hopefully we can help promote sustainable practices in Asian travel destinations and challenge common perceptions and ideas on travel. Click on http://www.wildasia.net for resources on responsible travel. For more information, check www.wildasia.net.