Tioman is a small, densely forested, sparsely populated island attracting many tourists to its beautiful coastline with white sand beaches. A plan to build a new airport near the western coast of Tioman first emerged in 2003. Construction was scheduled to commence in 2004, on reclaimed land off the coast of the village of Kampung Paya. But in 2009 then transport minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat called off the project. Potential environmental impacts, in particular damage to coral reefs and marine life were a key factor in his decision. The airport plan had also triggered strong protests in Kampung Paya and two neighbouring villages: Kampung Genting and Kampung Mukut.
The airport plan re-emerged in June 2018. Vincent Tan, executive chairman of the Berjaya Group (also referred to as Berjaya Corporation Berhad), a major Malaysian conglomerate with many interests including tourist resorts, announced that he would submit a proposal to build a new airport in Tioman, in order to boost tourism. The company’s portfolio includes Berjaya Tourism Resort, a few kilometers north of the proposed airport site. Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB), the company managing most of Malaysia’s airports, cautioned that building a new airport on Tioman raised environmental concerns. MAHB director Badlisham Ghazali recalled that the previous plan for a new airport was not approved because construction would “spoil the beauty” of the island. Reef Check Malaysia, the local chapter of a global non-government organization (NGO) working to raise awareness of the importance of and threats to coral reefs, warned against the development, suggesting building an airport in Mersing, already a departure point for ferries to offshore islands including Tioman, instead. General Manager Julian Hyde said: “The (Tioman) airport would have inevitably meant further development of resorts and infrastructure, which could only cause additional damage to the island’s fragile ecosystems, both on land and underwater.”
On 21st October 2018 about 80 people, comprising villagers, NGO members, divers and tourism resort operators, staged a protest against a new airport. The protest was led by Kampung Genting village chief Azman Awang Mohd. Kampung Genting is the gateway to the island, with passenger boats arriving at the jetty. Reef Check Malaysia representative Alvin Chellian said that, as there was no suitable land available, land reclamation would be required to build the airport, which would damage the environment. Chellian drew attention to the irreversible damage that the airport would cause to the coralreefs, sea grass beds, shorelines and white sandy beaches. He also argued that, in order to cope with rising numbers of tourists, Tioman requires improvement of existing infrastructure, not a new airport. Water supply, electricity supply waste treatment and disposal are all inadequate. There are regular water shortages on the island and the incinerator is unable to accommodate the volumes of waste that are being generated, and cannot deal with some types of waste such as electrical waste. Tioman will not be able to cope with an increased influx of tourists without infrastructural improvements to accommodate the visitor load.
Islanders are also concerned that a new airport risks turning Tioman into another overcrowded tourism hotspot like Boracay Island in the Philippines or Maya Bay in Thailand, famous destinations which were both closed by authorities after heavy tourist traffic took a heavy toll on coastal ecosystems. Urging the government to reconsider the airport plan, Kampung Genting village chief Azman Awang Mohd said that the airport would not benefit local people, who were being kept in the dark about the project, “Why is there no transparency in communicating information about this airport to us? The authorities have not sought our feedback.” Residents suggested possible alternatives to a new airport. The island already has an airport a few kilometers north of Kampung Genting at Kampung Tekek. A short runway only allows small planes to land and some islanders suggest upgrading it, including lengthening the runway, could be a viable option for accommodating an increase in visitor numbers. Locals also suggested upgrading the jetty to make it more efficient for passenger arrivals by boat.
In November 2018 Dato Sri Wan Rosdy bin Wan Ismail, Mentari Besar (First Minister) of the state of Pahang, said that state and federal governments will monitor construction of a new airport to ensure that Tioman’s environment is not affected. Tioman Island has been declared a marine park and he made assurances that at least seven government departmentswould ensure compliance with the established rules. The departments charged with this responsibility are: Department of Environment, local authorities, Department of Marine Park, Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID), PLANMalaysia, Water Regulatory Body (BKSA), State Secretary Office and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.