Langkawi Rebuilding for a greener paradise

Despite a surge of visitors after interstate travel restriction was lifted, Langkawi is still struggling to define itself as a top ecotourism destination.

Upon arrival at Langkawi airport, it was a breeze to rent a car as there were so many counters offering the same products. You only need to bargain for the best deal. Yes, unfortunately, just like other island destinations like Jeju and Phuket, a car is a necessity unless you have all the time in the world to wait for the bus. Speaking of buses, Langkawi has yet to have buses despite having bus stops installed. Which might be a good thing as buses cause a lot of noise and environmental pollution.
With a car, you can travel easily to all the places of interest – except it’s sometimes easy to get momentarily lost due to the confusing road signage. A road sign leading to Ayer Hangat Village (Hotspring) will somehow not show itself in the next road sign where there’s a roundabout or turning, causing you to wonder if you should continue straight or turn. Apart from that, the roads are relatively well-maintained.
Herein lies the paradox that is Langkawi – it holds aspirations to be a world class destination yet lacks the many infrastructures that qualify it as one. True enough, it has many local car rental operators but renting one is like an exercise in your bargaining prowess at the market. It has many interesting places but lacks the marketing muscle to drive tourists there.
The Ayer Hangat Village hotspring is a case in point – it is one of only four saltwater hotsprings in the world. The hotspring came about when seawater is heated up a few kilometres underwater from the heat of the volcanic lava of Gunung Raya.
Seawater hot springs are so rare in the world that this should have been one of Langkawi’s top draws yet hardly anyone outside of Langkawi knows about it. The place looked a bit neglected and there were few visitors, hardly the spa-like condition that you would expect from a hotspring facility at a top holiday destination.

Rosly Selamat

The other overlooked attraction is Laman Padi Langkawi, a museum paying homage to the most common agricultural activity in Langkawi – rice cultivation. With real padi fields where you can sit to have a meal right next to, it’s a cultural immersion that any foreign tourist would be thrilled to experience. The scene of padi fields in various stages of growth stretching for a few hundred metres is a feast for the eyes. Yet again, the lack of visitors makes this almost a wasted resource.
Laman Padi is also lacking in activities that can draw repeat visitors, offers Rosly Selamat, a committee member of FLAG (Friends of Langkawi Geopark). “The museum is not interactive and remains unchanged for many years. Where is the padi pulut showcase? Shouldn’t Laman Padi be a one-stop centre for such showcase?” he asks.
Clearly, for Rosly, there is a lack or in some cases the non-existence of a maintenance budget to upkeep government-owned attractions.

Good and bad

Back at the popular Cenang Beach, Rosly laments the haphazard construction visible in Cenang Beach now – “There is a rule of thumb here where no high-rise building shall be taller than the tallest coconut tree,” he reveals.

Rosly also notes that the itinerary in Langkawi, for example, the Island Hopping tour has not changed in the last 20 years! “It’s always the same three – Tasik Dayang Bunting, Pulau Singa and Pula u Beras Basah!”

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As for its duty-free status, Rosly laments the fact that apart from alcohol and chocolates, there are no major high-end shopping brands for sale. “Langkawi needs more high-end tourists but the current facilities have yet to adapt to all their requirements.”

And with the CMCO still ongoing especially in the Klang Valley, although relaxed now with interstate travelling allowed, there is still a nagging fear that interstate travel might be restricted again should the number of infections spike suddenly.
It’s not the first time Langkawi has experienced a dearth of visitors – as a n almost 100% tourist destination, it is susceptible to global disasters that impact tourism such as the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 a nd the Bali bombings in 2002. The Coronavirus pandemic has left the island reeling from large-scale layoffs making unemployment now a major issue a mid closures of hotels and businesses.

There is light at the end of the tunnel however.

Some hotels have made good use of the slack in visitors by doing renovation works in common areas. Cottage by the Sea by Frangipani, for example, is renovating its salt water pool, toilets, restaurants and is undertaking a major pruning of its trees.

“We are cleaning up the resort, doing repairs, fixing up whatever needs to be fixed and painting works. This ensures we are better off for our domestic market in the short term and our long term regular guests when they return,” says Adj Prof Anthony Wong Kim Hooi, Group MD of Cottage by the Sea by Frangipani.

In September, the hotel sponsored 24 B40 and single mothers for a Frangipani organic farm course. “Some of them have started to grow vegetables already in their homes. We shall conduct more courses once the peak holiday season is over, possibly late January 2021.”
To aid the tourism industry players, Wong suggests that Budget 2021 allocates a fund to pay 70% of staff salary in order to avoid a collapse of SMEs in the industry. “Only if they survive, ca n they keep their employees and keep paying future taxes.”

Dato Alexander I, Deputy President of Langkawi Business Association, is of the view that in order to lessen the impact from the pandemic, Langkawi should maintain its green status with zero infection rate. This can be done by following strictly the Covid-19 Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for another one year and by requiring the screening of all visitors and their downloading of MySejahtera app, the government’s contact tracing app, upon their arrival at the airport and jetties.

Alexander, who is also the Chairman of MNS Langkawi, hopes that direct flights from Singapore and Hong Kong can resume soon although the suspension of the Singapore and Hong Kong travel bubble might slow down the implementation.

Tourism Blue Print

In the meantime, the Langkawi Tourism Blueprint which forms the framework for development on the island, has structured the north- west part for luxury tourist stay, dining, retail and entertainment zone, while Cenang area is planned for family and tourist fun. It’s a blueprint that underpins the shift from an idyllic tropical island that predominantly featured fishing and agricultural activities to a modernized island geared for tourism.
Its implementation appears to be a catalyst in propelling the island’s position, especially on the global tourism map, according to a study done on branding Langkawi as a geopark destination. It found that rapid tourism development has harmed the island’s environment and affected social and cultural values of local residents.

For example, land reclamation has damaged the mangrove and beach areas in Tanjung Rhu while intensive development of tourism accommodations and businesses in Cenang has neglected the water pollution and soil erosion at sites adjacent to the beaches.
This is where private initiatives such as the one started by Wong helped tremendously. To counter the water pollution, Wong, who is also President of the Langkawi Business Association or Persatuan Niagakawi, gathered the local community together and collaborated with the local authorities to make the monsoon drain 270 meters long and 10 meters wide, and planted with wetland plants like water hyacinth, morning glory, water mimosa and wetland grass, to create a ‘Constructed Wetland’ to help clean the waste water going into the sea. They also regularly collect rubbish for the rubbish trap that they built as it enters the wetland drain. This has enabled the waters off Pantai Tengah which is just adjacent to Pantai Cenang to remain clean.
That, however is not enough to stem the stagnation that sooner or later beset the island. According to the study, the stagnation stage is a normal progression of any island tourist destination. It is a crossroad which will determine whether the island will prosper further or continue to stagnate.
Signs of stagnation include the reliance in repeat visits among domestic tourists, as well as in the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) market for events like Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition (LIMA). Furthermore, the existing properties are experiencing frequent changes in ownership, particularly in the accommodation sector due to business closure.

Sustainability is Key

The study proposed that future developments should be directed toward environmental, economic and social sustainability by adopting a “bottom-up” approach rather than a “top-down” approach, with the involvement of more local residents in the decision-making process.
This is what Wong has also prescribed: “La ngkawi Development Authority (LADA) should go down to the ground, have regular meetings and listen to the industry. It should work together with all players such as the boat operators, travel agents, ferry operators, tour guides, hotels and home stay operators on how to help and support them for example, in digital marketing.”
The other obvious solution is to improve existing attractions and build new ones. At the time of writing, a number of new attractions are either under construction or put on hold due to the pandemic.
There is a new water theme park which opened but had to close temporarily due to the pandemic, as well as another one, Perdana Quay Eco Marine Park – styling itself as Asia’s first interactive seawater theme park currently being constructed. Wong views them as positive developments for the island but qualifies it by saying that they must be of international class. “Repeat visitors need new attractions to keep them happy.”
Other projects that have been proposed or put on hold include a premium outlet, a private hospital and even a motocross circuit. “The latter is good as long as it’s not damaging to the environment. Any new green attraction is good as we need to keep Langkawi green and sustainable,” he concludes.
For Alexander, the authorities such as LADA and the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) should have a clear roadmap on the future development of Langkawi’s geoparks and eco-tourism. “As an added attraction, Langkawi should also capitalise on the hundreds of myths and legends swirling around the archipelago of 99 islands.”
The other area that Langkawi can improve is to develop further the marine sector. “Langkawi is a yachting paradise due to its strategic location and facilities. We have two big shipyards that can cater to superyachts,” says Alexander who is also the CEO of Tropical Charters Langkawi.
Like the eagle that’s poised to take off which represents Langkawi, the island may yet again soar to greater heights provided it charts a new path towards a more sustainable development model.

Retirement Paradise?

Taner Pamukcu owns a Turkish pizza shop offering one of the best pizzas in Langkawi Island. Based in Kuah, the 50-plus year old engineer who specialises in water theme parks was offered a job in Langkawi to help in the construction of Splash Out, Langkawi’s first water theme park.
While there, the Turk decided to put down his roots, having been mesmerised by Langkawi’s lush natural beauty. He is not the only foreigner captivated by the holiday destination. There are quite a number of foreigners resident in Langkawi, most of whom are visa holders under the Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) programme.
Explaining the appeal to foreigners, Adj Professor Anthony Wong says, “Langkawi is a safe and clean environment with friendly people and a low cost of living. English is widely spoken.” He adds: “It would be great if there are good flight connections and world class hospitals, and even better if they can renew their visa easily online. Furthermore, the Wi Fi connectivity is excellent.”
Dato Alex agrees and adds that a number of condominiums and villas have been built to cater to these residents. They are mostly located in Pantai Tengah, Pantai Cenang and Kuah.
A check on some property websites showed there are many condo units ranging in price between RM400K – RM2 mil being offered. Older subsale units are offered with very good discounts. However, the take-up rate of units is expected to be slow until 2021 as long as international travel is still restricted.

Highlights of Langkawi

Apart from a new water theme park, there is also a new mangrove forest in Kampung Kubang Badak which offers sightseeing trips to Pulau Kubang Badak, Kampung Siam, Siam River, and Pulau Jemuruk. It is described as a unique tidal river estuary ecosystem full of geological diversity, pristine mangroves and a distinctive cultural history with the early settlement of the Thai community.
Relatively new activities include wave surfing, historical walk in Kuah town and cliff diving. This is in addition to Pulau Tuba, which is part of the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park. The other two geoparks are the Kilm Karst Geoforest Park and Machincang Geoforest Park. The geopark concept emphasises on conservation of geological and biodiversity components of the island and includes cultural heritage preservation.
Built facilities include the Langkawi Cable Car, Underwater World and Duty Free Shopping while international events such as LIMA, Le Tour de Langkawi and Iron Man typically bring in the crowds.

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