Hidden from plain sight, postcard-perfect Tuba Island aspires to be a world-class model of sustainable and green development for an island destination.
Perhaps it was my blinkered vision of paradise but as I rode my rented motorcycle around Tuba Island, a feeling of nostalgia mixed with heady triumph swept over me. Nostalgia because the scene that unfolded before me was like a blast from the past – idyllic and tranquil, with buffaloes grazing at the fallow padi fields, and chickens nearby while fishermen were repairing their fishing nets by the sea.
Coming from the opposite direction was a group of
school children racing on their bicycles merrily.
‘Heady triumph’ because this seemed like the discovery of the year for me – a pristine island off Langkawi
Archipelago of 99 islands that’s still stuck in a time warp. Scattered around the island were jungles, lush foliage, sandy beaches and rocky coastlines that form part of the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park, one of three geoforest parks that make up Langkawi’s UNESCO-designated Geopark.
There I was with the wind blowing into my face as I rode past the picturesque landscape at a slow 40km per hour. I was savouring every moment of that journey into the past as fresh sea breeze enveloped my entire being.
In my naïve reckoning, I was half hoping that this little secret of Langkawi would remain like this for a long time to come. A precious time capsule in a world rushing towards progress and fast-paced development.
The food specialty of the island, prawn and crab noodles further sealed that sentiment – it was the most delicious meal I have had so far in Langkawi, and very affordable too. “This island paradise should continue to preserve its pristine charm and any developments should be as sustainable as possible,” I’d thought.
That was exactly the same sentiment echoed by Rosly Selamat, a committee member of Friends of Langkawi Geopark (FLAG), an NGO based in Langkawi. Rosly is no stranger to Tuba Island having first set foot there in 2016 at the behest of a friend who owns a beach house at Teluk Puyuh. Rosly too was similarly captivated by the island’s untouched condition.
“Tuba should have a carefully structured and sustainable plan moving forward,” he opines, adding that the island can set the best example in the world to emulate for sustainable development of an island destination.
“Tuba can be world class in this sense and make it to the world tourism map, sharing with the world our correct sustainable approach,” he voices his hope.
“It must be seen as an extension of the tourism value-chain even though the authorities have overlooked a lot of the basic infrastructure on the island such as the lack of tourist information centre, no maintenance of tourism sites, insufficient signage and no public toilets.”
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True enough, during my idyllic ride, I have gotten lost a few times despite the island being very small. The signage which were only installed in early 2020 were a bit confusing especially when many of the landmarks look similar.
There weren’t any tourist maps available except the one at the jetty but even that one can easily be missed. So, I ended up not arriving at the famed caves of Tuba. But I wasn’t complaining because there was just so much laidback kampong vibe around to get annoyed over not arriving at a tourism site!
In my aimless wandering, I passed through a few other food stalls and bought their satay and desserts. Somehow, they tasted uniquely delicious.
There was even a small village where all the buildings including residential houses and schools were painted in multicolour paint, giving off a very cheerful atmosphere. That’s what getting lost gets you – a surprising non-tourist spot that’s captivating and Instagram-worthy.
It would indeed be ruinous to have massive developments overshadowing these charming vignettes of everyday life in an idyllic kampong setting.
Rosly agrees. “Whatever development in Tuba has to fit into the overall landscape of the rustic island. Tuba should have its own unique characteristic – Tuba is padi fields, buffaloes, kampung houses, fishing boats and coconut trees,” he says with a twinge of nostalgia.
Fortunately, what little uncoordinated development Tuba has had undergone over the years, it has remained largely untouched by mainstream development in Langkawi.
Some developments have been abandoned for one reason or another. Tuba used to be the main supplier of “ikan talang masin” and charcoal. The kiln was however destroyed when a new owner bought over the land, recalls Rosly. There was also a fish and prawn farm operated by a Russian company that was abandoned and became an eyesore for many years.
As part of FLAG’s proposals, for any future development in Tuba, there must be a “Strategic Area Local Plan” exclusive for Tuba. “Tuba must take on the challenge to be the most sustainable and green destination in the region where tourism planners from all over the world want to visit and learn.”
Rosly continues: “Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) as a federal agency with the funds should gather all the local expertise and draw up a comprehensive sustainable tourism plan into the 2030s and beyond. The plan should include banning fossil fuel vehicles in Tuba by 2030 or earlier. The island should only be served by electric, solar, or NGV vehicles.”
He adds that the local authorities must also insist on a building plan for any shoreline development. “I have seen land titles in Tuba which show that their land covers the beaches and sea. Such illegal encroachment of government land is rampant because there is no enforcement. Hence, there should be a fresh review of these land titles.”
‘No mega projects’
“We believe strongly that Tuba should remain as a pristine fishing and farming community providing visitors the true “Kampung Experience”. Hence, all developments should be nature-based or built to enhance the appreciation of nature. No mega projects, please!”
Another one of Rosly’s suggestions is for one of Malaysia’s most renowned architects who has properties in Tuba, to take the lead in developing unique villas and cottages for the high-end market segment, for a complete “immersion in nature” experience.
In the meantime, FLAG has identified the homestay operators in Tuba to be their community initiative in driving the ecotourism/ back to nature agenda. The island is home to a few homestays and budget accommodations.
In terms of tourism activities, in addition to the current ones which include jungle trekking, fishing and visiting caves, Tuba should capitalise on the Langkawi Geopark brand, offering mangrove adventures, mountains, marble quarries, the Tuba Straits, bicycle rides, island hopping, bird watching, kayaking and abseiling, suggests Rosly. “An accredited camping ground would be perfect too to add to the list of outdoor adventures.”
Recently, a chance to be an international art hub similar to Bali and Tahiti was mooted by the National Art Gallery (NAG). If realised, this would add another pull factor to bring in artists and artisans from the world over to make Tuba their creative base.
Such are the lofty aspirations for Tuba that if even half of those are fulfilled, it would have made a giant leap into mainstream ecotourism for this almost forgotten gem of Langkawi.
A fisherman’s dream, Tuba Island is one of two populated islands of Langkawi’s 99-island Archipelago. It is just a 15-20-minute boat ride away from Kuah Jetty. The island is named after the Tuba plant, a species native to the island.
The picturesque island is made up of six kampungs (villages), each headed by a village chief who collectively oversee a grand total of 3,000 inhabitants.