OCTOBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 10
E C O N O M I C S
Tourist Development in Malaysiaby Samantha Sparks
LANGKAWI, Malaysia--When output from their rice fields began to drop two years ago, farmers at the foot of the highest mountain on Langkawi Island only had to look up to see the source of the trouble. A new road, winding its way steadily towards the peak, stood out clearly against the deep green of the mountain forest. Construction of the road was sending tons of dirt into the streams that carried water from the top of the mountain to the farmers' fields. Instead of being irrigated, the rice paddies were being choked. "When the fields were wet, I was up to my thighs in sand," one woman farmer recalls.
Today, two years later, the extent of the farmers' economic losses are becoming clear. "We used to get 80 sacks of rice from five acres," says one man. "Now, it is 30. The rice cannot grow."
The stream that runs past the farmers' fields is so badly silted that in places the water barely flows. The farmers have tried to clear it out, piling wet, sandy earth up to three feet high along the banks. But fresh dirt from the mountain soon clogs the water again. Rubber trees growing by the side of the stream are turning yellow and dying because they get flooded when the water overflows.
Soon the farmers' difficulties may get even worse. The road is just the first step towards a hill-top tourist resort planned by the Malaysian government. Construction of the resort will destroy more of the mountain's tropical forest, causing erosion and further siltation of the streams. In addition, some Malaysian scientists predict that the resort will exhaust the local water supply, causing shortages in the dry season.
The tourist trap
The Langkawi farmers make up one of a growing number of rural communities in Malaysia whose livelihoods are being threatened by tourism. The government here, like many others throughout the developing world, is stepping up its efforts to attract tourists, saying that this will bring in foreign exchange and create badly needed new jobs. Using tax incentives, public investment in infrastructure and intensive international publicity, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government has launched an all-out drive to encourage the growth of big hotels, beach resorts and golf courses. The government views tourism as one of the most important development tools of the decade.
Critics, on Langkawi and beyond, however, argue that the costs of tourism--environmental destruction, displacement of communities and cultural clashes--are high, and that tourism brings fewer benefits than its proponents claim. "Tourism is causing a deterioration of our natural, cultural and human environment," writes Evelyn Hong, formerly an analyst for the Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP). Tourism creates few jobs for local people, critics such as Hong contend. Much of the foreign exchange brought by tourists, meanwhile, goes to international hotel corporations instead of to the host country.
Tourism is already an important industry in Malaysia. In 1990, the government announced $1.5 billion in tourism earnings for the year. Now, throughout the country, an effort is underway to do even more. The aim is to create "world-class" tourist destinations that will put Malaysia on the map as one of the top holiday spots in the world.
Two types of tourist attractions are central to the new strategy: golf courses and beach resorts. Backed by international investors, mainly from Japan, golf courses have become especially popular. Developers are hoping to capitalize on the fact that it is cheaper for Japanese golfers to fly to Malaysia than to stay at home and pay the exorbitant membership fees of golf courses in Japan. There are now 90 courses in Malaysia, double the number of the early 1980s, and many more are planned. Advertisements for these resorts boast of their exclusivity. The Kelab Golf Club, for example, announces "a lifestyle so leisurely and so gracious that, thankfully, it can only be enjoyed by a select few. " Meanwhile, according to research by the Penang-based Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM, Friends of the Earth, Malaysia), 200 squatters near the club are still awaiting low-cost housing promised them by the government many years ago.
While the government and private sector are doing their best to attract new investments in golf courses, Malaysian environmentalists warn that the trend means trouble for the country's environment. "Golf courses are targeted to natural sites," comments Chee Yoke Ling, SAM executive secretary. They "are built by the sea, in the midst of tropical forests, on hills with a view." They use up large tracts of land, often in delicate ecological areas or in areas formerly used by farms. They consume vast amounts of water, often causing shortages for local farmers and residents. The intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers needed to keep the lawns weed-free and green pollutes the surrounding environment; in Japan, the problem is so severe that some communities have organized successful campaigns to force local golf courses to reduce their chemical use.
Critics also charge that investing in golf courses and other tourist projects is a serious misallocation of government funds. Instead of trying to develop poor rural communities indirectly with the "trickle-down" of tourist wealth, some Malaysians say the government might do a better job by applying its scarce resources directly to locals' needs. "We must prepare local people for development, so that they can benefit," says Romli Ishak, a CAP representative. "We should focus on small-scale industry, handicrafts, furniture. Now people don't have any preparation, so they just end up selling their land" to resort developers.
Recent experience in the 104-island archipelago of Langkawi suggests that the arguments of critics of tourist development are well founded. Situated west of Penang, at the entrance to the Indian Ocean, Langkawi boasts some of the most beautiful natural spots in the country: mountains, tropical forests and miles of white sand beaches. Since 1982, the Mahathir government has been officially committed to using this natural wealth to turn Langkawi into an internationally known tourist resort. "We want to promote Langkawi for tourism based on the environment," says Haji Abdul Halil Mutalib, general manager of the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA). With this goal, various government agencies spent an estimated $165 million on tourist development efforts between 1984 and 1989, according to a British researcher, Bella Bird.
Projects approved by LADA in 1980 include six five-star hotels, two golf courses, six moderate hotels and a huge fruit and vegetable farm to satisfy the growing demand from tourists. The airport on the main island (which is also known as Langkawi) is to be expanded in a controversial project that involves linking it with another small island nearby. The number of tourists who visit the island--the majority are Malaysians--is increasing dramatically, from 310,000 in 1985 to 592,000 in 1988 and nearly one million in 1990.
The government's ambitious plans for Langkawi have alarmed environmentalists, who say that hasty and poorly planned tourist development on the island is already destroying its environment and making life worse, not better, for the local people.
To clear the way for the golf courses, hundreds of acres of Langkawi's tropical forests are being logged. Soil erosion is already apparent, and farmers say that, without the forest to absorb the heavy seasonal rains, their fields will be flooded. There are fears that chemicals used on the courses will pollute the streams and rivers which supply the farmers' fields and in some places are the only source of drinking water available. Meanwhile, villagers who have sold their farm land to developers fear that, once the hotels go up, they will be denied access to the beaches where they now fish and collect cockles.
On the main island, tourist development has already created one unmitigated environmental disaster. In the early 1980s, in what was then one of the most beautiful parts of Langkawi, an area called Tanjung Rhu, Mahathir asked a company called Progressive Methods (Promet) to create a fantasy resort which would include an 18-hole golf course, an artificial wave lagoon, a vast swimming pool and many other diversions. The project's backers declared that it would create 10,000 jobs and bring in $400 million in tourist expenditures by 1991. Some 70 families sold their land to the state, reportedly against their will, so that the project could proceed.
Today, Tanjung Rhu looks like it was hit by a bomb. Where once there was mangrove forest, concrete blocks lie in a muddy swamp. Rusted corrugated iron lies twisted in piles among dry, prickly weeds. It has been this way since 1987, when financial backing for the Promet project fell through.
Nearby, one 18-hole golf course has been opened; at the other end of the island, there are two beach resorts. But so far, these tourist developments appear to have benefited few Langkawi natives. Local construction companies have been outbid for major construction projects by large national and international firms; local construction workers, according to an in-depth 1989 study by British scholar Bird, have not been able to keep up with the pace of work demanded by these outside companies. "Most tourist development projects are not improving the local people's economic position," she concludes. In fact, "the islanders are in great danger of being only marginally involved in tourism, by providing cheap services to those more profitably employed."
New hotels and shops on Langkawi have created jobs, Bird found, but "most local people do not have the necessary experience or skills to take up many of [them]." Only about one-third of the employees at the 350-room Relangi Beach Resort and half of those at the Langkawi Island Resort are local, according to Bird, and their low-level jobs tend to be not much better paid than farming.
A local leader, Abdul Rahin Othman, says he has been disappointed by the government's approach to development on Langkawi. "We don't benefit from their projects," he complains. "Like the new cement factory: at first they said we would get jobs there. But now they have hired nearly all their workers from outside Langkawi. They say the locals don't have the skills to work there." The only impact from the factory so far, according to Rahin, has been the cement dust that blows onto the farmers' fields on windy days.
Tourist development has had an economic impact on the islanders, however, forcing them to endure a sharp rise in prices for food and other necessities. One resident complained to The Star, a major newspaper, that "businessmen [are] slaughtering the locals with high prices, especially for vegetables, fish, chicken, etc.!" Rents on the island have also soared, making it difficult for locals to open shops which would allow them to take advantage of the tourist boom. The price-gouging has become so bad that even Mahathir has publicly complained.
Several islanders, asked how they were benefiting from tourist development, could cite only the roads built by the government in preparation for the 1989 visit of the Commonwealth Head of Government. "Before then, we had no roads," comments one farmer. "So we were pleased when these were built. But then we wondered, why couldn't they have built the roads before? It was just done for the visitors."
The transformation of Langkawi from a poor, agriculture-based island into an international tourist resort is not proceeding unopposed. Activists from organizations such as SAM and CAP are working to publicize the negative effects of tourism, as are Islamic youth groups who are concerned about the rising use of alcohol and cigarettes by the Islamic islanders.
But it seems unlikely that these critics will be able to alter the course mapped by the government. Next year, Langkawi is slated to be one of two Malaysian sites to host the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Tourism Forum, as part of the region's "Visit Asean Year 1992" campaign. The "fantasy island" promised tourists may then become a nightmare for the locals.