All alone in the South China Sea?

How long before Malaysia's atoll Tioman emulates its sophisticated neighbour Langkawi, asks Sophie Lam

There are lots of people who like to think that they've "discovered" the next secret destination. And that's what lots of people do when they smugly arrive on Pulau Tioman, an island positioned like a full stop off the south east coast of Malaysia. First impressions confirm that it is largely untouched by mass tourism since the first holiday-makers arrived in the late 1940s. The densely forested hunk of land is ringed with luminous, teal-hued sea. One road unites the airstrip with the only resort; another linking the virtually uninhabited east coast with the west is mid-construction. But appearances can be deceptive.

A controversial RM40 million (£6.4m) marina and cargo jetty form the first large-scale tourist project the island has seen in two decades, yet support for it seems to be as absent as the number of visitors such a project would necessitate. Construction has already destroyed swathes of coral as boats dragged over sections of the national marine park reef. The scars are unmistakable: dead coral now mounts up with every tide.

Tioman was put on the map when the 1958 movie South Pacific used it as a location. In the 1970s, Time magazine listed the thumbs-up-shaped atoll as one of the world's 10 most beautiful islands. Cue a rush for development and a clutch of uninspiring hotels a decade later. Yet development was patchy and, at present, the Berjaya, where I stayed, remains the only resort, with a considerable number of its guests coming to dive.

One of the island's most beautiful reefs is just 100 yards from the resort's shores at Renggis Island, which sprouts from the South China Sea like a floret of broccoli. I circumnavigated the islet with a snorkel. The coral was spread out like a psychedelic vegetable garden, some like samphire, others like big purple cabbages. Fat brown sea cucumbers littered the white seabed and a dazzling array of fish flowed blithely around me.

To sample what Tioman had to offer back on land, I made the bumpy journey in a 4x4 over to the east coast's only village, Juara. Here, village life remained largely intact with stilted family homes neatly lining the road. The only sign of construction was a trio of brightly coloured timber huts, presumably anticipating a surge in visitors once the road has been completed.

I trekked back to the "capital", Tekek, on a path hacked through the jungle, accompanied by a cacophony of screeching. The forest, which encompasses nearly three quarters of the island's 53 square miles, is home to protected mammals including the binturong (a nocturnal "bearcat"), slow loris (similar to a bushbaby), black giant squirrel and mouse deer.

I emerged two hours later like a sweating beetroot, deciding to make my last stop Salang, at the far north of the island. Here, barbecues choked the air while the day's catch was slapped on to ice-filled displays. I'd been warned that Salang was worst affected by the ravages of tourism, but there was a decidedly languorous ambience.

Yet Tioman is slowly but stealthily aligning itself with the luxury haunt of Langkawi island. Like Langkawi, it was awarded duty-free status in 2002, and it is rumoured that the marina is being built to echo its west coast counterpart.

Whether this diminutive and fragile hideaway can sustain an increase in visitors is uncertain. But for the moment, it still feels like an undiscovered paradise.

HOW TO GET THERE

Sophie Lam travelled with Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; malaysiaairlines.com), Berjaya Air (00 60 3 7846 8228; berjaya-air.com) and Thomson Worldwide (0871 230 2770; thomsonasia. co.uk), which offers doubles at the Berjaya Tioman Resort from £26 per person per night.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourism Malaysia (020-7930 7932; tourismmalaysia.gov.my).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions