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).

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