A Balancing Act in Pulau Tioman

24 July 2018

Pulau Tioman accommodates hundreds of thousands of tourists every year – no small feat for an island of just under 500 people. But tourism on such a large scale can be a double-edged sword, ushering in economic benefits while also rapidly transforming social and ecological environments. Homestay owner Shamsina Monte speaks about her experience running a small business on the island, and looks ahead to the future.

“When I visited Tioman for the first time, it was just out of curiousity,” laughs Shamsina Monte. “I wasn’t looking for a job, I wasn’t looking for a husband. I only wanted to jalan jalan – now I’ve been here 30 years!”

The view of Tioman’s waters from just behind Auntie Sham’s warung.

Auntie Sham stands in the doorway of one of the guest rooms.

The spritely lady, who asks to be called Auntie Sham, co-runs a warung and homestay (Zainal D’Monte Homestay) with her husband Zainal on Pulau Tioman. Located in Kampung Tekek, the largest of the island’s eight villages, their rooms are strategically clustered by a marina, a mere stone’s throw away from the world-famous aquamarine waters. Walking down to the corner is scenic on many fronts: a road lined with state flags takes you past bougainvillea-adorned B&Bs, with stuffed tigers tied to posts to ward off mischievous monkeys.

Bananas and breadcrumbs for sale on the path down to the Zainal D’Monte Homestay.

“Our homestay has been running for over five years now,” says Auntie Sham. “Thankfully, business has been good, and my family members have all remained healthy enough to pitch in. My husband and I balance the work between us, and we opened the warung last year so my eldest daughter, Siti Nursila, could gain experience running a business. The stall sells drinks and various rice dishes, and all our ingredients are locally sourced.”

Aunty Sham at her work table.

The Monte family businesses do well for themselves, with the warung constantly busy with chatter and the allure of cold drinks, and their eight rooms are full more often than not. To say that operations are small would be an understatement – they quite literally sit on a street with no name, relying purely on word-of-mouth marketing. But change fast approaches Tioman: plans are in the works for a new airport that can handle commercial flights, promising a significant increase in tourist flow during the monsoon season.

The front porch of the Zainal D’Monte Homestay.

The airport would be a welcome development for local business owners like the Montes, who depend on a regular stream of visitors for their livelihood, and already compete with the conglomerate-owned resorts that dot the island. “The monsoon months are always the quietest,” says Auntie Sham. “December and January especially. Business really depends on the season here – we are very busy between April and September, when the island is more accessible.”

A pledge to not eat turtle eggs is scrawled in chalk around the back of the house. Various egg-protection projects on the island are engaging local villagers to help save Tioman’s endangered turtle population.

Any influx of people, though, would need to be sustainably managed. Pollution recently forced Boracay, a popular tourist beach in the Philippines, into a temporary closure, and local NGOs are already working to make sure the delicate balance between development and conservation can be better struck in Tioman. Reef Check Malaysia runs a Cintai Tioman initiative which helps educate and empower local communities towards protecting and conserving the island’s reefs, and offers hospitality courses for islanders who run resorts to better promote sustainable development.

People walk down the path between the Monte warung and homestay, returning from the marina.

For the Montes, Tioman’s development promises immediate benefits like better internet access, and links between villages. They will soon look to make the transition into the digital world – the homestay does not have an online presence yet, but Zainal and Auntie Sham have plans to eventually set up email bookings, and one of their children will take over managing their accounts.

The warung, which opened in 2017, is managed by Zainal’s and Auntie Sham’s eldest daughter, Siti Nursila.

The Tekek marina, around the corner from the Monte family businesses.

Having seen many changes already take place in her lifetime, Auntie Sham holds few qualms about the future. “The island has changed a lot,” she says. “There are many more buildings now, and also new schools and bridges. To be honest it's much better and easier to live on now. The tourists who come by tend to be nice people, and the waters are still lovely.”

“I can’t say I worry too much about the future – I’m relaxed for now, and life is as good as always.” 

Zainal D’Monte Homestay, Kampung Tekek, 26800 Pulau Tioman, Pahang (016 709 9013). Homestay, from RM75 per night.

Text and photos by Helen Jambunathan


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