Spotlight: Langkawi Island, Malaysia // The Growth of Sustainable Tourism in Developing SE Asian Countries

First things first: when traveling to Australia, ALWAYS get your Visa sorted before head to the airport!  I learned this the hard way.  Even though I have lived, worked and traveled to Australia numerous times, I figured the electronic Visa (ETA) would be a breeze per usual - and I was wrong.  My Visa application was pulled randomly and I was informed that I was part of the 0.01% that would be required to partake in the long-form Visa app - essentially a 1 month plus process including FBI fingerprinting and backgrounds checks!  Well long story short, I camped out at the Embassy in Singapore for 2 days until they agreed to put me on the top of the stack and made a planned wedding in Perth, with just hours to spare.  Ok, lesson learned!  Thanks Australia Immigration.  Secondly, I must plug Aussies in general, they are the most fun loving, good natured, laid-back people on Earth.  I think we could all take a lesson from their approach to living the good life.  

Fast forward 4 days.  Back in Singapore after a weekend in Perth and Fremantle (incredibly charming and lovely by the way).  Singapore is really the ideal transport hub and we decided to switch it up a bit on this trip and check out Malaysia. I have been hearing a buzz for years and wanted to see what it was all about.  Was it really the untouched, unknown paradise of travel brochures?

Malaysia is definitely not on the list of most travelers.  Most people will have never heard of Pulau Langkawi, off the northwest coast of Malaysia, closer to Thailand that KL, and in the middle of the Andaman Sea.  I read it was Malaysia's answer to Bali and Phuket.  I was stoked to make the comparison. 

Landing in this little slice of paradise, one is reminded of landing in Hawaii, or the Seychelles - incredibly green mountains (much bigger than I had anticipated) and insane emerald/turqoise waters - and white sand.  White sand beaches as far as the eye could see.  Ok. you think to yourself, what is the catch here?  Why is every other gringo not strolling these beaches?  Well, it a long ways away. A looooong ways.  16 hrs to Singapore from SFO, and then another 2 hours on the always entertaining and usually safe Asian airlines.   That said, the European vibe is high and we may have even seen a random Australian or Kiwi or two.  But they were rare sightings indeed. 

This is where Malaysians came to holiday on their own private island paradise which is caught in the middle of trying to be on a world stage competing in eco-tourism.  

Our charming little hotel sat at the end of the a beautiful beach - basically all the stuff beachy dreams are made out of.  A hammock on the patio, a cool beach bar, friendly staff.  A+ all around for these guys (check out instagram:  @lostcoastexpeditions for more info on hotel).  After a night of cheap beers (Langkawi is duty free) and a sunset that gives stunning new meaning, the next couple days were to explore. 

Now I had heard there was a growing eco-tourism scene happening on Langkawi and we were curious to investigate. Was this just green-washing this island in hopes of getting in more eco-tourist, and foreign dollars? Or were they making real efforts for conservation and sustainable tourism development?  The first day we hired wheels - no better way to get the lay of the land.  We braved narrow two lane roads, motor bikes and crazy locals on the road - much like in any SE Asian country.  Langkawi is not big, smaller than Bali, probably about the size of Kuai so easy to loop in a day.  We visited beautiful waterfalls and more white sand beaches with massive limestone pillars as the backdrop - similar to Vietnam or Philippines.  Honestly after all the research I did getting ready for this trip, I was not expecting the spectacular scenery to take my breath away like it did.  I guess the folks from Kedah (the province) are understated (although they are certainly very proud of their Langkwawi airport which has won all kinds of awards). 

The word has not got out yet, and that is a good thing - if you think nature is best experienced alone in quiet.  On the north side of the island, there are the typical 4 and 5 star resorts which own the most spectacular beaches on the island, making access nearly impossible unless you are a guest.  Thats definitely a strike - not allowing public access on all beaches, but you cant blame these hotel developers for negotiating that, its really beautiful.  We toured to the top of the highest mountain on the island, were attacked by monkeys and often forgot what side of the road to drive on.  We made it back to our hotel in one piece. 

The next day was for exploring the incredible mangrove reserve that I had heard so much about.  20 years ago, the Langkawi government made a bold move and dedicated thousands of acres of untouched mangroves to a protected reserve.  Now a whole book could be written (and many have been) about the benefits of mangroves- they are like a huge filter, providing water quality from runoff, prevention of coastal erosion, ecosystems for countless birds, reptiles, monkeys and fish species.   The governments and developers of many tropical countries around the world, in their infinite wisdom have for decades created a war on the mangroves.  They have historically cut them down (the wood is not that valuable, but the land is) to make way for seaside development and agriculture (the primary culprit being palm fruit and gum trees in this corner of the world). 

It is no different in Belize, or Brazil or Louisiana.  The removal of mangroves have removed a buffer from storms and attacked the kidneys of these waterways (for interesting graphics, google aerial images of mouth of Mississippi River over last 75 years - if you think the retraction of glaciers is cause for concern, this is just as appalling). 

The massive tsunami of 2004 hit many islands very hard in SE Asia.  VERY hard. Wiping out entire unprotected coastal communities.  The link here is that many of these same communities that were hardest hit by the tsunami also sit on the top of land that was once filled with vast mangrove forests.  Now, take Langkawi Island. It was left virtually UNTOUCHED on most of the mangrove forests on three sides of the island.  It came out nearly unscathed because of the massive protection of the mangroves. 

The Malaysian government has hopes of Langkawi becoming the next Bali.  That will have to wait to be seen.  And is that a good thing?  Bali is great for what it is, but it is also overdeveloped and tourism is taking its toll on the people and the land.  Malaysia does seem to be taking the right steps.  This vast reserve they created has created a destination for tourists to learn more about the plants and animals that make it home. Its really beautiful country.  The government guides are knowledgeable, proud and funny (I often wonder if eco-guides all around the world have gone to the same school to learn how to be both comedians and informative at the same time, and if so where is it because I want to go??!). 

The reserve has created jobs. Tourism creates jobs. This is eco-tourism 101. These are generally thought of as good things. The vast majority of agricultural and fishing jobs are gone, or nothing like they once were.  Malaysians are being trained in ecology, sustainable development, forestry, environmental science and returning to the home provinces to teach this to others and get into the tourism business.  Its the same model that happens the world over, but it is always very interesting to catch it in such infancy in an untouched area like Langkawi.  I think they are on a good path, the tourism infrastructure is growing, so long as they can keep the high-rise condos off the beaches and keep the island its laid back vibe, I think we will be hearing about Lankgawi right along side many other beautiful island destinations around the world. 

For more information on Malaysia and our other destinations, check out our Instagram accounts:  @russ.hooper, @mel.pearce, @mountainsun.collective, @lostcoastexpeditions

Come back soon to learn more from our next Expedition Earth adventure!