All is not well on Penang’s beaches
By Jeffrey Hardy Quah and Marisa Heah
Penang may never have had the best beaches in the region, but what had been there is being lost, and not only because of overpopulation, overdevelopment, the global economic crisis or climate change. The peace and tranquillity that visitors seek seem a thing of the past now. Although the story is a complicated one, Malaysia’s general vagueness in jurisdiction and weakness in law enforcement seem to be the major culprits.
“You cannot sit here, I just realised that,” Juergen Bosch says, looking at our surroundings as if for the first time, though we’ve been talking for most of an hour. The otherwise white sand is filthy, covered with dirt, detritus and the occasional plastic bottle and cigarette butt.
We’re standing on a beach in the afternoon, in front of Golden Sands Resort in Batu Ferringhi, Penang. It’s the haze season, the sky is an ugly, unhealthy-looking shade of grey, and the winds are especially strong. None of which seems to have discouraged the small crowd a short distance away from braving the waters: half a dozen jet skis dart up and down choppy waters, and high in the sky, tourists attached to nothing but straps, rope and a parachute attempt to land on the beach. For the eight or so water sports operators of Batu Ferringhi, it’s a busy, presumably profitable day.
Except for Bosch. Even though he runs East Wind Water Sports at Golden Sands, the tall, bald German is not sending any boats or jet skis out this afternoon. “There’s an offshore wind,” he says. “They shouldn’t be providing these activities. It’s unsafe.”
So why are the other operators still working?
He shrugs. “It’s purely because of the money. There’s no interest for them other than money. And there are no restrictions for them because there is no law.
“There have been many accidents these days.”
Whenever tourism pamphlets about Penang are circulated, they generally tend to tout the serene Batu
Ferringhi beach and its clear turquoise waters and impossibly golden sand. But Penangites secretly know
that the island is no longer a tropical paradise, and hasn’t been for decades.
Batu Ferringhi is more of a Wild West. The beach has been a thorn in the side of the state government, the island municipal council and hotels for the last three decades. Complaints have been many about unlicensed water sports operators cornering every tourist walking by and nagging them to take a ride on a jet ski or a banana boat or parasail. And accidents are not uncommon.
Any peace or tranquility one might expect to get from a day at the beach would be punctured by any number of things, from pestering beach boys to the roar of jet ski engines, to tourists attempting to land a parasail while beach boys and other tourists scramble out of the way.
The beach came into the spotlight in the past year after high-profile accidents made it to the mainstream press. Earlier this year, a Chinese tourist was walking on the beach when a jet ski came inland and rammed into her, fracturing her legs. More recently, a beach boy on horseback allegedly ran into a five-year-old girl, leaving her with a fractured collarbone and pelvis. The former incident resulted in a short-lived ban on jet skis, the latter led to a ban on horse riding on the beach that, the occasional errant rider aside, is still holding, as is an earlier ban on quad bikes.
Bosch points at a swooping parasail. “That parachute is, for sure, way over its allowance time to be in use. The ropes have to be changed after a certain period. It doesn’t matter what the rope still looks like, you throw it away or use it for something else.”
Juergen Bosch first came to Penang in 2006 to work at Golden Sands. Back in Germany, he says, he never experienced any accidents in his line of business, as the result would be a nightmare no operator would want to go through. “Insurances are very tough in Europe. One claim on public liability insurance is okay. You have a second claim, they cancel your insurance. You don’t have insurance, you don’t get a license to operate.” East Wind is one of the few, if not only, registered water sports operations in Batu Ferringhi. Other than Bosch, few if any of the operators have insurance coverage.
It is understandable then that how things worked in Penang came as a shock to him. Not just the fact that the operators here seem to be running their businesses with impunity, but how he feels the government has been dealing with this issue. “They don’t actually see a problem.”
Bosch says that there have been many more accidents and incidents in Batu Ferringhi that have gone unreported. “Tourists are unhappy. They have been harassed and injured, and their holidays have been spoiled. They complain to the hotels, and many won’t come back anymore.”
Jet skis and boats continue to dart up and down the water. Jet skis that aren’t in use are parked in the water close to the beach. There is precious little room for would-be swimmers.
Authorities had attempted to put a demarcation zone in place, via big steel floats and safety netting off the coast, aimed at stopping jet skis and boats from encroaching too close to the beach. A few months later, the netting mysteriously disappeared, and the operators blamed large waves. Bosch believes otherwise.
“We know that fishermen came at night and cut off the steel and sold it for scrap metal. Enforcement was
nowhere to be seen.
“Why do people come to Batu Ferringhi? Because of the beach, not the hotels. They come to see the water. And there’s not much to see anymore.”