For the main jetty where you catch the ferries to the tourist island of Tioman, Mersing’s terminal building is surprisingly difficult to pick out, for a first time visitor.
It wasn’t technically my first time to Tioman, but it might as well have been. The last time I visited, I was still a child, and finding jetty buildings and keeping ferry schedules were the problems of adults.
It wasn’t the big, obvious building right next to all the parking, even though the building is literally called the Plaza D’Jeti. (And no, even though I’m local, I don’t know why suburban Malaysia likes to put “D’” in shop names, even when it doesn’t make sense in Mrench – which is what I’ve decided to call the French equivalent of Manglish. Not that it exists, mind you. Sometimes I think people assume it’s a posh form of ‘the’.)
On the other hand, I did discover you could get speedboat charters from kiosks inside the plaza.
It wasn’t the big blue building next door either. This was the Marine Park office, so situated because Tioman is also a Marine Park. I must be on the wrong end of the parking lot. There were no signs, but logic dictated that the jetty terminal couldn’t be beyond the Marine Park office. It must surely be next to the jetty parking lot.
I guess it’s the Mersing Jetty.
I made my way to the opposite end of the parking area, towards a nondescript building that looked like a market, pushed to the shoulder of the main road. Nothing about it said “jetty terminal”, not even on the timber arch which was clearly meant to hold a massive sign to tell you what the place was. Inexplicably, the space where the words should have been, were completely blank.
Now, I know that Mersing is a sleepy little town, with not a lot of money. But surely, one could finish a sign. I mean, even the smaller Tanjung Leman jetty to the southern islands has a better terminal building. Though easy, it was a long drive from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing, and the heat and growing worry about missing my ferry was beginning to make me cranky.
I was beginning to see why Berjaya is unhappy about the connection to the island. Though road transfers are good, there was no rail connection from the airports on Malaysia’s west coast to Mersing. There were no flights to Mersing either, and the nearest airports might as well be on the west coast. While offbeat travellers like myself might not mind the indifferent infrastructure, Berjaya was targeting a hotel tourism segment who probably would mind.
I still don’t agree with their plan to take matters into their own hands to build a runway next to the coral reef of the Marine Park, though.
Missed my ferry. But in time for the earlier one.
Indeed, I was there looking for the jetty in 2020 during the Covid19 pandemic, precisely because Tioman was a Marine Park. I was scheduled to complete my Reef Check Eco Diver certification on Tioman, because Reef Check had a team permanently stationed there. It was some months after the tight initial lockdowns to break the chain of transmission. The sacrifice was successful. Contact tracing documented a gradual drop in positive results. By June, island tourist bubbles were allowed to re-open, and the training was back on.
Having gone into the building which was presumably the jetty terminal, there were still no signs to assure you that yes, you’ve almost made it to the place with the boats. Instead, the terminal building steadfastly refuses to inform you where you should go to actually get to the boats. Luckily, it’s not a big terminal, and I eventually figured it out by stumbling upon a person from one of the two ferry companies that operate the route.
And I missed the 12:30PM Cataferry boat. Of course.
But this is Asia. Where the indifferent organisation means that some things are unexpectedly hard, but then some other things are also unexpectedly in your favour. The 11AM Bluewater ferry which I had thought was too early, and didn’t buy a ticket for, was actually departing later than the Cataferry which I missed. Go figure.
I didn’t question my luck, paid RM50 for a second ticket, and settled down to wait. And while waiting, I ruminated on the paradox of Tioman Island’s accessibility. That it was somehow easy, but not easy, at the same time.
It could be easier.
In theory, getting to Tioman Island should be straightforward, even under current arrangements.
There is a highway connecting the urban west coast where most international arrivals land, and the peninsular east coast gateways to the islands. Locals on holiday tend to drive to Mersing, but for foreigners there are still many choices between buses and private transfers. There is not one, but two ferry companies plying the route between Mersing and Tioman. And if you really, really don’t want to wait, you could always splash RM1200+ for a speedboat charter.
But if I had been a foreigner on vacation, trying to plan ahead, I can imagine it might feel too hard. For starters, you either have to start your journey really early in the morning to catch the midday ferries, or spend the night in Mersing for the morning ones. The boat timings can’t be increased, because the ferries need to enter the Tioman lagoon at a rising tide, as the ferries are quite large; their draught wouldn’t clear the entry lanes otherwise. Sometimes, they told me on the island, when a boat is stuck outside the lagoon, they’d wait for the tide to turn, and use speedboat feeders to get the passengers the rest of the way.
But most of the people at the terminal were locals, travelling to and from the mainland on routine errands. I supposed with the pandemic situation still so uncertain, that was inevitable. I wondered how many would have been tourists, in normal times. And of course, locals had no need for signs. Everyone knows how everything works, and where everything is.
The fact that there was so little signage made me wonder, if the terminal is primarily to service local transport, and tourists as an afterthought.
What would I have chosen, if I were arriving from abroad, just to go to Tioman?
Well, wouldn’t it be nice to land in an upgraded Mersing airport/ferry terminal, with facilitated transfers from the airport straight to the island, like Boracay? After all, Mersing already has an airstrip by the coast. You wouldn’t even need to go into the town. It could disperse tourists to all of the islands in the southern Marine Park cluster. Why, tourists would then even have the option of going to different islands in succession, by changing at this dedicated terminal, like Cairns in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Or you could build the new airstrip at a small island, away from the valuable coral, like Maamagili in the Maldives, where I landed before being transferred to the whale shark island of Dhigurah.
I liked that last idea better than I initially thought, on the hours-long ferry ride to Tioman. It irks me to admit that I get seasick on larger boats, despite being perfectly fine on little ones across the choppiest of waves. It occurred to me during the boredom of the journey, that there was no intermediate ferry option to Tioman. It’s either RM50 for a big – though admittedly fairly comfortable – ferry, which due to its size is tide-bound and has a less convenient schedule, or it’s RM1200 to charter a whole speedboat.
As the ferry cleaved steadily through the mild waves, I mused, surely there must be demand for a mid-priced tourist speedboat service, on a semi-regular schedule at convenient times for arriving tourists. It could cost RM200-500. They could even be built into hotel packages.
But not a jet plane.
There are other islands less ecologically valuable, where you could regularly deplane a mass of tourists for tourism revenue. An island like Tioman, with the healthiest coral reef on the east coast, should have a higher-value, community tourism. And for that, it should be easier for tourists to get there than the current arrangements. But it should be protected from overtourism. It should continue to be just a little too hard for a lot of tourists to get there, all at once.
Inspiring Insightful Travel | Teja on the Horizon
Website: Teja on the Horizon