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Pulau Payar Marine Park is a very popular tourist destination located to the north-west of Peninsular Malaysia, off the west coast of Kedah. It is situated between the islands of Pulau Langkawi and Pulau Pinang, themselves popular tourist destinations. The Marine Park consists of a group of four islands - Pulau Payar, Pulau Kaca, Pulau Lembu and Pulau Segantang - the largest of which is Pulau Payar at 31.2 hectares. The islands are uninhabited, and since being afforded Marine Park status in 1989, the area has not been utilized by fishing communities.

The main attraction of the Marine Park to tourists is its coral reefs, which cater mostly for snorkellers, although some diving activity does occur in the area. The Marine Park has seen a tremendous increase in visitor numbers over the years. Annual visitors have increased from 1,373 in 1988 to 70,419 in 1995, representing a 5,000% increase in seven years. As such, the reefs are under increasing pressure from tourism development and related activities.

This study was undertaken to address some of the issues at Pulau Payar Marine Park with regard to carrying capacity. There were two components to the study; a survey of the surrounding coral reefs which are popular dive sites, and a land-based survey which involved distributing questionnaires and conducting interviews with tourists, divers, tour operators and dive operators.

The carrying capacity concept stresses the need for managing desired environmental and social conditions, and can be utilised to identify thresholds that require attention. Carrying capacity implies that there is a threshold limit for use, beyond which the reef environment is degraded, facilities are saturated and visitor satisfaction is lost. These are key elements for a sustainable tourism industry and should be safeguarded. As any human use of the natural environment inevitably results in some change to that environment, the focus would be to identity how much change is acceptable for a given setting, and to highlight actions that may be taken to minimise or limit adverse anthropogenic impacts on the coral reef environment.

Visitors to Pulau Payar Marine Park are mainly foreigners, with the Taiwanese and Japanese being the largest nationality groups. Most of these visitors depart from Pulau Langkawi, and since there are no accommodation facilities at the Marine Park, they only stay for the day. The results of this study show that the diving industry at Pulau Payar Marine Park is relatively unsaturated. However, snorkelling is an extremely popular activity and is concentrated at the Marine Park Centre House Reef and the Langkawi Coral Pontoon House Reef. The influx of large numbers of tourists to the area and their activities can cause direct physical damage to the reef environment, in addition to generating a host of other related problems such as pollution from tourism.

Given the increasing numbers of tourists to Pulau Payar Marine Park, and the increasing trends in visitation, further expansion of tourism development and related activities is not acceptable. This is due to the potential negative impacts on the marine environment, especially coral reefs; the physical limitations to space already experienced; the inadequacy of facilities available - especially toilets, sewage and solid waste disposal - and increasing visitor dissatisfaction with some aspects of the Marine Park. While steps to increase carrying capacity can be taken, this does not imply steps to increase the number of visitors to the Marine Park. Instead, increasing carrying capacity means taking appropriate management actions which will ensure minimal degradation to the coral reefs despite their being exploited as a tourist attraction, that visitors remain satisfied and that adequate facilities are provided.

The Marine Park is thus in need of a detailed management strategy which ensures that tourist activities cause minimal damage to the coral reef environment. A two-pronged approach is necessary for the management of the Marine Park - a strategy for the Marine Park itself, and a strategy for tourism which promotes the Marine Park in such a way that it complements Marine Park objectives.

The management strategy for Pulau Payar Marine Park should be integrated with the overall planning and management of Pulau Langkawi, given its close proximity and potential downstream effects. Positive management actions that can be taken for a period of at least five years include zoning the Marine Park; gazetting the islands as a State Park; implementing a comprehensive education and awareness programme; enforcing Marine Park regulations; limiting visitor use; training Marine Park managers, tour and dive operators; as well as establishing monitoring and evaluation programmes. Problems of solid waste and sewage disposal at the Marine Park must be addressed immediately; if not, they will result in adverse effects on the reef, besides engendering dissatisfaction among tourists. The provision of proper reception and disposal facilities at Pulau Langkawi, Pulau Pinang and Kuala Kedah is integral to the proper management of solid waste and sewage for Pulau Payar Marine Park. Efforts must also be made to monitor activities at the Langkawi Coral Pontoon and to ensure that they are complying with Marine Park regulations. Monitoring should also be conducted around its house reef area to ascertain if there are any adverse impacts on the reef due to the presence of the pontoon itself.

Tourism promotion for the Marine Park, for Pulau Langkawi, for Kedah and the north-west region of Peninsular Malaysia should incorporate the conservation objectives of the Marine Park and target tourists who are more environmentally aware and responsible. The paucity of information on the Marine Park and the marine environment should be addressed and this information should be effectively communicated to visitors and tour operators. Alternative activities, such as the nature trails on Pulau Payar, should be promoted to disperse visitor pressure on the reefs. Alternative islands around Pulau Langkawi such as Pulau Singa, Pulau Dayang Bunting and Pulau Beras Basah should be promoted to the non-reef user. Other islands around Pulau Langkawi with reefs should be identified and the feasibility of diverting tourists there explored.

Action must be taken now to ensure that the conservation objectives of Pulau Payar Marine Park are not compromised by tourism activities. Tourism planning for the Marine Park must be well integrated with the overall plan for tourism in the north-west region. The sustainability of the tourism industry in the Marine Park and the surrounding region depends on the well-being of its marine environment, specifically coral reefs. The tourist industry of Pulau Langkawi especially could be affected as Pulau Payar Marine Park is an important attraction for many tourists to Pulau Langkawi. Tourism must be made environmentally, socially and economically sustainable; it should also benefit all stakeholders.

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