In 2015, former prime minister Najib Razak said he would like to see Langkawi emerge as the “Monaco of the East” for high net worth tourists, while maintaining its appeal for mass tourism.
That was at the Langkawi Tourism Awards ceremony held at the Langkawi International Convention Centre (LICC) in December 2015.
In fact, in Kuah two years earlier, Najib, a guest at the ground-breaking ceremony for the St Regis Hotel and Langkawi International Convention Centre, had already expressed optimism that Langkawi would become like Monaco and Bali.
Monaco, a city which oozes luxury and is famous for being the playground of the rich and famous, is a tiny principality on the French Riviera. It is reputed to have the best casinos and hotels, the most expensive real estate anywhere in the world, and the most expensive yachts berthed in its marina.
Monaco is a tax haven and home to the highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita.
Now, the controversial menteri besar of Kedah, Sanusi Nor, has cast a shadow over the future of Langkawi as a tourist destination.
According to tourism, arts and culture minister Tiong King Sing, non-Muslim tourists to Langkawi had complained of being prohibited from wearing shorts and drinking alcohol on the island.
Tiong used social media to express his reluctance to argue with Sanusi over the complaints but urged him to act on them before they worsened.
He told Parliament about various tourists’ allegations concerning the abuse of power by government officials who had harassed them for not observing the dress code and for consuming alcohol.
Sanusi denied the existence of the ban and invited Tiong to visit Langkawi and see for himself that what he was told was not true.
Who does one believe? Sanusi or Tiong?
No-one can forget the shock which reverberated around the world when, many years ago, an elderly American couple was caught for khalwat. Langkawi attracted negative publicity.
The elderly couple had stopped in Langkawi, and stayed in a hotel while awaiting the arrival of spare parts for the engine of their yacht.
This is an example of non-Malays and non-Malaysians being affected by our morality police.
If it is true that a strict dress code and a ban on alcohol is quietly being enforced, then things have not really progressed much.
If Langkawi does not succeed in pulling in the tourists and fails as an island destination, it is not because of its location, its natural beauty, or its many attractive features, like the waterfalls, and its wildlife and birds.
Three things will spoil it for Langkawi. The locals. Its political leadership. The religious extremists.
Before a place can be transformed, the attitude of the people and the authorities who govern it must change.
Rubbish is a major problem on the island. Littering is common and some years ago, western expats residing on the island, who claimed to be more civic-minded than their neighbours, would help clean-up their local community.
However, they could only do so much and had to avoid being too vocal in their criticism for fear of “inviting” trouble.
In the past, there were allegations of a three-tiered system of payment for some tourist sites. One for locals, another for Malaysians, and the highest rate, which was reserved for foreigners. Does this still hold true?
Some locals allege that many areas are dead at night, with the place only coming alive when there are international conventions, such as LIMA, taking place. The downside is that during LIMA, many things are overpriced, which prompts many people to wonder if government agencies bother to do anything about this.
Others complain of poorly maintained tourist spots where projects start-off with a flourish, then are ignored or die a slow death, before closing down. These are some of the allegations of local residents and local tourists.
Tiong’s expose has renewed Malaysians’ scepticism about Langkawi becoming a world renowned luxury nautical tourism destination. There are many important considerations that have to be addressed besides the Little Napoleons at work.
It would be a pity if the Little Napoleons with their extremist or conservative views are the ones who will discourage tourists and their much needed tourist dollars from returning to Langkawi.
In the end, the local economy will suffer and Langkawi will end up becoming Sanusi’s ghost town.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.