ON Aug 1, the entire 260,000ha of Tasik Kenyir was officially declared a duty-free area, with the Royal Customs Department making its presence felt at the one-way checkpoint, which once allowed a two-way traffic.
The transformation is long overdue following logistical problems posed by the development of Pulau Bayas, an island about a 30-minute boat ride from the entry point at Pengkalan Gawi. Pulau Bayas will be the focal point for shoppers once operational at the end of the year.
For the moment, visitors can shop at a duty-free area to get a feel of bigger things to come. But, Tasik Kenyir will become more than a shoppers’ paradise as it is already known as an anglers’ paradise and a haven for natural attractions.
The good news is that the Central Terengganu Development Authority (Ketengah) is trying very hard to make the lake the “Pearl of the East” by first focusing on hygiene and safety, and development that will not damage the environment.
With the Customs’ rule that one has to stay within the lake for 48 hours to be eligible for tax-free status, the expectation is that visitors will most likely hire houseboats for at least two nights, which will allow them to discover the attractions at the lake.
The timing is just right to welcome shoppers at the duty-free shops at Pengkalan Gawi during the long school holidays. It may take a while, though, before it can match the popularity of Langkawi, which had years of head start.
But, with more people visiting and staying on houseboats in Tasik Kenyir, sanitation will be a major problem.
The problem will be compounded when shopping zones at Pulau Poh and Pulau Bayas are fully functional by end of next year.
In view of the obvious problems related to sanitation and hygiene, it will be more effective if Ketengah and other related agencies start educating, not just the public, but also those who ply their trade in Tasik Kenyir, which is about the size of Singapore.
The catchment area, which has the capacity to hold 13.6 million cubic metres of water, was initially designed for hydroelectric power generation.
Tourism activities were active five years after the Sultan Mahmud Hydro-Electric Dam was commissioned in 1985.
The abundance of commercially high-priced fish such as kelah, baung, lampam, sebarau and toman (snakehead) attract-ed nearly 200 fishermen.
The intention to allow fishermen to sell the fish to supplement their income was noble, initially.
But in just about 20 years, signs of rapid depletion of the resources became obvious.
The fishing activities, which rise parallel to the tourism industry at the lake vicinity, evidently were not a sustainable proposition as the lake, promoted as an “anglers’ paradise” quickly lost its attraction when anglers as far as Singapore started complaining of poor catches.
Then in 2005, former menteri besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh decided to ban commercial fishing in the lake, which encouraged houseboat tourism activities. Unfortunately, houseboat operators took the fishermen’s role to catch fish using prohibited means to please their guests.
Thanks to Ketengah, illegal activities achieved some measure of success with the seizures of gill nets at major fish spawning grounds; such as Sungai Petang, Sungai Petuang, Sungai Tembat, Sungai Leban and Sungai Mandak.
But that did not stop illegal fishing. The reason is that the lake is simply too big to plug all lorong tikus (illegal routes) made by illegal fishermen, especially in the northern and western sectors of the lake.
To prevent further depletion of the fish resources, the government declared Sungai Petang and Sungai Leban as sanctuaries. This move turned Sungai Petang into a must-visit destination and soon bookings for houseboats needed to be made at least three months ahead.
What is worrying is that nearly all the 73 houseboats discharged human waste straight into the lake since 1986.
It is affecting the water quality in the lake, especially with nearly 300,000 visitors recorded in the first seven months this year.
It is still not too late for Ketengah to make it mandatory for houseboats to install holding tanks.
These installations must be ready well before the duty-free areas at Pulau Poh and Pulau Bayas open for business.
In addition, local universities should start conducting research on water quality in the lake.
This research can help establish a base to chart the deterioration of water quality, identify the contributors to the pollution and recommend mitigation measures.
Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, which has started building its research centre near Pengka-lan Gawi, should take the lead and collaborate with other universities to protect the national asset from being affected by degradation resulting from human activities.
It will require a concerted effort from all parties, especially Ketengah, houseboat operators, hoteliers, chalet operators and the universities to design a masterplan to chart a sustainable development for Tasik Kenyir.
With the Royal Customs Department becoming another key player after Ketengah, it is time for the government to form a dedicated authority to look after Tasik Kenyir, similar to the Langkawi Development Authority, which takes care of Langkawi island.
ROSLI ZAKARIA is NST's Specialist Writer based in Terengganu. He is an environmentalist and enjoys capturing the beauty of flora and fauna in their fragile environment. He draws his inspiration from cross country drives on and off-road adventures.