Swapping fishing boats for tourist ferries in Malaysia's marine parks

Marine park in Malaysia
As local communities come to rely on tourism, park violations have reduced and conservation of the eco-system is becoming a priority for them. UNDP PHOTO

“Working only as a fisherman, I had no steady income to rely on,” explains Mayuzi Sidek. He sits on the jetty that is at the centre of community life on Redang Island, Malaysia, where for generations families have earned their keep through fishing. Since time immemorial, each morning the island’s men would leaving on fishing boats from this jetty.

Some years ago, this began to change.

Overfishing has resulted in dwindling fish populations and damaged the island’s precious marine eco-system, making it increasingly difficult for the families of Redang to eke out a living. Tourism has thrived on the island, but most villagers lacked the language skills and industry training needed for the trade. 

Malaysia’s marine park authorities, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, saw the perfect opportunity to conserve Redang’s marine-diversity while also creating new jobs for the local communities.


  • The project trained 484 people at the three project sites – Tioman, Redang and Sibu-Tinggi, in skills to help them find work in the tourism industry.
  • Training included English language for tourism, boat driving and maintenance, basic safety training, scuba diving, dive and snorkel skills awareness, and traditional massage.
  • Enforcement has increased while trends in arrests in the zone within two nautical miles of the coast where fishing is prohibited have declined during the last year – demonstrating that there are fewer violations in the marine park by local villagers.

Mayuzi Sidek’s life changed when he received training to earn his boat driving license through the project ‘Conserving marine biodiversity through enhanced marine park management and inclusive island development”.

With his license he was able to get a job with a local beach resort taking tourists out on snorkeling trips to see the marine parks’ coral reefs. “Working for the resort, I now earn a steady income throughout the tourist season and my earnings are now more than when I was a full-time fisherman,” said Mayuzi. Working with tourists at the resort, Mayuzi has also learnt some English, enabling him to tell tourists his stories of growing up in these islands he takes them to.

The project, supported by UNDP and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), was designed to strengthen management of Malaysia’s marine parks in three islands off peninsular Malaysia’s eastern coast and to help local communities benefit from island development. 

It was implemented by the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM), which has worked with local communities to give them access to training and new skills. Through project support, 484 local people have been trained in boat driving, basic safety, SCUBA diving and English language for tourism. These programmes have targeted fishermen, women and school-leavers with no college education to help them obtain work. 

Communities who once resorted to violating marine park rules to earn an income – breaking off corals to sell to tourists or fishing within prohibited zones, now protect the marine resources as a community asset.

Through the project’s training programmes, islanders have been able to obtain jobs such as boat taxis, SCUBA diving assistants and tour guides, which earn them a steady income and are not environmentally damaging. On Tioman Island, one successful graduate of the boat license training and former “odd jobs” worker, 27-year-old Mohammed Rafik bin Iduds, has become a boat driver for the DMPM and now helps to patrol the island’s waters to prevent violations.

This training is expanding villagers’ livelihoods, opportunities and perception of what is possible.

Norhayati Binti Junoh
Norhayati Binti Junoh, 45, got her boat captain's license through the project. UNDP photo

Norhayati Binti Junoh, 45, is not your typical boat captain. Until recently she was a housewife, living with her family on Tioman. Like many other women on the island, her days were consumed with housework and taking care of her children. “As a housewife, I would get up in the morning and take care of my children. After the children went to school, I would do the housework and wait until my husband came back. Other than that I was idle – I had nothing else to do!”

But with training through the project, Norhayati recently received her boat license. “I wanted to take the training because I saw that women in the island were sidelined. Women on the island say that being a boat driver is a man’s job. I wanted to prove that a woman can do it.” Through the course, Norhayati learnt how to navigate and about safety on the water. When her husband died, their boat passed to her son. She dreamt of buying her own boat. In early-2014 she received an offer of a job to be captain of a cargo ship.

Obtaining her boat license has given Norhayati a new sense of independence: “Before I had to depend on other people, now, I am independent and everything I have learnt has been worth it. When my husband was alive I lived in my husband’s house. Now that he has passed, I am renting on my own.”

In addition to the training programmes, the DMPM has also implemented a range of awareness raising activities with local communities to highlight the importance of protecting marine life for tourism on the island. These include trainings on ‘reef-etiquette’ to show islanders how to stop tourists from damaging corals when snorkeling, and to teach them about the island’s marine life, enhancing their experience.

Collectively, the project’s efforts are cultivating a more environmentally-aware community. “Sustaining the marine life is really important - it’s our product - the tourists come for this,” said Mohammed Roflye, 35, who received English language and scuba diving training through the project and recently opened his own business selling tours.