Tourism officials are concerned that Indonesia wants to make it more expensive to see the world’s largest living lizards, the Komodo dragons.
The tourists arrived by the boatload, ready to climb 900 steps to the summit of remote Padar Island for their sunrise reward: a sweeping vista of turquoise bays set off by white sand beaches. The fearsome Komodo dragon roams freely on Komodo Island in the distance, evoking dinosaur times.
Despite being one of Indonesia’s most dramatic sights, it’s about to become much more expensive for many would-be visitors.
The Indonesian government plans to raise the entrance fee for the most popular parts of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site made up of 29 islands, including the five islands home to the endangered dragon. It will cost a group of one to four visitors US$1,000 (S$1380), up from US$10 for foreigners and 32 cents for Indonesians.
When the fee increase was suddenly announced in late July, it set off a strike by tourism workers, street protests attended by 1,000 people, and a wave of tourist cancellations in Labuan Bajo, an island that is home to the park’s northern tip.
Several controversies have also erupted over the government’s efforts to boost tourism, which made up 5% of the economy before the pandemic. Komodo – a crown jewel in the national park system – has been raised in price in an attempt to make a quick return, but some say it has backfired, bringing the region’s tourism industry to a point of collapse.
“I can’t make any money if there are no tourists,” said Ariansyah, a Komodo Island guide who, like many Indonesians, uses one name. “Everyone opposes the ticket price increase because it will ruin our livelihood.”
To expand Indonesia’s tourism industry, the country’s president, Joko Widodo, launched a campaign in 2016 that aimed to create “Ten New Balis” and to improve existing tourist destinations while evoking the magic of Bali. As part of the program, numerous development projects were undertaken in Indonesia, including Labuan Bajo.
Several sites were chosen by the government to attract more visitors through public and private investment in new airports, ports, and hotels. However, little progress has been made. Others, such as the Mandalika project on Lombok, which is partly financed by the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, have drawn major investors in.
The government has expanded Labuan Bajo’s airport and rebuilt the harbour with new wharves and a festival stage. Large luxury hotels are being built along the coast.
Even though Bali’s global reputation has been capitalized upon, little effort has been made to replicate its mantra of eat, pray, and love. At Mandalika, for instance, the government built a coastal MotoGP racetrack for major motorcycle races. Visitors are welcomed by a large statue of Joko astride a motorbike.
Residents have resisted many of these projects.
On Sumatra Island, residents protested the seizure of farmland for new roads at Lake Toba, the world’s largest crater lake. According to civil society groups, thousands of people were displaced from their ancestral lands because of the Mandalika project on Lombok Island without adequate compensation.