PADAR ISLAND, Indonesia — Tourists arrived by boatloads, ready to climb the 900 steps to the summit of remote Padar Island for their sunrise reward: an expansive vista of turquoise bays punctuated by white-sand beaches. In the distance they could see Komodo Island, where the world’s largest lizard, the fearsome Komodo dragon, roams free, reminiscent of the age of dinosaurs.
This is one of the most dramatic scenes Indonesia has to offer. But for many interested parties it will be significantly more expensive.
The Indonesian government plans to increase the entrance fee to the most popular parts of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of 29 islands, including the five that are home to the endangered dragon. The new price: $1,000 for a group of one to four visitors, versus just $10 for foreigners and 32 cents for Indonesians.
The sudden announcement of a fee increase at the end of July triggered a strike by tourism workers; street protests joined by 1,000 people; and a spate of tourist cancellations in Labuan Bajo, a coastal town on the northwestern tip of Flores Island that is the departure point for the park.
It’s also one of several controversies arising from government efforts to boost tourism, which made up 5 percent of the economy before the pandemic. Some say the move to seek a quick return on investment by raising the price of Komodo – a crown jewel in the national park system – has backfired, bringing the east Indonesia region’s once-thriving tourism industry to the brink of collapse.
“If there are no tourists, I don’t make any money,” said Ariansyah, a leader on Komodo Island who, like many Indonesians, uses a name and is joining protests against the new fee. “Everyone is against the ticket price increase because it ruins our existence.”
In 2016, in an attempt to expand Indonesia’s tourism industry, the country’s President Joko Widodo launched a campaign to create “Ten New Balis” and improve existing tourist destinations while promoting the magic of Bali, the country’s main attraction. to summon. The program included a number of development projects across Indonesia, including in Labuan Bajo.
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The sites chosen were all places where the government hoped that greater public and private investment in new airports, ports and hotels would help attract more visitors. Little progress has been made at some sites. Others have attracted big investors, like the $3 billion Mandalika project on Lombok, which is being funded in part by the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
In Labuan Bajo, the government has expanded the airport and renovated the port with new shipyards and a festival stage. Large new luxury hotels are being built along the coast.
But despite efforts to capitalize on Bali’s global reputation, little effort has been made to replicate the “eat, pray, love” mantra. In Mandalika, for example, the government built a MotoGP coastal circuit for major motorcycle races. A large statue of Mr. Joko on a speeding motorcycle greets guests at the entrance.
And many of the projects are met with resistance from local residents.
At Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, the world’s largest crater lake, residents protested against the confiscation of farmland for new roads. On the island of Lombok, civil society groups said thousands of people had been forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands without adequate compensation to make way for the Mandalika project.
At Java Island’s Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, a push to raise entrance fees to about $50 for Indonesians and $100 for foreigners met with fierce opposition, prompting Mr Joko to cancel the plan.
The government says its proposal for a higher entrance fee at Komodo Park was necessary for conservation efforts. However, environmentalists argue that government development plans pose the greatest threat to the islands.
When tourism workers in Labuan Bajo went on strike in July and August and took to the streets to protest the fee increase, many foreign visitors abandoned their trips and fled to the airport under police and military escorts to escape the unrest . At the same time, tourists around the world canceled hotel reservations for the coming year.
“We marched onto the street and shouted, ‘Reduce the ticket price,'” said one tour guide, Rajiwansah, as he admired the view of Padar Island from a popular photo spot. His protest-inspired t-shirt featured a Komodo dragon dressed like a government official grabbing a briefcase full of money.
The fee increase was originally scheduled to take effect on August 1, but turmoil prompted officials to delay it until January 1. Even so, during the actual peak tourist season, many hotels in Labuan Bajo are nearly empty, while dozens of tour boats stand idle and the town’s once-busy tourist street is largely deserted.
The setback came just as the tourism industry was looking up. “We had many reservations for 2023, but now we don’t have any,” said Alief Khunaefi, general manager of Sylvia Resort Komodo and general secretary of the Hotel General Managers Association for East Nusa Tenggara Province.
Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s tourism minister, said the government is considering delaying the price hike further.
The fee hike is the brainchild of Viktor Laiskodat, the governor of East Nusa Tenggara, who said he was inspired by previous conservation work involving wild Sumatran tigers.
“If it has exceptional beauty, you have to pay more,” he said. Tickets are valid for one year but are not sold individually. Even single travelers have to pay the full $1,000, he said.
Tourists can still pay the lower park fee and see Komodo dragons on Rinca Island at a newly built observatory called Jurassic Park, he noted. But there the dragons are only visible from a great distance and the site is little visited.
He argued that the park had been mismanaged and that more resources were needed for scientific research, stopping illegal fishing, and preventing poaching of deer, which eat the dragons, among other conservation efforts.
But environmentalists said the real problem was a plan to build hotels in the park, which they said could damage habitat and endanger the 3,300 dragons living in the wild.
More than half are on Komodo Island, the most popular spot for kite viewing.
On a recent visit, nine kites lounging near the park’s main entrance seemed unfazed by the people hovering around taking photos. Guides accompanying the tourists stood by with long sticks to ward off any dragon that got too close.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, a prominent environmental group known by its Indonesian acronym Walhi, said the national government had granted permits to four companies, allowing them to build tourism facilities in the park.
“The government is causing the problem but blaming the tourists,” said Umbu Paranggi, the group’s executive director for East Nusa Tenggara.
The province has established a company, PT, under an agreement with the national government. Flobamor to raise revenue from the park and take over six oceanfront locations totaling 1,750 acres for training and other management functions. The company would also have authority over which tour operators could operate in the Komodo Padar zone, which would become the most lucrative in the park. Tour guides would have to register with Flobamor to do business there.
Tour operators claim the company is trying to dominate the region’s tourism business to the detriment of locals.
“PT. Flobamor will provide big boats for the tourists and the small agencies will slowly die out,” said Putu Iwan Pratama, co-owner of Jaya Komodo Tour, which organizes boat trips to the park.
After the fee increase was announced, he and his co-owners closed their shop and joined the protests. “The government doesn’t care about us,” he said.
Dera Menra Sijabat contributed to the reporting.