LAST week, academics from around the world descended on Lombok, the Indonesian island known for palm-fringed and coral-ringed beaches and world-class surf, for the International Geographical Union conference on sustainable tourism.
Lombok was a particularly relevant choice, and itself a key topic, as it faces big development decisions, fuelled by an upturn in tourism. As a destination, it has always lain in the shadow of Bali, its more famous neighbouring island 40km across the Lombok Strait.
“Much of Bali is dominated by tourism: hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and upmarket boutiques,” said Kate Edwards of UK-based Jacada Travel, a luxury tour operator whose sales to Bali have surged by about 40pc over the past year. “Lombok doesn’t yet have this. It boasts pristine rainforests and a vast national park, and is surrounded by waters rich in diverse marine life. The potential for eco-tourism is huge.”
Lombok has long been tipped as the next big Indonesian destination, but bombings in Bali, the financial crisis, race riots, endemic corruption and a lack of government funding from Jakarta have limited development. Now, however, things are starting to take off. Since the opening of an international airport four years ago, tourist arrivals to Lombok have risen from around 620,000 in 2009 to 1,630,000 in 2014. New roads and power plants have also been built.
Yet the Indonesian government has said it is determined to handle progress carefully, and make sure the island does not go the same way as Bali. It has an eco-tourism master plan and has promised funding to market it overseas. Plus, a new local government mandate is calling for 80pc of new tourism developments to feature some form of eco-tourism.
Sire beach, on the north-west coast, is now home to several eco-chic bolt-holes. Hotel Tugu Lombok, opened four years ago by an art collector, is plastic-free, reuses its grey water, conducts mosquito eradication for local villages and runs a coral reef regeneration programme.
“My guests tell me Lombok is how Bali looked 20 years ago,” said general manager Attila AE Domby. “The difference is that now, unlike a couple of years ago, the local government realises it needs to heavily involve locals for job and revenue creation.”
Neighbouring Sira Beach House, which opened in 2010, is a slick, albeit pricey palm thatched roof and river-stone walled villa set among mature palm groves, uses solar heated water and organically treats recycled waste for its vegetable garden. Its well-heeled guests eat locally sourced green papaya salads, chicken and lemongrass curries and vegetable kebabs. The founder of Aman Resorts International, a pioneer of expensive but sustainable properties in developing countries, is also looking to set up a new beachfront hotel, and Scandinavian company Eco Regions Indonesia is working on a blueprint for two massive developments on the island’s pristine east coast that promise to be sustainable and community- inclusive from the outset.
But issues remain. The island is extremely poor, and environmentalists say authorities don’t have the resources or the will to rein in illegal logging, destructive fishing, coral raiding, shark finning and small-scale gold and copper mining.
“Though investment is booming, there will always be sewerage, water treatment and electricity issues on Lombok,” said Imanuella Andilolo, the conference co-organiser and economics lecturer at the island’s Mataram University. “The question is how are we going to sustain this development and take care of not just the environment, but the community and its cultural legacy.”
By arrangement with the Guardian
Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2015