Can We Hope for a Socially and Environmentally Responsible Tourism in Indonesia?

Two weeks ago, I met with a group of orphanage representatives from Flores, NTT (Nusa Tenggara Timur) region of Indonesia. They have brought over some souvenirs: corn chips made by the orphanage students and a wonderful variety of handicrafts made out of corn husks and fish scales. The handicrafts were exquisite and I was genuinely marvelled at the creativity of humans to reuse “waste” and craft them into such beautiful art pieces.

Food and handicrafts made of recycled products from NTT

Food and handicrafts made of recycled products from NTT

“Come to NTT,” one of them told me, “It’s beautiful, like Switzerland.”

I don’t doubt it; Indonesia’s hidden natural beauty could rival the meadows of Switzerland. As much as I wanted the rest of the world to discover it, I am not sure if the country is ready to take on the responsibility of tourism and the potential destruction to the natural surroundings it could bring if not properly managed.

Jakarta is depressing; the city is polluted, the rivers are clogged with waste and factories lie in the heart of housing areas dumping chemical waste into the seas. I live near the sea, but it is by no means a beautiful sight, contrary to what condominium developers’ grandiose billboards of blue seas with white waves would have you believe. There is neither a beach nor a sidewalk, just a garbage dump of grey, waveless water filled with trash brought in by the current to the shore. In the backdrop, three giant chimneys pump large clouds of grey smoke into the air – the power plant is located right in the heart of my neighborhood, ironic for a place that experiences so many power outages.

The natural beauty of Flores, Indonesia

The natural beauty of Flores, Indonesia

The environment has never been seen as an important issue by most of the population, and I think the period of the new order shaped the relatively young nation down a path that places a stronger emphasis on economic development and foreign investments. (We also joke that our Dutch colonials should have set better examples for it seems like British colonies are much more in order)

While I was in Berastagi with Institut Leimena (IL), we were excited to visit Tongging Point where we could see a magnificent view of the Lake Toba. It was with shock when our guide told us the entire place was owned by a Malaysian corporation. WHAT?! (According to the brochure, it is now owned by a Singapore investment company)

I fully understood what that meant when we reached the place. The road leading up to the place was entirely owned by the resort. Heck, they owned the entire mountain. After paying an entrance fee at the gate, we went up the road up to head to Tongging point. They were in the midst of building a Buddhist temple in the one stop resort; which already had several of its own attractions such as a waterfall lodge right by the waterfall, several guest houses and cafes, camping ground by a waterfall a few hours hike away among others. By Tongging Point, there was an amphitheater that overlooks Lake Toba.

A magnificent view of Lake Toba; on a clear day, you can see Samosir Island in the distance

A magnificent view of Lake Toba, North Sumatra; on a clear day, you can see Samosir Island in the distance

It was a wonderful view; but also staggering to know that NONE of this belongs to Indonesia or benefits the local Karo people in the area. Since the entire road up to the scenery viewing point is privately owned, locals will not be able to sell any products or handicrafts to the tourists.

“It’s funny how we bring so many visitors here, but we don’t get anything in return. We really should stop bringing people here, yet at the same time, it’s the best place to see the view,” Our Karo guide said.

Over hot chocolate, we sat down at one of the relaxing cafe and enjoyed the cool air as we mulled over the entire issue. As our guide started to tell us the pricing for the resort, we were soon exclaiming incredulously, “WHAT?! 5 million Rupiah for one night?! Daylight robbery!”

If tourists were to flock to the surrounding areas, I wonder how it would impact the people. Without environmental awareness, farmers tend to switch to the crop that yields the best income. Despite the fertility of the land, I’m often puzzled at just about how much we still import much of our food from overseas. Organic farming methods is still slow to catch on and farmers still prefer to stick to traditional methods.

In the end, I believe a viable solution for the future is through education and awareness. There is only so much the government can do (not to mention bungle up as they happily sign away lands like the one at Tongging Point with no share of benefits for the locals) , in the end, it all comes down to the initiatives of the community. Through citizenship discussion for example, IL was able to start a mangrove tree planting activity to prevent soil erosion. (I really love this article on the problem of disappearing mangrove trees in Indonesia, do give it a read) I also hope that with better education, farmers can utilize better technology and farming methods while improving their own economy.

Isn't this just adorable? (Made of corn husks)

Isn't this just adorable? (Made of corn husks)

Looking at Youth Circle in Myanmar, I have always been impressed by how, despite how limited their resources were, they have managed to put the environment in the forefront. (They have resumed their environmental awareness seminars which is paramount with all the foreign investments pouring into Myanmar now, do support them here!)From the perspective of a person from a country that is economically more stable than Myanmar, when their youth talk about the love for their rivers, organic farming training or handmade clothing to reduce carbon footprints; all I could think of is: if they could do it, why can’t we?

My hope truly is that we may have an opportunity to showcase our natural beauty and diverse culture, while still being socially and environmentally responsible.