Would you pay $1,000 to see the world’s largest lizards?

PADAR ISLAND, Indonesia – Tourists have arrived by boat, ready to climb 900 steps to the top of distant Padar Island for a reward at sunrise: a sweeping view of the turquoise bay created by white sand beaches. In the distance, they could see Komodo Island, where the world’s largest lizard, the fearsome Komodo dragon, roamed freely, evoking the age of the dinosaurs.

This is one of the most impressive scenes Indonesia has to offer. But for many visitors, it’s about to get a lot more expensive.

The Indonesian government plans to increase entrance fees for the most famous parts of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes 29 islands, five of which are home to Dragons are in danger of extinction. New price: $1,000 for a group of 1 to 4 travelers, up from $10 for foreigners and 32 cents for Indonesians.

The sudden fee increase announcement at the end of July caused a strike by tourism industry workers; street protests with 1,000 participants; and a wave of tourist cancellations in Labuan Bajo, a seaside town at the northwestern tip of Flores Island, which is the park’s starting point.

This is also one of a number of controversies stemming from the government’s efforts to boost the tourism industry, which before the pandemic accounted for 5% of the economy. Some say the move to make a quick profit by raising prices at Komodo – a jewel in the national park system – has backfired, pushing the region’s once thriving tourism industry to the ground. East Indonesia is on the verge of collapse.

“Without tourists, I wouldn’t make any money,” said Ariansyah, a guide on the island of Komodo who, like many Indonesians, used a name and joined protests against the new fee. “Everybody is against raising ticket prices because it will destroy our livelihood.”

In 2016, in an effort to expand Indonesia’s tourism industry, the country’s president, Joko Widodo, launched a campaign to create the “Ten New Bali” and improve existing tourist attractions, citing the wonder the magic of Bali, the country’s top attraction. The program covers a wide range of development projects across Indonesia, including at Labuan Bajo.

The sites selected are all places where the government hopes that more public and private investment in new airports, harbors and hotels will help attract more visitors. In some locations, little progress has been made. Elsewhere, big investors have forged ahead, such as the $3 billion Mandalika project in Lombok, funded in part by the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. head.

In Labuan Bajo, the government expanded the airport and redeveloped the harbor with new jetties and a festival stage. New large luxury hotels are being built along the coast.

But despite efforts to capitalize on Bali’s global fame, there has been little attempt to repeat its “eat, pray, love” mantra. In Mandalika, for example, the government built a coastal MotoGP track for major motor racing. A large statue of Mr. Joko riding a high-speed motorcycle greets guests at the entrance.

And many projects have faced opposition from local residents.

At Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, the world’s largest crater lake, residents protested the expropriation of farmland to build new roads. On Lombok, civil society groups say thousands of people have been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands without adequate compensation to pave the way for the Mandalika project.

At Java Island’s Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, the push to increase the entrance fee to around $50 for Indonesians and $100 for foreigners was met with stiff opposition, prompting Mr. must cancel the plan.

The government says the proposal to increase the entrance fee at Komodo Park is necessary for conservation efforts. But environmentalists say the government’s development plans are the biggest threat to the islands.

When tourism industry workers went on strike and took to the streets of Labuan Bajo in July and August to protest the fee hike, many foreign tourists cut short their trips and fled, heading to the airport under escort. of the police and military to protect against unrest. At the same time, travelers around the world have canceled hotel reservations for next year.

“We marched in the street and shouted, ‘Get the ticket discount,’” the tour guide, Rajiwansah, said as he admired the view of Padar Island from a popular photo spot. His t-shirt, inspired by the protests, features a Komodo dragon dressed as a government official and holding a briefcase full of money.

The fee increase was originally slated to go into effect on August 1, but the turmoil prompted officials to postpone it until January 1. Even so, during peak tourist season, many The hotels in Labuan Bajo are nearly empty, while dozens of tourist boats are idle and the town’s once bustling tourist street is mostly empty.

Failure happens right when the travel industry is looking. “We already have many bookings for 2023, but right now we don’t have any,” said Alief Khunaefi, general manager of Sylvia Resort Komodo and general secretary of the Provincial Association of Hotel Managers, East Nusa Tenggara. .

Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s tourism minister, said the government is considering postponing further price increases.

The fee increase is the brainchild of Viktor Laiskodat, governor of East Nusa Tenggara, who said he was inspired by previous conservation work with wild Sumatran tigers.

“If it has extraordinary beauty then you have to pay more,” he said. Tickets will be valid for one year but will not be sold individually. Even solo travelers pay the full $1,000, he said.

Tourists can still pay a lower park fee and see Komodo dragons on Rinca Island at a newly built observatory called Jurassic Park, he noted. But there, the dragons can only be seen at a great distance and the site has few visitors.

He argued that the park was poorly managed and needed more resources for scientific research, stopping illegal fishing and stopping poaching of the deer that the dragons eat, among conservation efforts. other.

But environmentalists say the real problem is the plan to build a hotel in the park, which they say could harm the habitat and endanger the 3,300 dragons that live in the wild.

More than half were found on Komodo Island, the most popular spot for dragon viewing.

On a recent visit, nine dragons lounging near the park’s main entrance seemed unfazed by people circling around taking pictures. Guides accompanying visitors stand with long sticks to fend off any dragons that get too close.

The Indonesia Environment Forum, a popular environmental group known by its Indonesian initials, Walhi, said the national government had granted permits to four companies allowing them to build tourism facilities in the industry. pellets.

“The government is causing the problem but is blaming the tourists,” said Umbu Paranggi, chief executive officer of the East Nusa Tenggara group.

The province — in an agreement with the national government — has established a company, PT. Flobamor, to collect park revenue and take over six oceanfront sites, totaling 1,750 acres, for training and other administrative functions. The company will also have rights to tour operators being able to operate in the Komodo-Padar area, which will become the most lucrative area in the park. Tour guides will have to register with Flobamor to do business there.

Tour operators say the company is seeking to dominate the region’s tourism business, to the detriment of locals.

“PT. Putu Iwan Pratama, co-owner of Jaya Komodo Tour, which organizes boat trips to the park, said Flobamor will provide large ships for tourists and small companies will die.

After the fee increase was announced, he and his co-owners closed their stores and joined the protests. “The government doesn’t care about us,” he said.

Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.


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