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Ecotourism imperative for sector development

Jakarta | Mon, March 13, 2017 | 10:31 am
Ecotourism imperative for sector development Bromo volcano at sunrise in Tengger Semeru National Park, East Java. (Shutterstock/File)

Indonesia has set itself an ambitious target of attracting 20 million tourists by 2019. In 2016, there were around 12 million foreign tourists so achieving this target seems somewhat of a stretch.

Nonetheless, the steady increase in foreign arrivals when seen in conjunction with the growth in domestic tourism highlights the importance of the tourism sector for the Indonesian economy. Already it accounts for around 11 percent of gross domestic product, provides employment for 11.7 million people and earned precious foreign exchange worth Rp 172 trillion (US$13 billion) in 2016.

The government has correctly identified tourism-related infrastructure development as a priority to ramp up these numbers and make the country a preferred destination in Southeast Asia.

However, taking a cue from the United Nations, which has declared 2017 the year of sustainable tourism, examining the strategic and policy framework in which tourism in the country should be developed over the coming decade is critical. Haphazard zoning, a rush to construct hotels, severe vehicular congestion, significant increases in waste and garbage and a shortage of trained labor are ground realities that cannot be “photoshopped” out.

Unless the real life experience of tourists on the ground matches the tall promises made in slogans, campaigns and on websites, the country risks disappointing tourists, who are more than likely to take to social media to vent their frustrations. Tourists have many choices today and the combination of budget airlines and ease of e-commerce to book hotels, travel and tours has further empowered consumers and increased their bargaining power. Tourists coming to the region that extends from India to Japan and from China to Australia have many exciting options and competition is especially intense with our ASEAN neighbors.

The imperative is then for Indonesia to develop tourism in a comprehensive manner. In my forthcoming book S.U.G.G.E.S.T for Sustainability I outline the framework of an eco tourism that comprises four dimensions, namely environment, social, cultural and economic. Each of these is critical and requires adequate policy and implementation emphasis.

The economic rationale for tourism development must be balanced with environmental safeguards, social priorities and cultural preservation. Hotels and tourism infrastructure development impact on the availability of water and its availability for farming communities, which are already under pressure. Water conservation, energy saving, tree planting, recycling, use of sustainable materials in construction and eco architecture utilizing natural lighting and circulation to reduce the over-dependence on air conditioning are some practical areas to quickly adopt.

Equally, customers are willing to become partners in eco initiatives, whether they relate to the frequency of washing bed linen or support for the conservation of birds and animals. It is puzzling to me why so few hotels in Indonesia invite guests to participate in helping conserve orangutans, tigers, starlings, coral reefs and national parks in collaboration with credible NGOs. Hotels should appeal to customers but also be willing to bolster their green credentials with transparency and certification.

Local communities are best served if they are included in development efforts and are co-opted as stakeholders in sustaining traditions such as wayang (shadow puppet shows), batik, topeng (masks), gamelan (Javanese music instruments) or dance and local cuisine. In practical terms, this means creating markets and access for creative industries and incentivizing local sourcing, fair prices and wages that lead to reasonable living standards.

It is a fact that traditional puppeteers, dancers, musicians and sculptors are a dying breed and many forms of centuries-old art could conceivably become extinct soon if not properly supported by the very tourism sector that espouses their “uniqueness” in flowery language and with wellcomposed images.

Despite the famous Borobudur Temple in Yogyakarta attracting over 3 million tourists each year, many villages surrounding the spectacular site remain impoverished. Instead of handouts, it is vital that they are given employment opportunities and farmers, cooperatives and micro businesses are included more substantially in the tourism services delivery chain.

There is also a need to intensify campaigns about Indonesia’s unique heritage among the country’s youth and domestic tourists, many of whom need to more passionately support their own ancient arts, crafts and theater, as well as local produce.

Tolerance and multiculturalism are also vital in enhancing the social dimension of eco tourism. The tourism sector provides a great benefit to society in facilitating interaction among diverse groups of people. To be able to serve someone who differs from you in terms of nation, ethnicity, religion and educational background can be an uplifting experience.

Through interactions we learn the critical value of mutual respect. This cannot be developed in an atmosphere of intolerance and it cannot be masked by plastic smiles. Connections across diversity are connections of hearts and minds and they more often than not help differentiate an extraordinary tourism experience from an ordinary one.

The Tourism Ministry in the near term is right to prioritize 10 unique destinations: Lake Toba (North Sumatra), Tanjung Kelayang (Bangka Belitung), Tanjung Lesung (Banten), Seribu Islands and Kota Tua (Jakarta), Borobudur Temple (Central Java), Bromo-Tengger-Semeru (East Java), Mandalika (West Nusa Tenggara), Labuan Bajo (East Nusa Tenggara), Wakatobi (Sulawesi Tenggara) and Morotai Island (South Maluku).

If development is able to balance the four dimensions of eco tourism then there is every chance that these destinations will help achieve the set targets. Without becoming genuinely eco and demonstrably sustainable, the tourism sector’s claims about being “wonderful” will not be tenable in the long run.

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The writer is CEO of IndonesiaWISE and a senior strategic advisor, writer, educationist and mentor. He founded the Young Leaders for Eco Cities initiative under which ecotourism research, practices and skills development are being implemented in Yogyakarta.

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