Ecotourism: Going With The Flow
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Sun, 11/23/2008 1:38 PM |
With lots of forest and few people, Central Kalimantan rarely makes it onto tourist itineraries. Two ecotourism entrepreneurs with a passion for the province’s vast wilderness are out to change that by offering boat tours along the province’s flowing “highways”. Bruce Emond reports.
Lorna Dowson-Collins caught the explorer’s bug early. As a child living in Indonesia with her British parents, she would listen entranced to the colorful stories of Lorne Blair, a family friend who, with his brother, documented the wild and wonderful archipelago.
One day she climbed into his trunk and refused to budge. “Take me with you,” she demanded.
He didn’t, but Dowson-Collins has been able to satisfy that childhood wanderlust later on in life. She lived in Indonesia until her late teens, when she returned to England. She became an international aid worker, reviving her love affair with Indonesia on community development projects in Aceh and among Dayak villages in Central Kalimantan.
It is here that Dowson-Collins and her business partner Gaye Thavisin are taking the lead in showcasing Central Kalimantan’s ecotourism opportunities. At a small dock outside the provincial capital Palangkaraya, they operate a comfortable 23-meter-long river cruiser, outfitted with five cabins and bathrooms with showers. Rivers are the main arteries of transportation in the province, reaching otherwise inaccessible areas in the hinterland.
In service since February 2008, the boat sails up the Rungan and Kahayan rivers, docking along the way for village cultural performances, nature treks or whatever takes the tourists’ fancy.
Trips range from weekend breaks to weeklong excursions.
Thavisin, a friendly, soft-spoken Tasmanian who spent time in her husband’s Thai homeland, says she and Dowson-Collins bring complementary skills to the operation. She ran restaurants in Australia and first came to Palangkaraya to set up the Rungan Sari, the area’s best hotel.
She takes care of the logistics of the operation, carefully planning menus for each party and making sure special requests are met.
Dowson-Collins, who, like Thavisin, is a member of the Subud spiritual movement, has her community outreach and excellent Indonesian language skills to help smooth the way with villagers and government officials.
They discovered their shared mutual interest in ecotourism by chance.
“I knew Gaye from the hotel, and one day I came up for a coffee and told her I dreamed of doing community-based ecotourism in the area, and she told me she had thought of the same thing and brought out a collection of photos of Thai barges,” Dowson-Collins remembers.
The boat (a converted cargo boat that had been used to transport illegal timber) may be a plush ride, but the tours are not meant to be high-style “adventure lite” experiences, where travelers sail in, snap a few photos of pliant villagers like exhibits in an anthropological expo and sail off into the distance amid the clink of champagne glasses.
Dowson-Collins, with her experience in aid organizations, wants none of that. Villages are paid on a contract system for the services they offer.
“When you are working to help people, there is a danger that you become too paternal, so people are dependent, when what we want to do is empower people,” she says. “We meet with the villagers and ask them what they can do or what they have to offer. But it’s really good when they come back to us and tell us they have something else that they think might be of interest.”
The women say they have already reached their target of 250 guests for the year, but it’s not easy to get the word out about the remote province, which is the country’s third largest by size but has only a few million people. Many Indonesians only became aware of it during the interethnic Sampit bloodshed at the beginning of this century.
In that romantic hyperbole that hacks love, the two women have been likened to latter-day distant descendants of all those starry-eyed wanderers who set off into the great yonder seeking adventure. Such comparisons make them smile, but it rather cheapens their experience, which has taken time, money and personal sacrifice (their children live abroad).
There also has been a fair share of “serendipity”, as the women like to call it, from their initial discovery of a shared dream, the chance meeting with a French boat captain who helped them look for the right vessel and the unexpected bookings that have kept business going.
“You have to be flexible, patient and have faith that it will happen in the end,” Thavisin says simply.
There are encouraging signs for the future. Palangkaraya is enjoying its own development boom, with three luxury hotels in the pipeline and three airlines serving the city with regular flights. Visitors comment that the city is cleaner and more vibrant than just a couple of years ago, and many praise the go-getting ways of Governor Teras Narang.
Dowson-Collins and Thavisin work closely with the local tourism agency, and ecotourism is now included as one of the province’s five tourism development principles. They believe that Central Kalimantan could stake its claim as the “green province” through ecotourism becoming an economic success story.
But some of the new money boom is coming at a cost to Central Kalimantan’s natural resources, particularly from oil palm plantations eating into the forests.
On a recent trip to one of the villages, Dowson-Collins takes a stroll along its meandering main lane, where men in singlets and shorts chat on terraces and children play marbles next to two gleaming giant water drums, new additions to the village landscape. She worked here as part of a Subud initiative for village community development, and notices that it is untidier than she remembers, with a trail of strewn rambutan skins and plastic garbage.
She stops in at the home of a village official, an old friend. Over glasses of sweet, flavorful coffee, with ground ginger and star anise part of his special brew, the man says he still has several hectares to farm but notes that the oil palm plantations are moving ever closer to the area.
It’s OK for now, he adds, but who knows what will happen in 20 years, especially when a new road is built to connect it to the city. “The problem of my people is that we have gotten all we need from the forest, we’re not used to planning for the future or having savings for later on.”
It goes unsaid: The forest isn’t everything anymore and times are changing faster than expected. During two hours of TV transmission every night, villagers get to look at the world outside, up the river and beyond, where their teenage children must go if they want to continue their educations past junior high level.
Back on the boat, Dowson-Collins reflects on what the man said. There is no way to stop progress, because everybody wants something more, including the youngsters who gaze hopefully from the dock, waiting for her to fulfill her promise to let them have a ride upriver.
“You can have dreams and hopes,” she says, “but you have to make them happen and do what is needed. It takes hard work.”
It is what she and Thavisin have done, and, in their way, are helping others achieve in their lives. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but they never expected it would be.
Kalimantan Tour Destinations