Sawahlunto: A small town that dreams big
Hans David Tampubolon
The Jakarta Post
Change is the only constant thing ' a principle used by the small town of Sawahlunto in West Sumatra to preserve its communities, history and culture.
What used to be a mining town has now turned into a haven that offers its visitors a window to the past.
Surprisingly, the radical change from a mining town into a tourist city began only 10 years ago ' a speedy pace considering that mining had been Sawahlunto's backbone for more than 100 years.
The history of Sawahlunto as a mining town began in 1858, when Dutch researcher C. De Groot van Embden visited the area to look for coal. Van Embden's effort was later continued by Willem Hendrik de Greve in 1867 and soon after, he discovered there was at least 200 million tons of coal hidden underneath Sawahlunto.
De Greve's findings prompted the Dutch-Hindian government to start establishing all the necessary infrastructure for coal mining and in 1888, the area was officially named as the town of Sawahlunto.
Coal production in Sawahlunto began in 1892 and miners started building residences. Most of the miners were 'criminals' coming from all over the country after being arrested by the Dutch authorities. Some came from Java and others as far as Papua, making the town highly diverse.
After the country's independence in 1945, coal mining and production in Sawahlunto were assumed by the newly founded Indonesian government. The Dutch mining company, Ombilin, was nationalized by the new regime and became PT Bukit Asam.
Mining continued until the late 1990s and just like any other natural resources, coal in Sawahlunto depleted so significantly that Bukit Asam decided to stop all operational activities in 1998. Their workers were transported to other mining areas where coal were more available.
The sudden stop in mining in Sawahlunto changed everything. During its peak mining period the town had around 45,000 residents but some 7,000 families left not long after the mining stopped.
Slowly, the town became a ghost town and many predicted that no one would inhabit it after 2005.
But the Sawahlunto administration then took a bold move ' radically shifting the town to focus on tourism as its economic backbone.
'We knew we could no longer depend on mining but we also knew that our heritage ' gained through our long history and its contribution both to Indonesia and the world ' was something significant that we could use to bring in tourists,' said Sawahlunto Mayor Ali Yusuf at his official residence.
The effort to shift Sawahlunto's paradigm and way of life began in 2001, when then mayor Subari Sukardi, along with the city's council, of which Ali was a member, issued a regulation on the city's mission and vision.
The regulation then became the base for further instruments that allowed Sawahlunto administrations to provide all the necessary training for residents to help shift the town into a tourist hub.
'Since 2004, we have provided regular training for farming, building home industries, historical objects, preservation and how to provide tourism services,' Ali said.
Slowly, Sawahlunto regained its economic heartbeat and its residents grew to around 65,000 by the end of last year.
The city's main incomes now come from tourism and farming.
Ali said that from the city's Rp 45 billion of real regional income (PAD), some 29 percent came from tourism and 23 percent from farming.
Each year, he said the number of tourists visiting Sawahlunto stood at around 750,000 people per year. 'Most of them are domestic tourists at 87 percent,' Ali said.
The Sawahlunto administration utilized the town's rich mining history as its main tourist attractions.
For example, the Mbah Soero mining tunnel, which was excavated in 1898, has now become one of the town's major tourist destinations. The tunnel was closed in 1930 and reopened in 2007 to become a tourist attraction.
Despite the tunnel's popularity, tourists must watch their behavior while visiting.
According to the town's urban legend, the tunnel is haunted as around 14,000 miners were left for dead without proper burial inside it.
The legend said that in 2007, museum staff found a large human bone inside the tunnel and planned to exhibit it as a tourist attraction. At night, one member of staff dreamed that a spirit came to him, asking him to properly bury the bone.
The exhibition plan was immediately out of the picture and the staff member decided to do what he was told in his dream.
Ali acknowledged the truth behind the legend.
'It [the legend] is a fact. It happened. Therefore, behave inside the Mbah Soero tunnel. Stay humble so you do not offend the people who died in there,' Ali said.
Another interesting tourist attraction in Sawahlunto that focuses on its rich mining history is the train museum.
The museum, formerly a train station built in 1918, features a legendary black locomotive called Mak Itam as one of its main exhibitions. During its heyday, the locomotive transported coal from Sawahlunto to Teluk Bayur Port.
At the museum, visitors can also see a variety of train equipment from the Dutch colonial period.
Sawahlunto contributes more than mining to the country's history. It is also the birthplace and the final resting ground of Muhammad Yamin, who is considered one of Indonesia's founding fathers along with Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir.
Sawahlunto does not stop remembering the past to develop its tourism but it also takes a leap into the future by adding modern tourism spots, such as a 4D cinema and a water recreation complex.
The town also holds an annual international music festival every August to attract more foreign tourists.
If there is one element that needs improvement to boost the town's tourism, it is probably its accessibility. Currently, visitors have to drive three-and-a-half hours from the province capital Padang on an uphill road with plenty of sharp turns.
Ali said the town aimed to be recognized as one of the world's heritage sites by UNESCO through its tourism.
'We believe we can do this. It's our dream to become a recognized world heritage town. We deserve it. We've contributed so much to global industry through our coal and natural resources for more than 100 years,' he says.
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