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Gili Ketapang: Many goats, ample fish — but leave your bikini at home

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Probolinggo, East Java  /  Wed, June 7, 2017  /  08:58 am
Gili Ketapang: Many goats, ample fish — but leave your bikini at home

Natural source: Fishing boats operate near Gili Ketapang, Probolinggo, East Java. (AFP/Gabriel Buoys)

The government hopes to develop 10 new destinations that will emulate Bali’s success under the “10 New Bali” program, which aims to attract investment in the tourism sector. One obvious candidate is an island off East Java’s north coast — but the transition won’t be easy.

Gili Ketapang in East Java, ticks most boxes as a desirable destination: it is near Mount Bromo, one of the government’s 10 promoted destinations, prompting tour agencies to pair the islet and the majestic mountain in the same holiday package.

Located 8 kilometers from the city of Probolinggo, Gili Ketapang is less than an hour’s boat ride from a major port, so day trips are easy. Although ferries are grossly overcrowded, the short sea voyage is usually calm.

The timid will discover a peaceful outlet for their limited adventure spirit, while those keen on culture, history and ecology will find puzzles to stimulate the mind. But how to promote all this without spoiling the 68-hectare island?

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“This is our dilemma,” said village head Suparyono, 49. “We definitely want more tourists to help our economy and tell the world about us, but we don’t want visitors to start buying land for their businesses or disrupt our traditions.”

Whether their disembarking from the public jetty or beaching a chartered boat on the sandy western tip of the tear-shaped isle, visitors are welcomed with a warm smile. However, the island upholds a strict ban on littering, which has been a serious concern, and prohibits women from wearing clothes that are too revealing — particularly when swimming. Unsurprisingly Bali’s bikinis are taboo; so is even modest beachwear.

While men can splash around in shorts, women may find it a struggle to keep covered with every crashing wave threatening to reveal a sliver of skin.

Gili Ketapang’s beaches are not completely void of visitors; domestic tourists can often be seen camping and frolicking in the sand.

However, the idea of unchaperoned foreigners wandering around the island’s kampung (small villages) concerns Suparyono.

To the mainland: A ferry is set to depart from Gili Ketapang to Probolinggo. (Erlinawati Graham/File)

“Some locals will want to pinch foreigners, particularly if they have fair skin, because it’s so unusual here,” he said.

“We need to provide tour guides who can explain the cultural differences. We don’t want outside agents doing this. Our religious leaders are not ready to understand tourism yet. But people are friendly and this is a safe place.”

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The entire population of Gili Ketapang is Muslim and majority are Madurese who speak a local dialect. Few locals over the age of 30 understand the national tongue. Those who can speak Indonesian were educated on the mainland or had married into a different community. Visitors to Gili Ketapang will feel like buying a phrase book.

Suparyono taught elementary school before taking on his current position as village head and is proud that most people want to stay on the island.

“There are 9,671 residents and only six have gone overseas [as domestic workers]. Unlike Madura, our population is growing,” he said, comparing Gili Ketapang to a nearby island that is larger and known for its residents who tend to move to large cities.

“There’s plenty of fish because we are conservationists. We don’t use cantrang [trawl nets once banned by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry].

“Anyone who isn’t lazy can get work on boats or processing fish. What we don’t eat, we sell in Probolinggo.”

Hundreds of boats docked around the island is enough evidence of its residents’ fishing tradition. The children look healthy and there are a lot of elderly people, suggesting a piscine diet that helps the population thrive.

Some families have clearly done well, judging by their modern homes. Seen from the ocean, the terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls give a Mediterranean feel. However, authorities are behind on planning; grand mansions front old shacks and narrow tracks of crushed coral.

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Kitchen appliances of the houseproud don’t get overused as power is rationed. Suparyono said new diesel generators will be relocated away from the school where its rhythmic bang-bang disrupts classes.

The island is dry so water is pumped from Java through an undersea pipe. Yards have rain tanks and there are a few wells.

In Gili Ketapang, every day is car-free – the ferries are too small to carry large goods. An armada of motorbikes has made it across the straits, though more for status as they are poorly suited to the island’s squishy sand and tire-ripping coral.

Only the toughest trees survive the goats, which probably outnumber humans. Some have adapted to gnawing cardboard and tissues.

Around half the women wear bright headscarves, but not the all-covering jilbab found on the mainland. Sarongs are a unisex fashion and babies are made up like dolls.

Another aspect of local lifestyle is practical; properties are fenced not because of theft, but to repel the voracious goats patrolling the perimeters, ever alert to a breach of security.

There’s no formal tourist accommodation in Gili Ketapang, so visitors need to make prior arrangements with householders. Otherwise, there are beds aplenty in Probolinggo’s hotels and guesthouses mainly catering for trekkers heading to Mount Bromo.