Paradise Lost

Is tourism pushing Indonesia to the brink of self-destruction?

By Lisa Qian


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hree blocks away from Seminyak beach, famous for its pristine water and luxury accommodations, there sits an abandoned lot filled with discarded flip-flops, broken Absolut Vodka bottles and shredded Batik cloths. The locals barely notice, and I get the sense that scenes like this have become commonplace.  This isn’t how it’s always been. What was once a spiritual destination, a place where people could connect to nature in its most pristine form, has become a party house, replete with drunk Australian tourists, not remotely interested in appreciating the natural beauty.  Erik Streed, a U.S. Embassy employee tells me that he doesn’t like going to Bali anymore; there’s always trash scratching at his leg as he swims.

Bali is an extreme example, but indicative of a greater problem plaguing Indonesia.

“If you look at all the natural resources [Indonesia has], we’re in an overexploited situation,” says Mubariq Ahmad, a former World Bank economist and current professor at the University of Indonesia. In an effort to meet the growing global demand, palm oil plantations, for example, clear over 840,000 acres of forest a year.

Like many developing countries, Indonesia’s tourism industry (and the rapid infrastructural development that it necessitates) takes a massive toll on the country’s natural resources. Disproportionately, however, this environmental destruction falls on the island of Bali. While the archipelago’s other islands haven’t seen the same level of abuse, Ahmad believes it’s only a matter of time before they follow the same trajectory.

This is the same story that I hear in meetings with everyone from the Indonesian Directorate of Forestry to a former Miss Earth Indonesia. The potential for tourism in Indonesia is quite high, and the revenue that could be garnered from it even higher, but as the government realizes this, and looks to boost the industry, development will require thoughtful care in order to preserve the natural assets that draw the tourists in the first place.

Basah Hernowo, a director at the forestry ministry, cites countless examples of beaches, caves and forests that mass tourism has yet to discover.  The problem is that infrastructure lags far behind. Hernowo’s favored example is travel between East and West Kalimantan.  To move between parts of the same island, one must first fly to Jakarta, on a different island, first.

But the Nature Conservancy’s senior terrestrial adviser offers a different message.  Tourism in Indonesia, Wahjudi Wardojo says, needs to be organized on the basis of better valuing the environment, instead of just infrastructure or publicity.  

Previous attempts from the Indonesian government to harness tourism in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner were small scale and ineffective.  On such initiative was PNPM Tourism, which ended in 2015 and was meant to provide grants to villages in select locales for projects to develop tourist attractions. However, almost everyone we spoke to was skeptical of the results.

“Things in Indonesia tend to change names, but not policies,” Andhyta Utami, from the World Resource Institute said.  An article last year in the Jakarta Globe went on the ground to talk to people in villages the government touted as prime examples of “tourism villages.”  The local people had never heard of the program.  Although the Indonesian government wants to harness tourism, it seems that it lacks the creative energy to actually create the policies needed to effectively utilize tourism for conservation.

NGOs, I’m told, are the driving creative force behind new tourism initiatives.

Samboja Ecolodge is one such example.  Founded by a Dutchman, Samboja is at once a sun bear sanctuary, an orangutan rehabilitation center, a forest rehabilitation program and an eco-tourism destination.  Guests live within the forest in a three story tree-house and visit lodge’s properties throughout the day.  Speaking to Iman, the resident tour-guide, I learn that the lodge has hired over 80 local people, not counting the business the lodge brings to the community.  There’s hardly a visitor, among those that I meet, that doesn’t care about the environment.

From this, I start to see that the only way to reconcile the competing narratives of tourism in Indonesia is for the government to recognize that tourism is not solely a development mechanism, meant to deliver millions of dollars to the economy.  The development of tourism is a long-term project and will only be sustainable if it’s created on the basis of better valuing the environment.  Beyond its marketing and infrastructure needs, tourism in Indonesia needs to have respect for the natural culture at its heart.


Lisa Qian is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact her at