President Joko ”Jokowi” Widodo made an important statement on the future management of the Komodo National Park during his visit to Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, last week to inaugurate new tourism facilities on Rinca Island, thereby ending the obscurity regarding the government’s policy on the conservation area.
The President announced two different ideas for managing conservation and tourism in the Komodo National Park. First, Rinca Island and its surrounding waters will be dedicated to the purpose of tourism, targetting a massive 1.5 million visitors in just one year. Meanwhile, Komodo Island, Padar Island and the waters nearby will be designated for exclusive tourism with an awfully expensive entrance fee for the sake of conservation efforts in Komodo National Park.
Earlier, the government had announced the hike of the entry fee for Komodo Island and Padar Island, the park’s two most prominent tourist islands, to a whopping Rp 3.75 million (US$250) per person starting from August.
The locals, however, are seeing the blueprint from a different perspective. Growing discontent with the President’s ideas was shown at the latest public rally that took place in Labuan Bajo on July 18. The protesters comprised tourism-related organizations, the people of Komodo Island and environmental activists who see the current policy as not only counterproductive to conservation value, but also potentially destructive to the park’s tourism on a larger scale. They had made efforts to develop nature-based tourism in the area with the spirit of community over the past few years.
Following the public outcry, the government’s plan to develop Rinca Island for mass tourism needs to be seriously reconsidered when it comes to the matter of conservation. This concern is very urgent for the Komodo National Park, as the area has come under the spotlight of the global community alerting the hazardous effect of over-tourism.
We should take into account the two latest warnings from notable international agencies concerning conservation in the Komodo National Park. First, in November 2021, the International Union for Conservation of National (IUCN) changed the extinction status of Komodo dragons from being vulnerable to being endangered species as an impact of climate change.
Second, the United Nations Education Social and Culture Organization (UNESCO) recommended at the 44th World Heritage Committee session in Fuzhou, China, on July 16-31, 2021, that Indonesia evaluate the integrated master plan on tourism in the Komodo National Park. UNESCO has also warned of the potential hazard of mass tourism as the government planned to bring in 500,000 visitors inside the park once pandemic restrictions are loosened.
While Rinca Island aims for mass tourism, the other areas such as Komodo Island, Padar Island and their surrounding waters are designated as exclusive tourist destinations that will be managed by both state and private enterprises. The appointed parties are PT Flobomor, an East Nusa Tenggara province-owned company under the permit for natural tourism service (IUPJWA) scheme and private enterprises through a permit for natural tourism facilities (IUPSWA).
Such plans have long been rejected by local tourism figures in Labuan Bajo. They believe this policy will potentially harm the environment. Instead of pushing for conservation efforts, the government has started to build large-scale infrastructure inside the natural habitat of the Komodo dragons.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry has granted three permits for private companies to build infrastructures such as villas, restaurants and jetties inside the park. As many as 274.13 hectares that cover almost all of the northern coastal area of Padar Island are now managed solely by PT Komodo Wildlife Tourism. The same company owns a concession on Komodo Island, over an area of 151.94 ha. PT Synergindo Niagatama was granted a concession of 15.2 ha on Tatawa Island, an islet in the Komodo waters. PT Sagara Komodo Lestari was also among the companies given a permit by the government to handle 22.1 ha on Rinca Island.
Such a scheme also poses a serious problem to local tourism businesses, which are mostly small and medium-sized businesses. It is undeniable that Komodo Island and Padar Island are the main attraction of Labuan Bajo’s tourism due to the attractiveness of the Komodo dragon, as well as its beautiful landscape and marine tourism. By applying an expensive entry fee, no doubt there will be a significant decrease in the number of visitors, which eventually will largely reduce the income from tourism. Clearly, this model only benefits the three aforementioned private companies.
In this context, we need to start to think from the perspective of the local residents. If the government stands its ground on implementing this program, Ata Modo, an indigenous community on Komodo Island, will be affected the most. The nightmare started with the establishment of the Komodo National Park in 1981, as this conservation project totally omitted Ata Modo’s agrarian rights. Now they live in a residential zone that is part of the Komodo National Park but without agrarian recognition.
As they predominantly depend on tourism by selling souvenirs, the community’s livelihood will most likely be wiped out by the government’s new plan of exclusive tourism. In that regard, instead of forcefully executing this policy, the government needs to intensively work with various stakeholders to discuss the overall design of tourism and conservation in the Komodo National Park. Above all, the involvement of the community on the ground is extremely crucial.