Tuesday, 8 May 2018

INDONESIA: Komodo Island Tourism Grows Rapidly, No Wonder It Is The New 7 Wonders Of Nature

The Komodo dragon can smell blood up to 4km away says a forest ranger and guide at Komodo National Park, the only place in the world where this ancient lizard can be observed in the wild, can testify to their lethality.

Recently, a village carpenter had to have his leg sawed off after being bitten by one. And last year, a Singaporean tourist was attacked while trying to take a photo.

The reptiles have more than a dozen types of venom in their saliva that can prevent blood clotting.

They don’t really think. The endangered animal which feeds on local deer, water buffalo and wild pigs and can grow up to three metres long.

They act on basic instinct and are opportunistic carnivores. They need meat and any meat.

Five adult Komodos are lazing in the shade by the rangers’ mess on Rinca, one of the three main islands in the protected park’s 26-isle archipelago, drawn in by the smell of food.

One of them flicks a pale forked tongue out to sample the air before making a slow stride to another spot in the shade. A small group of tourists snap pictures from a distance. None of them are speaking Chinese.

It is unusually tranquil for a Unesco World Heritage Site and one that, since 2011, has been called one of the world’s seven new wonders of nature.

But foreign visitor numbers to one of Indonesia’s oldest national parks have been soaring in recent years and a new influx of mainland Chinese visitors is expected in May.

Until 2011, few foreign visitors, barring the occasional diving enthusiast, the park is home to 50 world-class dive sites or photographer, stepped foot on this less-travelled part of eastern Indonesia.

It is a one-hour speedboat ride from the fishing town of Labuan Bajo, which itself is a one-hour flight east of the popular resort island of Bali.

Created in 1980, the park is nestled in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands between East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara.

The relative isolation of Rinca, home to about a fifth of the park’s 5,000 Komodo dragons, and the park’s other islands such as Komodo and Padar, has largely helped insulate its delicate ecosystem from development for decades.

The lizards’ large size is put down to a phenomenon known as island gigantism, a phenomenon caused by the absence of other carnivorous animals on an isolated land mass.

The park topography itself seems to come straight out of Jurassic Park. Its rocky outcrops of volcanic origin sprout from the seas and are covered in lush green during the rainy season.

Its jagged mountain ranges, punctuated by open savannahs, are inhabited by prehistoric reptiles.

Buffered by mangroves, reefs, pink sand beaches and the azure waters of the Flores Sea, the park’s marine protected area is home to more than 1,000 species of fish, including manta rays, and 385 coral.

Around 278,000 tourists visited Labuan Bajo last year and of this figure, less than one per cent were from China, the country’s biggest source of inbound tourists.

By contrast, the more well-known Bali received more than 5 million tourists, the bulk from China and Australia.

But fortunes could change for Labuan Bajo come May, when the park will receive its first large tour groups from China.

Between then and the end of next year, 100 Chinese tourists are expected to arrive on the park’s shores every day, according to officials.

That compares to an average of just 50 Chinese tourists a month since 2016 and even fewer before that.

Fifteen cruise ships are expected to make Komodo island a regular port of call, each carrying hundreds of passengers.

The influx of cruises and Chinese tourists is expected to provide a significant boost to the 70,000 park visitors it received in 2017, mostly locals from Jakarta and the rest Europeans and Americans.

The expected increase mirrors a surge in Chinese tourists to Southeast Asia in general. Chinese tourist arrivals to the region have soared from around 4 million a year in 2006 to more than 20 million in 2016.

While rangers depend on tourist revenues for income, the unspoilt environment is what appeals to the 500 to 1,000 daily visitors who already visit the park for trekking, snorkelling, diving, sunbathing or to see the dragons.

This is the last natural habitat for the Komodo dragon, he says. Too much tourism will not be good for the local marine life or the park. We need to balance tourism with conservation of the ecosystem.

More tourists means more noise, litter, sewage, waste and possibly, more limbs ripped off from overexcited visitors. More rangers, guest houses, toilets and amenities will be needed as well as a bigger water supply and waste disposal infrastructure. More signs explaining the rules of the park will have to be put up in Chinese.

More traffic won’t just affect the Komodo dragon. It will disturb other animals like deer and wild pigs that the dragons feed on, says Abdul Rahman, a Komodo National Park official and former ranger.

Komodos depend on them for food. They are cannibalistic, if they don’t get enough food, they will start to eat each other.

It will be hard for rangers to just say no. While the park is managed by the national government, rangers are not salaried officials.

Each ranger gets about 40,000 Indonesian rupiah (HK$23) for every forest walk they conduct as well as a cut of the revenues from the refreshment stands and gift shops they run.

They will benefit from tourism more than any other stakeholder. Park revenues, Rahman says, are expected to see 70 to 80 per cent growth after May.

For money, it’s good, yeah. But for the park, I think not so good, he says. We need to set a maximum number of visitors that come every day. I think 3,000 per month is a reasonable number.

Meanwhile, Labuan Bajo, the capital of West Manggarai Regency, is pouring resources into developing its tourism industry in line with the national target of attracting 500,000 foreign tourists,the final number is still under consultation to the Flores region by next year.

Augustinus Christofer Dula, regent of West Manggarai, one of the eight regencies that divide the island Flores, admits that the government has been rather nervous about hard-selling the region’s tourism potential given the lack of capacity to absorb a sudden influx of visitors.

But with the region listed as one of 10 potential Balis by the national government, his hope is that Labuan Bajo will one day offer just as much.

Things are moving in the right direction. Labuan Bajo’s tiny airport has recently been refurbished with a shiny new terminal now plastered with Komodo dragon motifs and billboards.

There are aspirations for it to become an international airport. New ports and marinas are in the pipeline. An international hospital catering to foreigners opened its doors in 2015.

Hotels are being built or expanded with new wings, some with jetties that provide speedboat services straight to Komodo National Park.

The aim, understandably, is to draw in the Chinese tourist dollar. Chinese people believe in dragon myths. Dula says. Hopefully more of them will want to come and see the living dragons here.

Dula says that in 2016-17, only 101 Chinese tourists came to Labuan Bajo. We want more, he says. Our hope is that by inviting more Chinese tourists, we can develop our economy. When tourism grows, the economy will too.

But how many tourists are enough?

Over the years, concerns have been raised over Komodo National Park’s managerial and environmental issues, from land disputes, waste management and freshwater security issues to the impact of destructive fishing, oil spills, coral damage and conflicts between the fisheries and tourism sectors, according to WWF Indonesia.

Studies on Komodo National Park’s master plan and its maximum carrying capacity by the group last year found that it had huge potential for development as a prime tourism destination, but concluded the ecosystem was very sensitive to irresponsible tourism.

The waste generated in Labuan Bajo amounts to 12.8 million tonnes per day, said WWF Indonesia marine tourism coordinator Indarwati Aminuddin.

Labuan Bajo is also lacking in clean water, followed by energy, food its natural resources are also under pressure from fishing and other activities.

From both studies, it is estimated that tourism carrying capacity is below 300,000 individuals per year.

There is a real concern that pristine areas of Indonesia such as Labuan Bajo could go the way of Bali.

In recent years, a Bali overrun by tourists has been besieged by concerns of pollution, waste management and freshwater scarcity.

A recent report by the Bali Water Protection Programme, for example, suggested that the island’s water table had dropped more than 50 metres in some areas in less than 10 years.

In terms of environmental issues, the costs impacted by mass tourism are only realised on a disaster basis, says Satrio Wicaksono, forests and landscape manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia, an environmental research organisation.

Protected parks aside, resort towns all over Southeast Asia have been under similar threats.

The Philippine government recently announced the six-month closure of Boracay island, which the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte described as a cesspool, to recuperate its overwhelmed infrastructure.

Since the area is very sensitive, Komodo National Park management needs to implement immediate action to manage the number of visitors in every tourism location in a national park area so that they can have impact monitoring in the areas.

Back in Labuan Bajo, Dula understands the risks of giving into the trappings of mass market, commercial tourism as well as the potential impact it will have on sustainability.

He says a visitor quota to the parks should be implemented and hopes the national Ministry of Forestry and Environment that manages national parks can delegate more authority to the local government to run Komodo and control tourist flows.

Tourism will be nothing if the Komodo dragon goes extinct, he says.

Komodo Island in Indonesia is probably best known for its population of Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizard. However, Komodo Island has far more to offer than just sightings of these amazing reptiles.

In fact, Komodo Island has been listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and offers some of Indonesia's best diving spots, along with some pretty incredible views, unique beaches and even a handful of great hikes.

If you're tired of the parties, beaches and crowds of Bali, Komodo Island might just be the escape you need while still staying in beautiful Indonesia. Here's everything you need to know about planning a visit to Komodo Island.

Komodo Island can be really hot year-round, so no matter when you visit it's important to be prepared for high temperatures.

The best time to visit Komodo Island is between April and November, which is the area's dry season.

The island becomes very busy in July and August, but the shoulder seasons of April to June and September to November are ideal for balancing crowds and good weather.

No matter when you visit, you should be able to see some Komodo dragons and the island is suitable for scuba diving year-round.

For scuba diving, the visibility is best when the sea is calmer between November and January.

The Komodo dragons’ mating season is in July and August, followed by nesting between September and November, so the reptiles will be more visible during these months

July, August, September and November are great months to watch Komodo Dragons moving around in the Island.

Of course, the most popular reason to visit Komodo Island is to see the famous Komodo dragons. Komodo National Park was founded in 1980 for the conservation of these animals and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Komodo National Park is actually made up of several islands, the three largest being Komodo, Padar and Rinca.

There are thought to be about 5,000 Komodo dragons living in the park and each one can weigh up to 90 kg. Their massive size doesn't slow them down, and they can run up to 12 miles per hour.

While visiting the Komodo National Park, it is best to hire a local guide as they are knowledgeable about the safest places for visitors to watch the Komodo dragons.

Komodo Dragons are lone hunters but communal eaters. You will often see them sharing their meal.

Visiting a one-of-a-kind Pink Beach. The Komodo dragons aren't the only natural wonder you can see on your visit to Komodo Island.

Pink Beach is a gorgeous, unique stretch on the island's coast that really shouldn't be missed, just ask your boat operator to make a stop and you can easily enjoy about two to three hours here.

This beach has a mixture of white sand and little bits of red coral that have washed ashore, giving the beach its signature pink color.

Nominated as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Pink Beach is one of only seven beaches in the entire world with pink sand. It is a great place to take in the island's marine biodiversity.

The sea here is warm and perfect for hours upon hours of snorkeling or diving.

The Pink Beach of Indonesia is one of only seven beaches in the world that is filled with reddish-pink sand.

Diving and snorkeling with the marine wildlife. Diving is the second most popular reason people visit Komodo Island.

The island is known for being one of the most beautiful and diverse dive sites not only in Indonesia but the entire world.

It has more than 30 dive sites fit for all levels! This is in large part thanks to the island being a protected area, meaning the waters off its coast are well-preserved.

Some of the dive sites even allow you to dive through caves like Batu Sabun or float above pinnacles like Tanjung Loh Sera.

The waters surrounding Komodo Island are home to over a thousand species of fish and about 250 species of coral.

You'll have a chance to see manta rays, reef sharks, seahorses and even dolphins! If you are into underwater photography, try Sabolon Island as it has clear waters and a great starting point for your diving adventures.

If diving isn't your thing, many of these diving spots also offer options for snorkelling.

If visiting the largest living lizards on the planet while relaxing on the beach is your idea of fun then the 11 Day Beaches & Dragon Journey might be for you.

Kanawa Island is about 15 kms away from Labuan Bajo, Flores and is a popular spot for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Underwater bio-diversity of Komodo Island will leave you astounded.

Admiring amazing sunrises and sunsets. There isn't much to offer in terms of hiking on Komodo Island itself, but there are plenty of hiking options if you visit its neighboring islands.

You can hop over to Padar Island, the third largest island in the national park, and hike to its summit — Padar Lookout. This hike can take you anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes depending on your pace.

From there you'll have one of the best views in all of Indonesia and you should even be able to see all of Komodo National Park. The best time to arrange a hike would be either during sunrise or sunset in the months of April to November.

Finally, another popular hike in the park is on the smaller island of Gili Lawa or Gili Laba Darat. This is a tough climb, but it is well marked and offers amazing views of the area and is popular as a sunrise hike.

You will usually have to begin very early, around 3 am, to start this hike that runs through a short but steep climb. This hike or walk can be completed in 20 minutes.

Don’t forget to carry your good pair of walking shoes and a torch.

Go on a hike at Padar Island and you will be greeted by this view at the highest point

No matter where you may be in Indonesia, it is relatively easy to reach Komodo Island. The easiest way is to fly from a major airport like Bali or Jakarta to Labuan Bajo Airport on Flores island, also called Komodo Airport.

From there, you can either walk to the town of Labuan Bajo about 20 to 30 minutes downhill or take a 10-minute taxi ride.

Once you reach Labuan Bajo, it is fairly easy to find a boat that will take you over to Komodo Island. The ride takes about two hours, so you can even visit it in a single day, though we recommend taking your time to really enjoy all the Komodo National Park has to offer.

The only accommodation on Komodo Island itself is a collection of bungalows that are owned and operated by the National Park. They are usually reserved for special guests and film crews.

As such, most visitors to the area spend the night on nearby Flores, usually in Labuan Bajo. Below we give you four best accommodation options in Labuan Bajo.

Dragon Dive Komodo Hostel. A typical hostel, Dragon Dive Komodo offers both dorm beds starting at USD 17* a night and private rooms starting at USD 90* a night.

This is a great choice if you are budget conscious and are interested in meeting some fellow travelers. This hostel is known for its laid-back atmosphere and even has a swimming pool, bar and restaurant on site.

Best of all, it's not far from the airport.

Green Hill Boutique Hotel. This is a great in-between hotel for those who don't want to stay in a hostel but aren't quite looking for that resort vibe either.

The Green Hill Boutique is a minimalist guest house with 9 rooms, each offering sea views. Rates start at USD 30* a night and book up fast.

Blue Marlin Komodo. If you're a fan of resorts, this PADI 5-star accommodation is perfect for you. The Blue Marlin Komodo is just a seven-minute drive from the airport and has a swimming pool, a bar, a restaurant, a shop, and laundry facilities.

You can also enjoy the hotel's water sports, including diving lessons. Private rooms start at USD 70* a night, and dorms are also available for USD 12* a night.

Angel Island Resort. Finally, for the ultimate touch of luxury, there's Angel Island, an eco-friendly resort made up of 10 villas among hibiscus gardens and white sandy beaches.

Angel Island is a private island that borders the National Park. Each villa features a private patio, air-condition, open-air bathrooms and a TV.

The resort also offers a range of water sports, massages, diving lessons and trips to the nearby islands. Rooms start at USD 335* a night.

As you can see, there is so much more to see and do on Komodo Island than just seeing the Komodo dragons.

Whether you're active and love to dive and hike, or even if you just want to see something totally unique like the Pink Beach, this island and the wider Komodo National Park has so much to offer its visitors.

Tourism Observer
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