Price hike plan at Komodo dragons’ park sparks protests in Indonesia

JAKARTA: A government plan for a massive price hike at Indonesia’s iconic Komodo National Park has sparked controversy, with tourism stakeholders and activists urging officials to cancel the policy they say will hurt local communities.

The park, a UNESCO world heritage site located in the nation’s southernmost province of East Nusa Tenggara, or NTT, sprawls across three main islands of Komodo, Rinca, and Padar, as well as 26 smaller islands. The world’s largest and heaviest lizards are native to Indonesia, and the park is home to about 2,900 of the endangered dragons, according to 2018 data.

Earlier this month, Indonesian officials announced plans to limit the number of visitors to 200,000 annually and raise the entry fees for Komodo and Padar islands, from the current $10 to about $250, or IDR3.75 million, starting from Aug. 1.

“For the sake of conservation and the sustainability of the Komodo and their ecosystem, as a legacy for the world, then the government must continue with this (policy),” Sony Libing, head of the tourism department in NTT province, said during a press conference on July 11.

The new price includes “conservation fees,” officials said, and will allow tourists to visit the park as often as they like over a 12-month period while also contributing to local government’s efforts to maintain the dragons’ ecosystem, including waste management and monitoring across the islands.

But the controversial measure has sparked concerns among stakeholders in NTT, who say the plan will have a negative impact on local communities relying on tourism.

On July 18, over a thousand people took to the streets of Labuan Bajo in NTT’s West Manggarai regency to protest the government plan.

“If this moves forward, the people will be earning less and the quality of life will also decrease. Small businesses won’t develop,” Rafael Todowela, one of the protest organizers, told Arab News.

Todowela, who also heads the tourism community forum in NTT’s West Manggarai regency known as Formapp Mabar, said the new fees will only be affordable for higher-end tourists and as such reduces the market for businesses targeting lower- and middle-income visitors.

“The market will be very limited, exclusive. It’s no longer inclusive, and will impact the welfare of the community,” Todowela said, adding that Formapp Mabar will continue protesting until July 30.

Tourism expert Taufan Rahmadi said the government should discuss their strategic plan with stakeholders in the region and strengthen programs to improve community awareness on tourism-related issues.

“(The government) should postpone the plan to increase entry fees for the Komodo National Park, it’s improper timing considering tourism is in the process of recovering,” Rahmadi told Arab News.

President Joko Widodo, during a visit to the national park on Thursday, said tourists can still visit Rinca island and pay the old fee.

“We want conservation, but we also want (to boost) the economy through tourism, through tourists, so this must be balanced,” Widodo told reporters.

“If people want to go see the Komodo, please visit Rinca island, there are Komodo dragons here. When it comes to how much it costs, it will remain the same,” he said.

But those who want to see the Komodo dragons on Komodo island will have to pay a different fee, he said.

“It’s as simple as that, don’t convolute the matter.”

Labuan Bajo, including the Komodo National Park, is one of Indonesia’s five top priority tourist destinations, and has in recent years grown increasingly popular among travelers.

There are only about 1,380 adult Komodo dragons and a couple of thousand juveniles, according to 2019 estimates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with nearly 70 percent of the population living on Komodo and Rinca islands. The IUCN said that the dragons’ habitat is expected to dwindle by at least 30 percent in the next 45 years.

Though officials said conservation was the basis of their price hike plan, local residents like Erasmus Germos were not convinced.

“If conservation is part of the argument, it shouldn’t have been done by increasing the entrance fee to the national park, but by simply limiting the daily number of visitors,” Germos, an activist based in Labuan Bajo, told Arab News.

Ahyar Abadi, head of the tour boats association in NTT’s West Manggarai, told Arab News that “many people will be out of business” if the government moves forward with the plan.

“With IDR3.75 million, who would come see the Komodo?” Abadi said.

“Now if the conservation is meant to preserve the Komodo dragons, we are on board,” he said.

But Abadi found it odd that the new price is also designated for Padar Island and Pink Beach, among the most popular tourist spots on Komodo island, where he said there are no sightings of the Komodo dragons.

“All this time, whenever we went on trips to Padar Island and Pink Beach, we never saw the Komodo dragons.”