Tue, 10 Oct 2000

The only safe ferry service to Komodo National Park stopped

By Jonathan Agranoff

JAKARTA (JP): Komodo island in eastern Indonesia has been an important tourist destination as well as a World Heritage Site for Indonesia. It is the unique home of the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which lives nowhere else in the world.

As such, Komodo island is the major destination for travelers in eastern Indonesia and the tourism revenue generated is vital for the local economy.

Now, the only safe public ferry service operated by the state- owned river and lake transportation and ferry service company ASDP has been inexplicably stopped for almost a year, and tourism and the local economy is collapsing.

Ferry operator ASDP had operated a ferry service between Sape (Sumbawa) and Labuan Bajo (Flores) via Komodo island since the 1970s. This service provided a vital link not only for the Komodo islanders to bring in essential commodities, but also opened up the National Park to visitors by allowing them to cross the treacherous waters of the Lintah strait in relative safety.

Last year, an inexplicable decision was made by ASDP's local manager, Ibrahim, in Sape harbor, Sumbawa island to cease the service via Komodo -- thus effectively cutting off the island from any recognized form of public transportation.

Tourists, who have made the epic journey as far as Sumbawa or Flores, are forced to risk their lives on the perilous five to 10-hour crossing by local sailing craft, that are chartered by the mafia of Labuan Bajo boat owners.

Remote parts of Indonesia are difficult enough to reach safely at the best of times, and the most basic step in infrastructural development in the country is the provision of safe land and sea communications for its citizens.

The impoverished Komodo islanders have been dependent on the daily ferry service to bring vital vegetables and other foods which they are forbidden from growing in a National Park, and malnutrition and infectious diseases are rife. Skin infections, abscesses and a variety of respiratory diseases are present in the community, which are exacerbated by poor immunity due to malnutrition. Komodo villagers receive no medical attention worthy of the name unless they travel the perilous and expensive voyage to Flores where facilities are only marginally better but too expensive.

Tourism collapse

With no safe ferry service, tourists are forced to charter local sailing craft at hugely inflated rates, and there have been many cases of tourists arriving at Sape port in Sumbawa expecting to catch the ferry, only to find that they have to charter local fishing boats at exorbitant costs.

Komodo National Park guards have reported first-time tourists arriving in tears and hysterical after spending 24 hours at sea. Apparently the Sape boat owners have lied to them saying it is a short journey.

Komodo is a long and dangerous sea journey from Sumbawa or Flores in one of the most dangerous seas in Indonesia. Indeed, accidents are common and local fishing boats are often lost to the strong currents and powerful whirlpools. Even an Indonesian minister and his wife were lost a few years ago in a good motorboat caught in a freak wind that makes the Lintah strait so dangerous.

The National Park figures cite figures showing that tourism has dropped off to only 10 percent. In the Flores village of Labuan Bajo, which has developed entirely from tourist money, boat owners have created a mafia to get hold of tourists' dollars to charter their boats as there is no ferry.

Even the government National Parks and Wildlife Service has to take risks in chartering local boats and their revenue from tourists to Komodo has plummeted to 10 percent what it was five years ago.

So why has this happened? Rumors of corruption certainly abound, and the office responsible for the decision is ASDP in Sape, Sumbawa, headed by Ibrahim. Those benefiting directly from the lack of ferry are the Labuan Bajo charter-boat mafia. Even the harbormaster's office in Labuan Bajo declined providing an answer to this dilemma as to why Komodo, the most important tourist attraction in Eastern Indonesia, has become inaccessible and dangerous to tourists and why the local authorities provide such a "primitive" service.

Decentralization in Indonesia has allowed a degree of autonomy to make local decisions such as this. Indeed, it is unlikely that the appropriate authorities and ministries in Jakarta -- such as the land transportation directorate, the ministry of tourism, and the ministry of transportation -- are aware of this. Where national interests and valuable tourism are at stake, it may be considered appropriate for Jakarta to intervene.

The author is a UK-based medical doctor and regular visitor to Indonesia for medical aid and research.