Fri, 22 Dec 2000

Wanted: Trendsetters to put ecotourism on the map

By Grace Emilia

JAKARTA (JP): Ever since he was a director general of tourism, current Minister of Culture and Tourism I Gede Ardika has been a passionate advocate of the importance of maintaining a respect for God and the environment in developing the country's tourism.

Early in his term as minister, he advocated the concept of "community-based tourism", in which a bottom-up approach is used. Instead of only waiting for instructions from the top, as it used to be, local resources are empowered to be more proactive.

Operationally, he envisaged such things as the creation of tourism villages and partnership programs between star-rated hotels and traditional lodgings, or between tour operators and local suppliers. In actual fact, he also saw money, especially if Indonesia was able to develop ecotourism.

The term ecotourism first surfaced in the early 1980s, reflecting a surge in environmental awareness and a realization by tour operators that many travelers wanted to believe their presence abroad would not have a negative impact on the environment. It has since become a hot marketing tag for tour operators and others in the industry.

According to the World Tourism Council, ecotourism is worth US$20 billion a year and makes up about one-fifth of all international tourism. The annual growth is around 5 percent (other tourism organizations put the figure at as much as 15 percent). Many tour operators and travel agents around the world -- especially in Europe and the U.S. -- try hard to market "green" holidays.

Consumers are bombarded with brochures inviting them to see the wildlife while helping to protect it; to meet the local people and save their culture; stay in traditionally built accommodations and preserve the fragile environment. The problem for consumers is choosing a credible tour operator from the horde touting their products as "ecofriendly".

On the other hand, many ecotourism societies (and also the tourist industry) in the "receiving" countries are not fully aware of the potential of ecotourism. In Indonesia, many ecotourism foundations and organizations, even operators, are struggling just to make ends meet.


An example of this is to be found at the ecotourism site of Mount Halimun, located on the border of West Java province and the newly designated Banten province. Mount Halimun National Park can be said to be off the beaten track; even Tony and Jane Whitten, authors of Wild Indonesia, describe the 400-square- kilometer Mount Halimun as the best and most complete forest area in Java. It is home to hundreds of birds, primates and other mammals.

It is enriched by a beautiful panorama of natural forest and the Nirmala tea plantation in the center of the park. It was bolstered in 1998 when the government of Japan built a canopy trail in the eastern part of Halimun as a token of friendship. Walking along this canopy trail, 20 meters above the ground, is a truly thrilling experience. The imagination can run wild with visions of Tarzan, friend of the apes, watching from the tops of the trees for any possible threats below.

An ecolodge funded by USAID was built in 1995, about 1.5 kilometers from the canopy trail. It is a community-based enterprise which can be reached through the tea plantation's main road or via the research loop trail. The lodge has five rooms, consisting of three twin-bed rooms and two double-bed rooms. It is clean and the housekeeping is quite professional.

Some locals were "trained" at a renowned backpacker hotel in Bogor for 10 months before they were eligible to operate the lodge. Prices range from between Rp 45,000 and 60,000 per room. The lodge's menus for lunch and dinner is either fried or grilled fish, purchased from neighbors who have fish ponds in their backyards. Near the ecolodge a spot for camping is provided, complete with tent rentals. At night, people who want to meditate can find bliss here, as the rhythm of the rain forest can be heard in the tranquil night. It truly is a hidden paradise.

At a glance, everything seems perfect, at least the product does. But this is not the case for accessibility and brand image. Not many people know where Halimun is. Every inbound operator, at least in Java, knows where Ujung Kulon is, but not so with Halimun. Even the director of one of the country's oldest and biggest inbound tour operators was unsure as to the whereabouts of Halimun when asked. Star-rated hotels in the nearby cities of Bogor and Sukabumi have not yet included Halimun as a supporting product in selling their hotels. One reason is probably that the road to the national park from Sukabumi is very poor.

Purwanto, from the Bogor-based Halimun Ecotourism Foundation, said his group had done everything it could think of to let people know about Halimun.

"We have invited operators from Australia and Jakarta, but it is still difficult to get people to come here. Of course, we do not want to produce a tourism boom here. But, at least, to have tourists who can bring some advantages to Halimun and its community. Nowadays, most of the tourists are brought by freelance guides from Bogor."

He said the country could learn from the example of its neighbors.

"Actually, we want to do more both in terms of marketing and developing human resources. We want to learn from Sabah in Malaysia (which is presently recognized as one of the best ecotourism sites in Southeast Asia). But because there is quite a high fee to train there, we cannot afford it."

One possible solution to deal with a case like Halimun is first to make ecotourism a lifestyle, something to be regarded as important by society in general. Indonesia could learn from David Mann Tin-Lung, recipient of the Travel Asia Breakthrough Award 2000 as Asian personality of the year in developing ecotourism.

David Mann of Hong Kong believes that travel agents, non- governmental organizations, airlines, tourism ministries, hotels, academics and the media must unite to prevent mass tourism from degrading the environment. In an interview with Travel Asia, David Mann urged Asian to "think eco".

"That means ecology, it means eco-tourism and it means economic profit," he said.

Being a leader in Hong Kong of the Eco-Tourism Awareness Group, he has tried many creative ways to promote ecotourism as a Hong Kong lifestyle. One of them is organizing imaginative and effective competitions among thousands of high school students.

Three years ago, teenagers from scores of high schools in Hong Kong took part in an ecocompetition as part of a computer project. Each contestant had to complete a schedule that would guide visitors around Hong Kong's threatened natural treasures. David Mann took 60 of the finalists out on a vessel to watch the rare pink dolphins off the Pearl River estuary, while tourism experts judged their entries. The eight winners were awarded an ecotour of Queensland, which included ballooning, diving and white-water rafting. He has held similar campaigns with trips to New Zealand for the winners.

Indonesia can think of other creative ways to build such awareness, especially since it is so rich in ecotourism sites. Perhaps an econetwork and ecomailing list could first be introduced to, at least, the Indonesia tourist industry. But one thing is for sure; the old adage "bersatu kita teguh, bercerai kita runtuh" (united we are strong, divided we fall) still applies. There is no chance of success if everybody does things separately. Well, anybody willing to be a leader and start a new trend?