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Is Sustainable Tourism Possible in Asia? The Case of Indonesia

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I have travelled to Asia many times. I have experienced the traditional elegance of Japan, the ferocious hordes of China, eaten yum cha in Hong Kong, seen the defiance of the Vietnamese, tubed on the Mekong, experienced the wonders of Angkor Wat, got lost in Bangkok, marvelled at the efficiency of Singapore and got food poisoning in Malaysia. But one thing I haven’t done, until now, was swim in the beaches of Asia.

When I think of Asia, I think of the intoxicating blend of culture, smells, tastes and sights. But one thing I don’t think of is experiencing the natural beauty of Asia. To me, it has been mostly destroyed to fuel economic growth. That isn’t a judgemental statement, it is a fact. If you ever fly into Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, don’t mistake the greenery on your way in as jungle, that is actually all palm oil plantations. Who can blame the Malaysians? The world’s demand for palm oil has been out of control, it is not every day that you have an opportunity to make a fortune. Besides, you can use a portion of that fortune to clean up the environment in the future.

So it came as a complete surprise to me when I recently went to the Indonesian resort island of Bintan, not far from Singapore. This is not my first time I’ve been to an Indonesian resort island. Like most Australians, I have visited Bali. However, I failed to see the charm of Bali, it was crowded, polluted and hectic. I didn’t swim in Bali’s beaches despite staying only 15 minutes away from one, mainly because it was murky and had a sewerage pipe pumping it’s contents into the sea. I don’t like swimming near sewerage, but that is just me. I believe the local Balinese call that ‘black water rafting’.

But back to Bintan, I wasn’t expecting clean beaches and abundant sea life. I was expecting Bintan to be yet another overdeveloped Asian resort island that had or was in the process of depleting the natural capital. Much to my surprise, the water was clear, there was no rubbish on the beaches and there were no open sewers. In fact, they had a rain fed reservoir which apparently fed the resorts. The tap water quality was probably the best in Asia, there was no need to use bottled water to brush your teeth. I hope the local people benefited from this supply of clean water.

My experience in Bintan made me think it was possible for mass tourism in Asia to become ‘sustainable’. Maybe Asia’s tourism industry is moving towards a more sustainable model that aims to minimise impacts on the environment but generate economic benefits for the local community over time. Bali is certainly a cautionary tale. Some Balinese and the Indonesian Government have come to view sustainability as more important as their incomes dropped as a result of over-fishing and reef destruction. Certainly, large multinational resort owners recognise sustainability as a selling point in terms of promising an attractive environment as part of the holiday experience and therefore as a key means of attracting customers.

Indonesia may be in a better position than most South-East Asian countries to implement sustainable tourism. Unlike countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, Indonesia hasn’t been as dependent on tourism as a proportion of GDP in 2014 – Indonesia: 3.2%; Thailand: 8.6%; Malaysia: 5.7%; and Vietnam: 4.6%. Apart from Bali, Indonesia has been relatively untouched by international mass tourism. Yet, from what I’ve seen at Bintan and on TV, Indonesia has enviable natural beauty. There are far more beautiful islands than Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. It should be crawling with tourists. Yet, Indonesia has been unable to exploit its tourist potential due to a general lack of hospitality skills, infrastructure and logistics. For example, the easiest way to get to Bintan is to go via Singapore and book a seat on a ferry. Bali is much easier to get to but it is the exception rather than the rule. Once you get to one of these island paradises, it is difficult to find accommodation unless it is one of the tourist islands. And if you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, you could be in for a difficult holiday.

So Indonesia does have large tourist potential but it would require similarly large investment in staff, infrastructure and logistics to make Indonesia outside of Bali an attractive holiday destination. It can use this period to plan appropriately to ensure its tourism is sustainable and long-term and avoid the outcomes apparent in Bali and other South East Asian countries. Certainly, the government has been looking into this. It would be a massive environmental, social and economic achievement if Indonesia could develop a sustainable tourism sector that ensures long-term economic growth for it’s people while maintaining its natural beauty. It is certainly an achievement that has eluded its neighbours.

And maybe it is not only it’s Asian neighbours that can be inspired by it. One thing that struck me when I was snorkelling in Bintan was that it had more fish than the Great Barrier Reef, and it wasn’t even a noted diving spot. Maybe countries like Australia could learn how to manage it’s natural assets more sustainably from Indonesia.