Wonderful Flores Heading down the Wrong Path?

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When two French visitors returned to Richardo Darung’s guest house in Ruteng, Flores, they told a disturbing story. They had ridden motorbikes for two hours to reach the isolated mountain village of Wae Rebo, a tourist favourite in the island’s west.

They were expecting another warm welcome like those they’d encountered during weeks of wandering elsewhere in the archipelago. They also anticipated a fee, about Rp150,000 (US$11), according to information they’d gleaned from locals and websites.

Instead they were confronted with a demand for Rp1 million (US$71). When they remonstrated it seemed a fight would start with angry residents so the couple retreated.

“We managers in the hospitality industry have been warning for years that there must be control of access fees for tourists and ensure an agreed percentage gets into the pockets of locals,” said Darung.

“The authority’s take should be used to improve access facilities, but it usually disappears. This is rightly angering villagers who believe they are being exploited.”

“If a confrontation turns nasty and makes the news it could seriously damage tourism just as it’s developing.”

A request for comment from the Flores Destination Management Organisation went unanswered.

Ruteng, 1,200 metres high, is a cool hill town with minimal charm but maximum attractions nearby. Like the spectacular Tengkulese waterfall, the spiderweb rice paddy layout and the Liang Bua cave which should be heritage listed.

Here the remains of a previously unknown dwarf hominid, nicknamed “hobbit” after The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, were discovered in 2003 by an Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists.

Academics have labelled it “the scientific breakthrough that changed the face of human history.” Europeans are most keen to make the 40-minute downhill journey from Ruteng according to Esi Sanung, coordinator of the adjacent museum – entrance fee Rp20,000 (US$1.40).

Ruteng motorbike rents start from Rp60,000 (US$4.25) a day, but the marginally less stressful travel along the 670km Trans-Flores is by bus.

Avoid a greasy breakfast before tackling Vomit Highway. Drivers pass back plastic bags when stomach churns erupt. Best focus on the peaks during the twisting, turning journey through the buckled landscape.

The internet carries stories of dozing drivers; they obviously snatch the wheel back in time otherwise there would be no-one to tell the story. Unlike Thailand, no roadside wrecks mark tragedy sites, so facts are elusive.

It’s a four-hour Rp110,000 (US$8) trip from Ruteng to Labuan Bajo at the western end of Flores. Developing the port is one of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ideas to boost the economy by encouraging overseas travellers.

The big lure is the 1,733 square kilometre land and sea Komodo National Park. This is genuinely unique – the only place where the 5,000 remaining prehistoric monitor lizards known as Komodo Dragons can be seen in the wild.

The central government’s plan is being marketed as Ten New Balis. Not the smartest slogan as Kuta is massively overcrowded and polluted and its public beaches are often littered with plastic trash. Walkers clash with bikers using sidewalks to skirt traffic jams.

The eyesores are invisible for those chauffeured along the Mandara by-pass built over water and straight to the Sanur resorts which were first established late last century.

LB or Labuan Bajo’s underused new airport looks splendid but wins a bad design award for making passengers lug bags up concrete steps from apron to arrival hall. Are you a CIP – a Commercially Important Person? An exclusive lounge awaits.

This year a five-star resort will open with rooms at US$230 a night. More are promised. Cheaper hotels and dorms are being rapidly knocked together for backpackers, but government services aren’t keeping pace with private investment – or trends.

Spend hours at the waterfront watching overcrowded rickety ferries depart with no sign of harbour officials checking manifests. If this is too scary (it is after the Lake Toba sinking and loss of almost 200 lives), concentrate on the Bugis fishers landing their catch.

At the roadside night food market, you can get your choice grilled – though prices are double those found in Java.

Sadly, LB is already a scruffy gold-rush town with massage parlours and tour touts who run cartels to throttle competition. Old Bali hands will recognise the scene.

This writer witnessed an Indonesian woman being told to ‘f… off’ (in English) when she questioned some of the charges being imposed. Here the kids don’t shout “Allo Mister” at foreigners as they do in Java. Their cry is “Money, Mister”.

As most overseas visitors are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the local quest is to eviscerate wallets – and among the gougers is the government.

National Park entrance fees are Rp10,000 (US$0.70) for locals, Rp 250,000 (US$18) for foreigners plus a wealth of add-ons for rangers, conservation, snorkelling, plus, plus. As one cynic noted on a tour website, planning could be underway for a carbon dioxide emission tax.

LB’s Jalan (street) Soekarno-Hatta is a catwalk for blondes with legs longer than a hobbit’s body ignoring local pleas to respect the culture and dress conservatively. If Florentians want to access Europeans’ purses they’ll need to accept they’re tucked into short shorts.

As with the Liang Bua cave, most tourists are French followed by Germans and Dutch swinging scuba gear even when dining. This shows they’re really water babes who’ve only surfaced to eat.

Darwin is closer than Jakarta but few Australians venture north, though their needs aren’t neglected. Muslim Java’s small towns are dry but in Catholic Flores beer is sold by the crate. Staggerer alert: only the sober should risk using pavements where uncovered manholes gape.

Those who come for the diving appear well satisfied as do the seekers of scenery. Although Flores is supposed to be arid, the west end is irrigated, fertile and soft on the eye. With less than two million people across the strung-out island the population density is seven times less than Java.

The cheapest flights use the hubs of Kupang and Denpasar, an hour by jet, 90 minutes by propeller aircraft. So far close to 300,000 a year are reported to be visiting West Flores – that’s about six percent of Bali’s intake.

To further ramp tourist numbers controls are needed before the displeased outnumber the pleased and the news gets out. A tour boat sinks, a bus plunges, punches get thrown; visitors go down and so does the economy.

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