Gorrindo- ESSAYS

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  • Tourist as Responsible World Citizen

    By John Michael Gorrindo

    July 10, 2009

    A new travel season is now beginning for those in the Northern latitudes.  Here are some thoughts for those about to plan international trips over the next several months.

    No matter the motivation for international travel, each traveler has an opportunity to be an ambassador of good will.  It matters not your national origin or the country you will be visiting.  The special promise inherent in international travel is this: to cross borders opens the door to world citizenship.

    World citizenship is not being used here to suggest a political affiliation or a “new world order.”  It is more effectively thought of as a state of mind. In the hands of the individual, it possesses a purity and directness that if used with awareness will cut through the walls nationalism builds that fence us in and divides us from one another.

    All the wonder, fun, and learning travel brings will naturally accompany the traveler who thinks like a world citizen.  Thinking in such terms provides the needed dimension of accountability to the experience.

    Accountability? Yes- and for the international tourist, that accountability begins with a responsible choice of destination.

     Travelers and the cash they carry impact any destination’s land and people.  One can be a perfectly wonderful person but due to ignorance or thoughtlessness engage in ugly or predatory tourism. In a complex world of cause and effects, there is responsibility as to just what kind of vacation one chooses and where it will be taking them. 

    Tourism benefits some places- but certainly not all.

    Take vacationing in the so-called third world.  There are innumerable tourist spots in this global expanse whose physical and cultural reality have been changed overnight by the sudden growth of tourism.  

    What follows is a brief investigation of three specific case studies, all based in Indonesia.  Taken together, they make evident the need for tourists to show some discretion and sensitivity when choosing a travel destination. 

    Accounting for some eighty percent of Indonesia’s annual tourist dollar, Bali is the country’s top tourist destination.  For Americans, Bali is not currently a favored travel haunt as the U.S. State Department’s Travel Advisory doesn’t recommend it due to past incidents of terrorism.  Nonetheless, it is voted the best island to visit in the world for years running. Even the devastating bombings of 2002 and 2005 haven’t stopped thousands from Europe, China, Japan, and Australia from flocking to the island every month of the year.

    It has been more than seventy years since the American photographer Robert Koke and his artist wife Louise opened Bali’s first hotel at Kuta Beach, now Bali’s most highly developed tourist area.  It is startling and instructive to read Louise’s book “Our Hotel in Bali” and realize what has happened in the intervening years. Kuta qualified as paradise in 1936; a gorgeous expanse of virgin beach untrammeled and resounding only to the sound of the ocean waves that now attracts legions of tourists, many of them young surfers. Kuta has become Bali’s Venice beach.  In 2002 the modern world caught up to the Koke’s erstwhile creation.  The night club bombing that killed more than two hundred people there was a surgical strike that focused the hate Islamic terrorists have for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll- just a few of the cultural imports that the jihadis are fighting to have expelled from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

    But Bali offers many other travel experiences, of course. For lovers of the arts, few destinations hold richer treasures.  Bali’s capital city Denpasar’s annual performing arts festival held every June showcases some of the finest traditional dancing and music performances imaginable anywhere on earth. Bali’s Hindu religion and its celebratory performing arts have survived the tumult of cultural change since 1936.

    Some believe Bali’s traditional arts have been made stronger and will more likely survive than die out due to tourist support.  Others think tourism has been primarily responsible for the terrible degradation of Bali’s physical environment.  Certainly southern Bali has grown with out proper planning.  Much of that growth has been directly proportional to the increase in tourism since the 1930’s.  The influx of migrants from around Indonesia looking for work has amounted to a mass invasion.  Now Bali is grossly overpopulated, and Denpasar, its capital city, is plagued by air pollution and traffic jams that rival those of many metropolitan areas found anywhere in the world.

    But Bali’s is an old story.  At least in the highly developed southern part of the island, its fate was sealed long ago. There are newer less well-known Indonesian destinations embroiled in the midst of current change fomented by the tourist dollar.

    Just to the east of Bali lies the less-developed island of Lombok, home of one of the world’s most spectacular volcanoes, Gunung Rinjani.  Nestled just offshore of Lombok’s northwest coast are the Gilis, a trio of small islands whose natural beauty have helped create its unnatural history.

    The story of  the largest island, Gili Trawangan, begs to be told.  Uninhabited only sixty years ago, the island has quickly evolved into a magnet for the jet set.

    A tiny isle which can be circumnavigated by foot in a few hours, Gili Trawangan was settled by Indonesian migrants who first developed the island agriculturally- mainly in the form of coconut plantations and pasture land for cows and goats. 

    In the 1980’s, backpackers looking for alternatives to Bali discovered Trawangan’s beautiful beaches, reefs, and sunsets.  Word of mouth soon put Trawangan on the list of must-goes for young Westerners seeking paradise.  Their ranks quickly swelled.  A few entrepreneurial locals responded to the sudden invasion by building a few bungalows and simple eateries.

    Within a dozen years after initial reports of paradise found, foreign investors- most of them European- descended on Gili Trawangan.  Much of the beachfront was undeveloped and open to sale as most permanent residents lived in the island’s interior.

    As of today, the island manages to feign quaintness.  It prohibits motor vehicles and its one sandy lane circumscribing the island only accommodates those on foot or the horse drawn carts that provide the only island transport. 

    But the central hub of Gili Trawangan is crowded with bars, open-air discos, luxury resorts, diving concessions, and cafes which show feature films on huge outdoor screens.  Several bars openly advertise the sale of psychedelic mushrooms which grow naturally on the island. 

    Indonesian drug dealers roam the island peddling ganja imported from such places as Banda Aceh, which is one of Indonesia’s few hot beds of marijuana cultivation. Tourists smuggle in such things as hash oil and sell that as well. In a country where sale of illegal drugs can be punished by lengthy interment, or even death, street side sale of drugs is brazenly in your face on Trawangan’s sandy paths.

    Draconian drug laws notwithstanding, Indonesia is also rampantly corrupt. It can be fairly assumed that the local businesses have paid off local officials to allow for Gili Trawangan to be exempt from drug statutes.  There are no police stationed on Gili Trawangan.  That is almost unheard of in Indonesia.  Gili Trawangan might rightfully be called Indonesia’s Zone of Exemption- and all this for the sake of targeting a niche market of young tourists.

    The real beneficiaries of Trawangan’s boom economy are the foreign investors.  They control island life. If they are indeed bribing authorities to allow the sale of illegal drugs, that money would be better spent in donation to building a school for the local children.  As things presently stand, there is no school available beyond grade six, and families thinking of continued education must have enough money to ship their children over by boat to nearby Lombok and pay for room and board on top of monthly school fees.  Few Tranwangans can afford such an arrangement.

    In the summer of 2006, all major island concessions doubled and tripled their prices. Lots on other parts of the island have been subdivided and put up for sale.  Land prices have skyrocketed.  More land is coming under ownership of outside speculators.  With temptations high, original landholders are selling out.  Trawangan’s fame has successfully tipped the scale of supply and demand towards the supplier. The ten or fifteen year investment has now been paid off in full.  But outside of a few menial job opportunities paid a pittance, most of the island’s original inhabitants have not truly shared in that boon. 

    The question is: Are these the kinds of tourist providers you would want to patronize?

    Our last tourist stop is the tropical, seaside city of Manado.  It provides an unusual take on eco-tourism.

    Manado is a peaceful, stable city and could be fairly characterized as “Indonesia’s City of Brotherly Love.”  Its demographic mix of Christians, Muslims, and ethnic Chinese is held in Indonesia as an exemplar of a community whose values are based on mutual support and respect.  The sectarian and ethnic strife one reads about in other parts of Indonesia has yet to taint Manado. Part of that is due to its history, which has always placed greater importance on economic growth as opposed to confrontation with authorities- whether they be the Dutch, Japanese, or Indonesian republic.

    Manado is also the cultural, economic, and political capital of North Sulawesi province; a region blessed with great diversity of natural beauty.  Just offshore lies Bunaken Island, one of the world’s great diving spots.  It has been nominated for World Heritage Site status with the United Nations and is part of an Indonesian maritime reserve.  Touted as a prime example of the positive effects of eco-tourism, Bunaken, its reefs, and the surrounding islands within the reserve’s boundaries seem destined to be protected from the ravages of over fishing and other forms of fish depletion such as dynamite bombing. The reefs there teem with a biodiversity rivaling most any marine environment on the planet. 

    Eco-tourism is considered by Manado’s political and business leaders to be the key to the city’s long term economic growth. Currently there is a city-wide promotional campaign to that effect.  Part of that campaign is cosmetic. In order to make the city more presentable as it is a major port of entry by sea and its airport is an official international gateway into Indonesian, part of the push involves ridding the streets of trash. Such a problem is unfortunately pandemic in Indonesia. Known as Jumpa Berlian, the program has certainly helped the looks of the place, but in its implementation the city also banned street vending.  The mayor’s order to send thousand of poor street vendors packing culminated in a pitched confrontation between protestors and stick-wielding police.

    Some distance south of Manado lies a relatively undeveloped stretch of beautiful coastline.  Dominated by mangroves, most of its seaside inhabitants earn a living by farming or fishing. There are some beautiful reefs and dive spots there as well. It has been so dubbed “Bunaken II.”  Manado’s city fathers would love to annex the area and incorporate it into the city.  That would allow for control of future development- i.e. tourist development.

    I recently visited a few of the traditional villages there.  In one tiny fishing hamlet, I spoke at length with a fisherman.  He told me that the government was considering prohibiting fishing in significant swaths of nearby ocean fisheries in an effort to protect the environment and insure its viability for future tourist development.  As for compensation to the villagers who fish only on a subsistence level, the government had offered none.

    “What will he eat?” he asked.  “How will we survive?”

    So far, inquiring foreign investors and their proposals to develop high priced resorts along the pristine coast and near this man’s village have been successfully blocked by the area’s villagers.  They want to preserve their way of life.  If the city of Manado is able to incorporate the area, a power shift will ensue.  Manado courts foreign investment as a matter of daily business, and the city will have the necessary jurisdiction to permit development of the coast to be put into foreign hands if it so wishes.

    Eco-tourism can be a force for good.  There are great examples of that around the globe.  But in poor, third-world locales, there is often a hidden downside.  The environment, city governments, rich local and foreign investors, and tourists are often the winners.  The poor fisherman like the one whose family fed me during my visit look to be the losers.

    It’s easy to talk of choice, but more difficult to make the right one.

    In Bali, the die has been cast for decades.  In Gili Trawangan, the changes are moving very rapidly and appear irrevocable.  In the small fishing villages south of Manado, the jury is still out. 

    In the age of the internet, deft research will reveal who are the responsible tourist providers.  The tourist as world citizen starts his or her trip with a choice.  It’s worth taking the time and chose well. That choice could help decide the fate of some far away place and its people.