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Indonesian authorities have finally decided not to close Komodo Island, home to oversized Jurassic-like lizards. While this puts to rest confusion over its closure, it spits out another puzzle as to whether a planned $1,000 annual membership fee to visit the island will, in effect, put it out of reach of tourists.
State-owned news agency Antara reported that the government’s decision not to close Komodo, instead limit its number of tourists, was made at a meeting in Jakarta on Monday discussing the management of Komodo National Park. It was attended by Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, Tourism Minister Arief Yahya, and East Nusa Tenggara Governor Viktor Laiskodat.
Komodo Island is part of the UNESCO-listed Komodo National Park, a cluster of islands in East Nusa Tenggara that includes Rinca Island, Padar Island, and numerous other smaller islands.
As reported by Skift, the local governor Laiskodat made a premature announcement in November last year that the island would be closed for one year from January 2020 for rehabilitation when, actually, no decision to close had been made. The meeting on Monday found there was no threat of a decline in Komodo dragons on the island from tourism or illegal poaching of the animals and their predators.
Laiskodat was also unforgettable for his alleged remarks at the time on plans to raise park entrance fees to at least $500 for international visitors, and upwards of $50,000 for cruise ships entering the park. “Only people with deep pockets are allowed to [see the Komodo dragons]. Those who don’t have the money shouldn’t visit the park since it specifically caters to extraordinary people,” he allegedly said.
The proposed fee hike appears to have become higher than sky-high. A BBC report claimed that the environment ministry and local governor had agreed at the meeting to a membership system that would now be introduced at a cost of $1,000.
Currently, locals pay as little as 35 cents (5,000 rupiah), while visitors $10.50 (150,000 rupiah).
Antara, however, only reported discussions of an annual membership without details of fees. Two types of membership, premium and non-premium, will be introduced. Those holding the premium can visit Komodo Island, while those holding non-premium will be directed to other islands such as Rinca where they can also see Komodo dragons. It did not state the fees for the two types of membership.
At press time, Skift was unable to reach the environment ministry and Laiskodat about the fee structure. The environment ministry has not even updated its website that still says a decision to close Komodo Island would only be made by end of the year.
Inbound agencies are wringing their hands in frustration.
“We are totally clueless,” said Asian Trails Indonesia’s managing director, Björn Schimanski.
Panorama Destination’s CEO, Renato Domini, echoed, “I am, like probably everyone else, profoundly confused with this current situation.”
A lack of clarity surrounds the fee. Never mind the high sum, which is puzzling enough, but will it be only for Komodo Island or will also cover Rinca Island? Will locals continue to be charged next to nothing, even though they comprise 50 percent of visitors? “So far no clear information,” said Schimanski.
“This — once again — is exactly what we do not need for the destination. We certainly will receive cancellations,” he added.
Asked whether all this is about conservation or money, Panorama’s Domini believes it has to do with the local government wanting a portion of the income from park fees, which now go directly to the central government, to be distributed back to the local government in East Nusa Tenggara.
“A possible solution is for the local government to levy an additional tax per traveler wanting to visit the national park, however, not $1,000 or $500,” said Domini.
Antara reported the government intends to build “a world-class infrastructure for nature tourism” and a Komodo Research Center on the island.
Right now, the island is anything but world class and it is doubtful if a high-cost membership fee will help its premium ambitions.
“I would be positive if this kind of idea came from a reputable organization that would effectively invest the funds from the membership fee in maintenance, training and conservation efforts. However, it’s unclear how much of the membership fee funds will revert to the national park,” said Gonzalo Maceda, vice president of development of Melia Hotels International, a major player in Indonesia.
Maceda is looking for opportunities to plant a flag on Labuan Bajo, the entry point to Komodo National Park, but believes the park needs proper management. The first five-star resort in Labuan Bajo, Ayana Komodo Resort, opened in September last year.
“I have visited Labuan Bajo/Komodo on several occasions, and my personal opinion is that it’s a destination that lacks proper management,” said Maceda. “Anybody who has walked around Labuan Bajo before boarding the boat for Komodo will notice the lack of organization, cleanliness and hygiene in the area. Boats lack security measures, comfort and English-speaking personnel. I don’t think a $1,000 access tax will solve those problems.”
Besides, tourists visit Komodo only once and would hardly be back in the same year. “Current visits to Komodo last two hours and are poorly organized. Is it worth it to pay that amount of money for two hours?” he said.
In not so many words — as good as closed.
This article was updated to include comments from Asian Trails Indonesia’s managing director, Björn Schimanski, and Panorama Destination’s CEO, Renato Domini.