Would you pay $1,000 to see the largest lizards in the world?

Padar Island, Indonesia — Tourists arrive by boat, ready to climb 900 steps to the summit of remote Padar Island for the reward of sunrise: a sweeping spectacle of turquoise coves that set off white-sand beaches. In the distance, they can see Komodo Island, where the world’s largest lizard, the fearsome Komodo dragon, roams freely, evoking the age of dinosaurs.

This is one of the most dramatic scenes that Indonesia has to offer. But for many potential visitors, it has become much more expensive.

The Indonesian government plans to raise entrance fees for the most iconic parts of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site made up of 29 islands, including the five that house the endangered dragon. New price: $1,000 for a group of one to four visitors, up from $10 for foreigners and 32 cents for Indonesians.

The surprise announcement of the fee hike in late July led tourism workers to strike; Street protests involved 1,000 people; and a flurry of tourist cancellations in Labuan Bajo, a coastal town on the northwest tip of Flores Island that serves as the park’s starting point.

It is also one of several controversies stemming from the government’s efforts to boost tourism, which before the pandemic made up 5% of the economy. Some say the move to make a quick comeback by raising prices in Komodo – the crown jewel of the national park system – has backfired, and pushed Indonesia’s thriving tourism industry to the brink of collapse.

“If there were no tourists, I wouldn’t make any money,” said Ariansyah, a guide on Komodo Island who, like many Indonesians, uses one name and has joined the protests against the new fees. “Everyone is against increasing the ticket price because it will destroy our livelihood.”

In 2016, in a bid to expand Indonesia’s tourism industry, the country’s president, Joko Widodo, launched a campaign to create a “Ten New Bali” and improve existing tourist destinations while evoking the charms of Bali, the country’s main attraction. The program involved a large number of development projects across Indonesia, including in Labuan Bajo.

The selected sites were all places where the government hopes increased public and private investment in new airports, ports and hotels will help attract more visitors. In some locations, little progress has been made. In other cases, big investors have stepped forward, as has the $3 billion Mandalika project in Lombok, funded in part by the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In Labuan Bajo, the government has expanded the airport and redeveloped the port with new piers and a ceremonial stage. Large new luxury hotels are under construction along the coast.

But despite the pressure to capitalize on Bali’s global reputation, there has been little effort to replicate its motto “Eat, Pray, Love”. In Mandalika, for example, the government has created a coastal motorbike racing track for major motorcycle races. A large statue of Mr. Goku on a speeding motorbike greets guests at the entrance.

Many of the projects have faced resistance from the local population.

At Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, the largest crater lake in the world, residents protested the seizure of farmland to build new roads. On the island of Lombok, civil society organizations said thousands of people were forcibly expelled from their ancestral lands without adequate compensation to make way for Project Mandalika.

At Borobudur on the island of Java, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, a push to increase entrance fees to about $50 for Indonesians and $100 for foreigners has met fierce opposition, prompting Mr Joko to scrap that plan.

The government says its proposal to charge a higher entrance fee to Komodo Park was essential to conservation efforts. But environmentalists argue that government development plans pose the greatest threat to the islands.

When tourism workers went on strike and took to the streets of Labuan Bajo in July and August to protest the fee increase, many foreign visitors cut short their flights and fled, heading to the airport under police and military escorts as protection from unrest. At the same time, tourists around the world have canceled hotel reservations for the next year.

“We walked down the street shouting, ‘Reduce the ticket price,’” said the tour guide, Ragwansah, as he admired the view of Padar Island from a popular photo-op location. His T-shirt, inspired by the protests, depicted a Komodo dragon dressed as a government official and clutching a bag full of money. .

The fee increase was originally scheduled to go into effect on August 1, but unrest prompted officials to delay it until January 1. However, during what should have been peak tourist season, many of the hotels in Labuan Bajo are virtually empty, while dozens of tour boats lie idle and the once-busy tourist street is largely deserted.

The setback came just as the tourism industry was improving. “We had a lot of bookings for 2023, but now we don’t have any,” said Alif Khenifi, General Manager of Silvia Komodo Resort and Secretary General of the East Nusa Tenggara Province Hotel Managers Association.

Sandiaga Ono, Indonesia’s tourism minister, said the government is considering delaying price increases further.

The fee increase is the brainchild of Victor Laiscodate, the governor of East Nusa Tenggara, who said he was inspired by previous conservation work with wild Sumatran tigers.

“If she is of extraordinary beauty,” he said, “then you have to pay more.” Tickets will be valid for a year but will not be sold individually. He said even single travelers must pay the full $1,000.

He noted that tourists can still pay the park’s low fee and see Komodo dragons on Rinca Island at a newly built observatory dubbed Jurassic Park. But there, dragons only appear from a distance and the site receives few visitors.

He argued that the park was poorly managed and that more resources were needed for scientific research, stopping illegal hunting and preventing poaching of deer to be eaten by dragons, among other conservation efforts.

But environmentalists said the real problem was a plan to build hotels in the park, which they said could harm habitat and endanger the 3,300 dragons living in the wild.

More than half are found on Komodo Island, the most popular place to see dragons.

On a recent visit, nine dragons lounging near the park’s main entrance seemed unfazed by the humans hovering around taking pictures. The guides accompanying the tourists stood by with long sticks to fend off any dragons who got too close.

The Indonesian Environment Forum, a prominent environmental group known by its Indonesian acronym, Lahi, said the national government has issued permits to four companies allowing them to build tourism facilities in the park.

“The government is causing the problem but they are blaming the tourists,” said Ombu Paranji, the group’s executive director in East Nusa Tenggara.

The province – in a deal it struck with the national government – set up a company, PT. Flobamor, to collect revenue from the park and take over six oceanfront sites, totaling 1,750 acres, for training and other administrative functions. The company will also have authority over which tour operators can operate in the Komodo Padar area, which will become the most lucrative in the park. Tour guides will be required to register with Flobamor to do business there.

Tour operators assert that the company seeks to dominate the tourism sector in the region, at the expense of the local population.

“Flopamore will provide big ships for tourists, and small agencies will die slowly,” said PT. Putu Iwan Pratama, one of the owners of Jaya Komodo Tours, which organizes boat trips to the park.

After the fee increase was announced, he and his owners closed their store and joined the protests. “The government doesn’t care about us,” he said.

Dera Minra Segwang contributed reporting.

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