Resty Woro Yuniar – Tourists to Indonesia's iconic Komodo National Park will have to shell out nearly US$250 (S$349) from next month, instead of US$10, to see the deadly wild and endangered Komodo 'dragons' up close, as Jakarta grapples with promoting the tourism sector post-pandemic while trying to safeguard the environment.
The more expensive tickets will allow people to visit as many times as they like in a year, instead of once, although the annual number of visitors will be restricted to 200,000, down from around 300,000, the government said.
Located in East Nusa Tenggara, the nation's southernmost province, the park – a protected site for decades – is the natural habitat of the dragons, the world's largest and heaviest lizards. They are not found anywhere else in the world, except in zoos.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are only about 1,380 adult Komodo dragons and 2,000 juveniles left in the wild – all in the national park – down from 5,000-8,000 some 25 years ago. The organisation warns that the dragons' habitat is likely to dwindle by at least 30 per cent in the next 45 years.
Often around three metres long, the creatures, which have been known to kill humans, have roamed the region for millions of years and are known for their poisonous venom and acute sense of smell.
The park includes the main islands of Komodo, Padar and Rinca as well as 26 smaller ones, with breathtaking views of sprawling green hills, free-roaming deer and pink sandy beaches. The surrounding waters are famed for being snorkelling and diving hotspots.
Tourists typically hire boats for a day trip to the islands from the nearby fishing town of Labuan Bajo, about 45km away, or join a multiple-day cruise from Bali or Lombok.
While tourists currently pay around US$10 in park admission fees, a mammoth price hike was announced this week by Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno. His announcement was met by a mixed reaction at home and abroad.
He said the new 3.75 million rupiah (S$350) entrance fee will allow tourists to visit the park as often as they like in a 12-month period and will contribute to the local government's efforts to maintain the ecosystem, including waste management and ensuring a good supply of food and water for the dragons.
Tourists will be given souvenirs made by local craftsmen too, he said, also telling reporters on Monday (July 18) that the government was "quite confident" the policy would attract more tourists "as they will appreciate our conservation efforts and our attempts to develop other tourist destinations in East Nusa Tenggara".
Jakarta has chosen Labuan Bajo, including the Komodo National Park, as one of its five top priority tourist destinations, alongside Borobodur Temple in central Java, the resort island of Likupang in North Sulawesi, sports tourism spot Mandalika in West Nusa Tenggara, and idyllic Lake Toba in North Sumatra.
The number of tourists to the national park will be limited to a maximum of 200,000 people per year to ensure a "positive impact to the [development] of quality and sustainable creative economy in Labuan Bajo and Flores", the minister said.
"There is an urgency now to implement the limitation [of number of visitors] so that we will not regret it later. Some people told us that there are many [trip] cancellations already, but I think if we re-engage them I believe we can change their minds," Sandi added.
The new entrance fee to Komodo National Park will be effective on Aug 1, he concluded.
Conservation vs tourism
This is not the first time Indonesia has tried to tinker with the admission fee to the national park, which became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991.
In 2019, local authorities made international headlines after they said tourists would have to pay US$1,000 per year for so-called premium memberships, allowing them annual access to the entire park, while non-premium memberships, with the fee unknown at the time, would allow access to all islands except the main Komodo Island.
Also in 2019, the province's governor suggested that the park would close for a year due to a decrease in the number of dragons, which live for about 30 years, and the animals they eat. None of the plans have ever materialised.
However, conservation remains Jakarta's biggest concern when it comes to the park, as mass tourism and trafficking threaten the lizards' survival.
Indonesian police arrested members of a smuggling ring in 2019 and seized five Komodo dragons and other endangered animals being sold on Facebook, with a price tag of US$1,400 for each dragon.
In 2020, a viral photo of a dragon in a stand-off with a truck renewed a backlash over a plan to create a Jurassic-Park style amusement park in the area, which will allow visitors to walk around indoors to see the lizards, instead of watching them roam freely in the wild.
In July last year, Unesco issued a letter asking the Indonesian government to "temporarily halt" the project and submit a revised environmental impact assessment to be reviewed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is made up of government and civil society organisations.
Despite that, the authorities said last Aug that the scheme would continue as it would have "no impact" on the Komodos' habitat and it opened in Dec.
Now, there are mixed reactions to plans to hike the national park's entrance fee.
Instagram user Ningtyas Kurnia Saputri asked whether tourists would get a full refund if they cancelled their plans to visit due to the new fee.
"I'm a domestic tourist with limited budget that has paid for a 3 day, 2 night boat trip [to the park] for 3.7 million rupiah this August. Are we going to get a full refund, considering we have to pay another 3.7 million rupiah just to enter the park?" she said.
"We have no intention to destroy Labuan Bajo and the Komodo National Park. Why don't you just fully close the park, turning it into a conservation park? Don't turn it into a super priority tourist destination."
Another user, Ansi Semadi, a tourist guide in Flores, an island about 180km east of Komodo Island, accused the minister of being "greedy".
"You are slowly killing us, local entrepreneurs that are still trying to recover our financial state," he said.
But Twitter user @dramateque said she would not mind paying more to support conservation efforts.
"Letting nature rest and breathe from the stream of tourists coming is super important and I'm glad something's being done about it. Just worried that the price is too high that people won't want to come to these regions at all," she said.
"Honestly, at this point I'll take anything that makes Indonesia look like it cares about its nature instead of only being in the headlines for deforestation, pollution or mining."
Harris Zainul, an analyst at Kuala Lumpur-based think tank Institute of Strategic and International Studies, had an approach the government could take in response to the controversy.
"Always tough to balance between making more money to support conservation and making these dragons accessible to the people. Increasing entry price helps with the first but at the expense of the second. Tiered rates for nationals and foreigners are one way to address this, though," he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post: https://www.asiaone.com/source/south-china-morning-post