Eco-tourism in eastern Indonesia – an education and training opportunity for Australia?

At Indonesia Australia Business Week in March 2017 a prominent Indonesian figure highlighted Australia’s ‘taste and style’ as its unique point of difference as a partner and investor in Indonesia. This is perhaps nowhere more poignant than in the tourism sector, given Australia’s culture of and expertise in developing sustainable eco-tourism in pristine natural environments off the beaten track. This is a good match for the remote beauty of eastern Indonesia, with marine wonderlands like Wakatobi, Raja Ampat and Komodo, and surfers’ getaways like Rote or Sumba. 

With the Indonesian Government’s flagship tourism investment the ‘10 new Balis’ currently being rolled out, Australia is well placed, with strong academic credentials, to assist in supporting feasibility studies and developing destination management strategies. One academic looking at sustainable tourism in eastern Indonesia is UTS senior lecturer Dr Campbell Drake. Our paths crossed out of a mutual interest in the sector and the role Australia could play in its development.

Over the last three years, Drake has been undertaking a study of sustainable tourism in eastern Indonesia mapping the extent of tourism development on the islands of Rote (West Timor), Sumba and in and around the town of Labuan Bajo in Flores. The study explores how urbanisation affects island environments in Indonesia and seeks to identify sustainable design strategies for tourism infrastructure that can help to preserve and protect the pristine natural environments of these remote regions.

Labuan Bajo sunset. (Credit: Paul Arps. Some rights reserved.

Largely undertaken with assistance from undergraduate students from the UTS School of Design, the study has involved exotic field trips to some beautiful places and even more luxurious resorts. But his research also touches on the potential contribution to community development of this kind of tourism.

This work is timely given that Labuan Bajo is well on the way to becoming one of Indonesia’s premiere tourism destinations. The Indonesian Ministry for Tourism is also planning to open a training centre offering undergraduate diplomas in hospitality, tourism and eco-tourism, with student enrolments to begin in late 2018. Vocational education in hospitality seems a natural fit for Australia’s engagement in eastern Indonesia, and while many Indonesian students travel to Australia to study these skills, there is also room for Australian providers to offer similar courses on-shore in eastern Indonesia. There are other examples of international education initiatives, such as on the nearby island of Sumba, where the Sumba Hospitality Foundation was opened in 2016 by Belgian philanthropists to provide young people of Sumba vocational training for the growing hospitality sector.

The tourism industry in eastern Indonesia has great potential to bring economic development, skills training and other benefits to local communities, but of course it also carries risks of unsustainable demands on environmental resources. The challenge is to manage the growing demand for tourism services in this beautiful part of the world – including from the fast-growing Indonesian middle class. Australia with its commitment to sustainable tourism development could play a greater role in ensuring the positive side of this story is realised.  There is a business case for this as well, with Australian tourism and training institutions well placed to benefit from deeper links with this part of the world.

Violet Rish is a Senior Research Officer with the Australia-Indonesia Centre.