It was a hot summer long ago when the wide-eyed teens that were me and a couple of pals first landed in Lombok. The father of a mutual friend of ours was working there, and we were invited to tour this little island just next to Bali that was supposed to be more gorgeous than Bali.
Soon we discovered that it had not been a false advertisement, though it was rather too quiet and underdeveloped for a gaggle of Jakarta teenaged girls who were looking for some scene
. But the memory was cherished enough to warrant return trips including last week, when in the full circle of life I played guide to my visiting American friends.
And how surprised I was on how far things had changed since the first time I landed in Lombok in 1992 or the last time I made it to the Gilis in 2004. In particular Gili Terawangan, often Anglicized to Gili Trawangan and called Gili Tra-la-la by foreign tourists having trouble pronouncing it, is no longer the quiet islet once frequented by underwater fans and laidback sunbathers. Being the largest among the trifecta of islets off the Senggigi coastline, Terawangan has always been the most visited compared to Meno and Air, but what I saw last week still stunned me.
A ‘downtown’ strip has materialized, fully dotted by shops, restaurants, bars, minimarkets and ATMs. Divers’ inns have been replaced with different kinds of resort-type lodgings, half of which boast their own private beach. Party music percolated into the waterfront eateries the last night we were staying there.
Doesn’t mean development has no upside. ATMs do come handy when most shops on the islet are mom-and-pops that still prefer cash payments. The main beachside street now circles Gili Terawangan completely, accessible to bikes and carriages. The 30-odd cidomo (horse-drawn mini carriage)owners have managed to form a co-op for repairs, publish fares and establish revenue-sharing plan (2/3 for owner, 1/3 for driver). It’s a cartel, much to the chagrin of free market proponents, but published rates certainly are more convenient for tourists than the previous practice of haggling.
The precarious balance between growth and preservation is eternal as long as the world goes around, and I’m not some sort of melancholic refusnik who frowns upon economic advancements. I’m thrilled that tourism is bustling in main Lombok island and the Gili islets, which means more tax revenues for local governments and income for the residents, but I wonder if the tourism stakeholders in Lombok know there is a balance to maintain, and how to, when the tourist influx keeps getting bigger.
For example, while the new airport in East Lombok, once the main island’s least prosperous regency, has reportedly brought jobs and opened the horizon for its people, and is certainly a better-equipped facility to accommodate visitors, other infrastructure like mass ground transportation seems to have lagged behind. Tourists are mostly carried in chauffeured mini buses and SUVs, while new-moneyed locals scurry around in private vehicles. Water transportation hasn’t really improved in that visitors would only need a little incentive to rent a private speedboat (we did).
Even one of the main tourist attractions that I fondly remembered as a charming hamlet of Sade, showcasing a traditional Sasak community of bygone era, is now littered with plastic trash, chicken droppings and just too many stalls peddling souvenirs that when I saw a young woman quietly working a traditional yarn spinner I felt like I had stumbled into the last gem of Sasak living.
I know that as a visitor I’ve contributed to the growing pains. Heck, after all I’ve been telling everyone that Lombok beaches still boast a charm that Bali’s have largely squandered, yet I’d like to believe that somehow there are enough well-informed, smart, and visionary people on West Nusa Tenggara government and Indonesia’s Tourism Ministry who actually know and care about sustainable tourism that not only offers a living to the current generation but also to future generations. Tourists only come when there’s something unique, endearing and enjoyable to find. They won’t keep coming when the destinations become eerily similar to its competitors. Kuta Beach in Bali is the perfect example of when the spot has been stripped off its genuine identity and commoditized so much that it looks and feels like any other popular touristy beach in the world. Now, do we want that to happen to Lombok’s Kuta Beach or Gili Terawangan?
Before you all heroically stand and shout no, let me tell you this anecdote. I found it curious that traditional Lombok dishes like chicken Taliwang or sambal didn’t feature prominently on the popular eateries at Gili Terawangan and when I inquired the staff told me that, perhaps due to the fantasy of being in an islet, most tourists just wanted seafood in ‘international’ recipes.
The blue-green beaches remain essentially pristine, the islets still offer breathtaking sunrise and sunset views, the pearls are getting international recognition—but I wonder how long the paradisiacal tra-la-la that Lombok has been will last.
As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/05/23/urban-chat-on-terawangan-taliwang-and-tra-la-la.htmlTweet