What used to be a quieter alternative to Bali, Labuan Bajo is on its way to becoming the next top visited destination in Indonesia.
Tragedies have a way of redemption through rediscoveries. Talks of an alternate to Bali began in right earnest after a suicide bomber killed over 200 in a packed nightclub in Kuta in 2002. It didn’t take long for many to make a beeline to Labuan Bajo in Flores island, a shanty beachside town in Indonesia slogging its way up the respectability and popularity ladder.
Fish wholesale was the economy’s backbone; the local fish market here is still an eye-opener to the astounding diversity and generosity of the sea. I strolled around gaping at the largest varieties of fish I had ever seen under one roof; the dried ones grinned back at me. The pace of development has picked up in the last few years with most of it restricted to the area around the promenade and the flanking street, Soekarno Hatta.
‘Bajo Dive’ is one of the oldest establishments where I met Patris, a diving instructor. The rising prospects of Bajo impelled his move from Bali a few years ago. “But I don’t want Bajo to be the next Bali,” he said. “I moved here because Bajo was ‘not’ Bali.” I wanted Patris to tell me more about the ‘not Bali’ bit of Labuan Bajo but by then the group he was taking diving to the Pink Islands arrived.
Donnie Pramaffandi took me a bit forward with that. The spiffy Donnie, who works with Kalstar Aviation, said he hoped Bajo remained the quiet and rusty town it was always. But from the ground it was pretty clear that the chances of Labuan Bajo remaining so was thin. “There are large investments happening here by Italians and Australians mostly fronted by locals,” revealed Kasim Mambut, proprietor of the Ayo Mandiri Foundation where the blind are trained to be masseurs. “And these investors are in a hurry to make their monies that they don’t care about the locals or the environment.”
Tourist arrivals in 2013 was 54,147 — a number projected to grow ten times by 2019. Readying the necessary infrastructure will take $1.2 billion of which private investments are expected to form a large chunk. One fallout of this, besides the ever-expanding land fill, are the haphazard constructions that are coming up around the bay area adhering to no safety and environment norms. Putting on his ‘professor’ avatar (the others are ‘popular’ or ‘profane’ depending on how you look at it) Wally, who runs the Tree Top Bar with his son Mathews close to the Labuan Bajo harbour, warns that if it was a bomb in Bali, it will be a natural calamity in Bajo.
I had to point out that despite what his friends said about him, he was unusually silent for a long while. “See, in Bali we have the Nyepi festival where we celebrate a day of silence,” he said standing up to go downstairs. We had run out of beer. “So are you silent on Nyepi?” I asked. “My friend, Bajo can never be Bali.”
Wally had moved here in the ’80s when Bajo, as locals call it, was not even a blip on the tourism map. He had begun his career as a diving instructor in 1976 and came here when his clients began to demand a change of scene from the ever-bustling Bali. “You know, the harbour back then was a small, quaint one with some trees, beneath which were a few benches for passengers and a small harbour master’s office,” he said.
Difficult to believe. as earlier that day I had joked my way around it and found a melee of ferries and freight carriers and fishing boats. I didn’t see a single tree either.
“The entrepreneurs pumping in the money have no respect for the environment — just filling up more and more of the sea with earth levelled out of mountains in the name of development,” he rued.
Thommen is a communications consultant, corporate filmmaker and travel writer