People, Prosperity, Planet, Asia Pacific, Inclusive Growth

An indigenous village navigates its ecotourism success

Sarah Hucal | Aug 09, 2018


This article was originally published by Mongabay and is republished with permission.

  • The village of Wae Rebo on Indonesia’s Flores Island is inhabited by 1,200 residents from the Manggarai indigenous group.
  • Wae Rebo began its dalliance with ecotourism in 2007 with the help of Indonesian ecotourism NGO Indecon. By 2016, it was already recording 6,000 annual visitors — as many as 50 or more per day — despite the seven-hour drive and three-hour hike required to reach it from the nearest town.
  • As its popularity as a destination grows, there are concerns that the community’s traditions and way of life could be sacrificed in the process.
  • Locals interviewed for this story expressed a general satisfaction with the economic stability that tourism revenue has brought. The one recurring complaint was about the quality of the interactions between visitors and residents.

Reaching the village of Wae Rebo on Indonesia’s Flores Island requires a seven-hour drive down rugged jungle roads from the port town of Labuan Bajo. At the edge of the village of Kombo, motorcycle taxis whiz tourists to a trailhead, where they hike three hours up a mountain. Passing stunning views of the jungle valley and the ocean and leading travelers over a bamboo bridge, the trail meanders through a forest interspersed with ripening coffee trees. Finally, it gives way to a stunning sight: the village of Wae Rebo. Nestled into a mountain valley 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) above sea level, its seven conical houses are tipped with mist from passing clouds.

While the journey may sound challenging, it doesn’t dissuade an average of 50 tourists from making it every day. Arriving anywhere from the late morning until the late evening, visitors from all over the world sleep on simple woven mats in the five-story-tall cone-shaped “drum houses,” called mbaru niangin the Tombo Manggarai language. They are free to explore the village grounds and chat with locals before sitting down to a traditional dinner, all for the equivalent of about $24 a night.

The village of 1,200 inhabitants began its dalliance with ecotourism in 2007 and by 2016 it was already recording 6,000 annual visitors. The rapid tourism growth is almost as spectacular as the locals’ apparent acceptance of it, considering that the first recorded outsider to visit came just three decades ago, in 1984. As its popularity as a destination grows, there are concerns that the community’s traditions and way of life could be sacrificed in the process, as can happen when an influx of tourists enters a small community.

A local in a traditional garment sits outside a drum house in Wae Rebo. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism offers an alternative to mass tourism that can help locals prosper financially while fostering intercultural exchange. Tourism is a major industry in Indonesia; the island of Bali, for example, hosted more than 5 million tourists last year. Based on Bali’s success, in 2017 President Joko Widodo presented a “10 New Balis” plan to increase tourism around the country. The main city on Flores Island, Labuan Bajo, is among the 10 sites, meaning tourism to Wae Rebo, its closest ecotourism village, will likely continue to increase.

Ecotourism can allow communities to generate income without relying on natural resource extraction, which can harm the environment if overdone. In Wae Rebo, agriculture and ecotourism work side by side. Residents of the village have traditionally relied on coffee production as a primary source of income. They harvest and process the crop, before carrying it on their backs down the mountain to nearby markets. But with unpredictable weather in recent years, the harvest wasn’t enough to keep the community afloat. In the early 2000s, Martin Anggu, a Manggarai local who now runs a guesthouse in the nearby village of Denge, approached Indonesian ecotourism NGO Indecon with the idea of patching up Wae Rebo’s two ailing drum houses and building five new ones, introducing ecotourism in the process.

“He told me the community was quite frustrated with the economic situation because their agriculture isn’t really enough to support them,” Indecon’s Ary S. Suhandi, who has worked with the village from the outset, told Mongabay.

A series of high-level meetings followed in Jakarta, and eventually Jakarta-based architect Yori Antar took on the building component of the project. With input from locals, his team built five new drum houses with funding from private donors, including French water company Danone. In 2012, the village received a UNESCO Cultural Heritage award, further putting it on the map.

Tourists and locals chat. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Ripening coffee along the path to Wae Rebo. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

A cooking group prepares a meal. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Ludovikus Damput. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

A Belgian tourist looks on as locals grind coffee. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Tourists relax at Wae Rebo. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Tourists pose with a local child. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

The village of Wae Rebo. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Vilomina Ursula weaves a sarong under a drum house. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

An elderly woman tends drying coffee. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

A tourist from Jakarta poses with the Indonesian flag. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Indecon, which had already helped nine other villages in Flores introduce ecotourism, guided the villagers through the process at the beginning and offered counsel when they requested it. The mountain path was made more accessible, Indecon offered tourism-management lessons, and the villagers set up working groups to cook meals for tourists, maintain the grounds, and continue with agricultural activities.

“We never wanted tourism to take [the] place of agriculture; they have to go hand in hand,” said Suhandi. His team also focused on a slow tourism growth model for Wae Rebo: “We realize that if business is too booming, it will backfire for the culture.” Today, Indecon advises on ecotourism operations and a small council of Wae Rebo residents controls the revenue from tourism, as they have done from the beginning.

That the village was groomed for ecotourism does not seem to bother many of the inhabitants, including Kassius Manie, a 26-year-old from Wae Rebo who is one of several people responsible for managing tourists.

“The old houses were not good enough to live in and rebuilding them is so expensive, so we were lucky when some organizations and Indonesian architects came here and said ‘this is perfect for ecotourism,’” he told Mongabay. “We needed some help from people and at that time, people came to help us. It’s a lucky place.”

The drum houses are undeniably unique. Made of palm thatch, the 15-meter-high (50-foot) buildings are each home to six to eight families who live side by side, as they have done for centuries, in small adjacent rooms separated by curtains for privacy. Families share the large hearth built into the center of the floor, and sacred drums hang above it — the medium to communicate with the ancestral spirits. Each house has five floors, each with a specific purpose. The second floor, for instance, is used to store food and supplies, and the fifth is reserved for offerings to the spirits. Two houses in the village have been designated specifically for tourists.

Local children check out a drone. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

During an early Sunday afternoon visit, the village was unusually quiet. Many of the residents live between Wae Rebo and its sister village of Kombo at the base of the mountain, where schools and other facilities are located. On this particular day, there was a school celebration and most people had traveled down to attend it.

Sitting under the scorching sun in a traditional Manggarai sarong paired with a faded red T-shirt, middle-aged villager Lodovikus Damput said tourism had benefitted Wae Rebo. “It’s had so many positive effects on the community. We used to have simple wooden homes before and now we have only a few houses that are not in very good condition,” said Damput. Villagers who do not live in the drum houses reside in basic homes financed by ecotourism revenue.

The money generated from tourism means the community can rely less on government support and send their children to school, added Damput’s friend, Kobus Lori Bai.

In addition to the fee for a one-night stay, tourists also contribute a small symbolic amount — $1 or $2 — during the welcome ceremony given by “Papa” Alex, the 90-year-old village chief, who gives a prayer to the spirits of the ancestors when each visitor arrives. All the revenue goes into the fund managed by community members, who put it toward maintaining the houses and grounds, funding children’s education through university, building new houses in Kombo and maintaining a pension for the elderly.

Papa Alex, the oldest of Wae Rebo’s three chiefs. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

“I have two children at university, so I’m very happy the foundation can support them or help build roads, for example” Lori Bai said. “It’s possible now.” Notably, neither man appeared to be at all annoyed by having their photos taken — in fact, they seemed to enjoy it.

The relaxed afternoon is rare for Damput, Lori Bai and their families. Like most residents, they harvest coffee daily. Coffee production remains each family’s main source of income, although locals also farm other crops like cinnamon and yams. “The last two years were very bad for coffee production because of the climate,” said Lori Bai. “But at the same time, we were lucky enough to have cinnamon.”

Both men spoke at length about the help they received in improving their coffee production methods and the quality of their beans, another benefit of the ecotourism project organized with Indecon. Thanks to attention placed on Wae Rebo through ecotourism, a group of coffee distributors from West Java now purchases beans directly from the village. Tourists can purchase beans from the families during their stay. 

If Wae Rebo residents expressed one recurring complaint about the influx of tourists it was about the quality of the interactions between visitors and residents. Damput and Lori Bai said they wished tourists would take more time to talk to them and learn about the village, not simply snap selfies. Working occasionally as porters, Lori Bai and Damput see the value of tourist guides who can explain the local rules and customs to visitors. Moments earlier, they watched as a small group of tourists walked up a hill and right onto a poorly marked sacred burial site they likely had no idea was off-limits. Lori Bai looked on, solemnly.

Tourists pose with a resident of Wae Rebo. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

As the day continued, the tranquil atmosphere was replaced with an air of chaos as a steady stream of tourists trickled in. By early evening, the lawn was covered with selfie stick-wielding visitors. A Chinese guest launched a compact drone while a group from Jakarta posed with the Indonesian flag on the steps of a drum house. Many doled out candy to the local children, who began to swarm around them impatiently, their little hands outstretched. Others asked to take a picture with Papa Alex, a request he seemed genuinely happy to grant. Around dusk, a rousing game of volleyball began, played by an evenly mixed group of tourists and locals. Yet even amid the carnival-like atmosphere, the villagers this reporter spoke to expressed little discontent.

“A lot has changed since tourists started to come to the village,” said Vilomina Ursula, a young mother who took a break from weaving a midnight-blue songketsarong in the shade of one of the drum houses to chat. “We can send our children to school and we also have a lot to do, like cooking for the guests, working with coffee and weaving,” she said. In April, she had joined a working group to make crispy taro chips with honey and chili for sale to tourists.

Vilomina Ursula and her child. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Yet, as a mother, she expressed concern about the way guests interacted with her children. “We are worried so much about the kids when they play with tourists. Some tourists spin the kids around by their arms and by night they feel sick and have to go to the shaman to have a special treatment,” she said. It was certainly alarming to see the ways in which some tourists threw the children into the air or picked them up as if they were their own.

Ursula said she wished tourists would give candy for the children to the village’s adults, who could then determine when the kids received it. “When tourists give candies, the children come with a huge group and they can have aggressive behavior, tugging on the tourist’s clothes,” she said. “We want children to collect rubbish and receive a candy reward, for example.”

Marcela Arita Sual belongs to one of the rotating cooking groups of nine people who prepare food for tourists. It’s a paid job, supported by tourism income, and one she is happy to have. She also weaves sarongs, a side business that has been booming since the tourists arrived.

Yet she shares Ursula’s concerns about strangers playing with her children and giving them candy, describing the situation as “out of control.”

“There should be more information for the tourists so they know how we locals feel,” she said.

Children line up to receive candy from a tourist. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

Later that evening, her cooking group seemed unprepared to feed the 107 people who had arrived at the village that day. A group of 20 Vietnamese tourists arrived close to 9 p.m. as dinner was being cleared away, presenting a challenge for the cooking crew. The town lacks phone and internet connections, so there is no reservation system and no way to predict how many people will arrive each day. Latecomers pose a problem.

“What happened last night was beyond our expectations and we had to do the best we could,” said another member of the cooking group, Meri Emiliana Luhur, the next morning. Luhur, however, feels the number of tourists should not be limited. “We are OK with many people; they just need to arrive earlier,” she said.

Manie, the 26-year old local, sitting cross-legged next to the women in the cooking area, agreed that there was a disconnect when it came to informing tourists about how to behave in the village; ecotourism is still largely a process of trial and error for the villagers. “We are still building the system,” he said.

Kassius Manie. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.

“We have an orientation [program] when people arrive, but it’s difficult if people cannot speak English or Indonesian,” he said, adding “there are always misunderstandings.” He said the village was considering adding a satellite dish to support a reservation system.

When it comes to preserving their culture, for Manie there is no choice: “Many of us are very open; it makes our culture strong. We say, the people come here because of the culture, so we must keep it, because if the culture is gone, the houses are also gone.”

Manie said he felt strongly that Wae Rebo’s ecotourism should continue to be led by its inhabitants. “If someone came from outside, they might try to change things” he said. And anyway, he added, “now it’s up to the younger generation to preserve our culture.”

A puppy poses with coffee beans. Image by Sarah Hucal for Mongabay.


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