After more than a century of unsparing extraction, Belitung’s glow of shiny tin has begun delegating its allure to beachside hotels and coastal seafood eateries. The “richest island in Indonesia,” as described by Andrea Hirata in his novelized childhood memories, has began taking its long push for tourism into a new stage.
The tin legacy
The abundance of tin ore was first noted in 1851 by the Dutch and to the resentment of the British, who had ceded the island back to the Netherlands in 1812. Following Indonesia’s acknowledged independence in 1949, the Dutch tin mining companies were nationalized into Timah, a state-owned enterprise still in control of most tin operations in Indonesia — including Belitung.
But in 1985, tin ore prices plummeted following the bankruptcy of the International Tin Council, leaving thousands of miners out of work worldwide. Although the effects of the crisis were not as severe in Belitung, it prompted the district to rethink its long-term economic viability.
In 2000, Bangka-Belitung (Babel) became the 31st province of Indonesia alongside Banten and Gorontalo, giving the region more autonomy in areas such as tourism, urban and rural planning, agriculture, as well as mining.
Yet many locals have twisted the meaning of Babel to something else: Babak Belur, or “battered” — referring to the environmental state of the island after decades of ceaseless extraction.
“Mining has destroyed most of the environment, making it difficult for tourism to develop” Herry Suhermanto, former head of Babel’s Regional Development Planning Agency from 2002-2004 said.
According to Herry, the early priorities of the regional government were still dictated by mining interests. “At the time people were still fighting for mining, not [particularly] from the original people, but people coming from other islands and digging up,” he said.
Setting the bases
Herry tried to put forward a more pragmatic approach to the development of Belitung, but many of his proposals, such as better signaling or improvement of roads and transportation, were met with scepticism from the regional government.
“There has to be a balance between environment and economic development. To be self-sustained in a small island is very difficult, you need to have enough land to cultivate, for production … it’s important to flourish on services,” he said.
In his opinion, this balance should be achieved through investment and the guidance of both the state and regional governments, best exemplified by Bali’s success as a prime international tourist destination.
In recent years, a number of hotels and resorts have sprung up in Belitung, attracting several MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions) events as well as sport events, such as the yacht rallies during the Sail Belitung 2011 competition or the 300-kilometer cycling Tour D’Belitung in 2012.
Belitung’s tourism heyday began in 2005 with the release of Andrea’s film “Laskar Pelangi (“The Rainbow Troops”), Indonesia’s bestselling novel and its biggest international literary hit. The film adaptation was well received in cinemas, becoming Indonesia’s highest grossing film ever.
The story, which takes place on the island, follows 10 schoolboys and their inspirational teachers as they struggle to save the school from the mighty and irreverent Timah enterprise. It has prompted many fans to feel the island’s beauty firsthand, and now tours covering the film locations and the newly built Laskar Pelangi Museum have become staples of Belitung’s tourism.
Fame is a factor in rising the input of tourism in the region’s GDP from 1.3 percent in 2007 to 4.8 percent last year.
Yan Megawandi, head of Babel’s Culture and Tourism office until August this year, has for the past five years coordinated the marketing and tourism strategies in the province. “In 2008 we officially incorporated Laskar Pelangi to Belitung’s marketing strategy, it was an initial foothold, but for its popularity to continue we need to think of other things,” he said.
Affordable accommodation, services and its proximity to Jakarta (50 minutes, six daily flights) are the new marketing tenets, followed by diving sites in coral waters and shipwrecks.
To support these initiatives, the island must first find qualified locals able to run them. In this respect, Mr. Yan cites fishermen as a good example, which — if adequately certified – could gain an extra income by taking visitors on boat trips around the island.
But Rusni Budiati, a promotion analyst at the provincial Culture and Tourism Office, fears that “too much promotion” might turn to be “de-marketing” if other aspects have not yet developed.
“Everyone looks so engaged with tourism, but when you actually talk to many top brasses in the local governments in Babel, you would find that they only talk, but not seriously plan their programs in their offices to support tourism development,” she said.
So far the majority of tourists are domestic arrivals but the long-term plan is to attract foreign visitors to inject foreign currency into the island’s economy. Currently, less than 1 percent of guests in Babel’s classified hotels are foreigners.
However this also carries other challenges. “Tourism brings culture, brings attitudes, sometimes mixing culture is not good if [the local residents] are not strong enough to hold the local culture,” Herry warned.
“We need a higher level of services, hotels and public transportation, still inexistent. And if we don’t maintain the land use carefully, there will be flooding; it’s a good time to start thinking about these kinds of issues. The limit will be on the island itself,” he said.(Jakarta Globe)