Save Pulau Pari: the risks of increased tourism in the ASEAN region

WRITTEN BY HWEI-SEE KAY

Two hours by ferry from the bustling Big Durian, Jakarta, is Pulau Pari (Pari Island). Pulau Pari is located in the Thousand Islands regency, a popular weekend destination for those looking to escape Jakarta and an area that has been earmarked by the Indonesian government as one of the ‘ten new Balis’. This tourism plan aims to improve infrastructure and access to 10 tourist destinations across Indonesia through initiatives such as building new docks, upgrading airports and creating special economic zones to attract foreign investors.

As visitors disembark at the port in Pulau Pari, it is easy to be focused on getting to the beautiful, calm beaches on the island or finding the next boat to snorkelling spots in the area. At the end of the day, the sunset at Pantai Perawan is breathtaking and looks like the sky is on fire. But a quick look around at the dock or the beaches, or a conversation with someone local to the island will reveal the trouble faced by residents of Pulau Pari in light of increased tourism in the area.

There are signs on the beach, painted onto boats and printed onto t-shirts that say things like:

‘Tanah untuk rakyat’ (the land is for the people), ‘Tanah milik rakyat, bukan korporasi’ (the land is owned by the people, not a corporation) and ‘Kami pribumi bukan lah turis di pulau kami? Selamat kan pulau kami’ (We are native not tourists to our island, right? Save our island).

These are linked to the Save Pulau Pari coalition, a group formed to advocate for the rights of Pulau Pari residents who have had both their land rights and their physical liberty infringed upon by corporate interests on the island. Land title disputes arose on Pulau Pari when a corporation claimed title to almost ninety per cent of the island. The disputes arose because most of the citizens of Pulau Pari do not have official land title documents although some of the residents have lived there for seven generations.

Furthermore, criminalisation of community members occurred with residents being arrested and imprisoned for conducting activities such as charging a small entry fee to beaches on the island, a common practice at Indonesian tourist spots. There was wide speculation that the arrests and imprisonment were a method of intimidation to discourage further activism for land rights.

The residents of Pulau Pari have successfully advocated for their rights. With free legal representation from LBH Jakarta (Indonesia’s oldest legal aid organisation), they successfully challenged the process of the corporation gaining land titles and the National Ombudsman declaring that the process involved maladministration. They also successfully challenged the imprisonment of several residents who were eventually released.

The Save Pulau Pari coalition continues to pursue rights to the land they have lived on and cultivated for generations but their experience is just one of many examples of the risks of increased tourism in the ASEAN region. Other risks include over-dependency on income from tourism and environmental harms. Severe damage to the environment caused popular spots such as Boracay in the Philippines and Maya Bay in Thailand to be closed to tourists to allow the environment to recover. Lack of regulation on tourism in these areas led to raw sewage flowing from hotels and restaurants into the sea, destruction of marine life by pollution, and garbage build-up.

Increased accessibility, interest and economic growth in ASEAN countries alongside the unique landscapes in the region has already meant a steady increase in tourism. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the Asia and Pacific region has grown the fastest in international tourist arrivals since 2005. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Asia and the Pacific reached 323 million, around a quarter of the world’s total international tourists.

There are existing mechanisms through which sustainable and ethical tourism can be implemented in the ASEAN region such as the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016-2025 that states the vision for tourism in the region:

“By 2025, ASEAN will be a quality tourism destination offering a unique, diverse ASEAN experience, and will be committed to responsible, sustainable, inclusive and balanced tourism development, so as to contribute significantly to the socioeconomic well-being of ASEAN people.”

The plan has two strategic directions:  

  1. enhance the competitiveness of ASEAN as a single tourism destination
    • including a co-ordinated marketing plan, implementing the ASEAN Tourism Standards for facilities, services and destinations, and improving connectivity between countries.
  2. ensure that ASEAN tourism is sustainable and inclusive
    • including improving community participation, prioritize protection and management of heritage sites, and increase responsiveness to environmental protection and climate change.

Another mechanism is the ASEAN Tourism Standards, which aim to create a certification system to ensure sustainable tourism through standards such as the Green Hotel Standard, Clean Tourist City Standard and Community Based Tourism Standard. Some of these standards, including the community-based tourism standard is supported by comprehensive explanation of what criteria should be satisfied to meet the standard. Currently, the ASEAN Tourism Standards operate on a recognition and awards system with ongoing work to create a certification system.

Whilst there are barriers to fully implementing systems to ensure sustainable and ethical tourism in the ASEAN region, these mechanisms demonstrate that significant work has occurred, at least at the bureaucratic level, to ensure that the impacts of tourism are positive. These documents clearly identify what high-quality, sustainable tourism looks like and ASEAN governments should aim to ensure their own, national tourism strategies are in line with the strategy and standards.

The closure of Borocay and Maya Bay, and the experience of Pulau Pari residents in light of corporatisation are just a few out of many examples of the negative impacts of tourism that goes unchecked and unregulated by governments until it’s too late. The work conducted by ASEAN on sustainable tourism practices needs to be continued by national governments to ensure that ‘responsible, sustainable, inclusive and balanced tourism development’ is achieved.

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