Over the last few years, the Indonesian government has been working on an ambitious plan, aimed at rapidly growing tourism in ten handpicked locations across the archipelago. Its authors call it ‘Ten New Balis’.
For the doomsayers among you, this title will no doubt evoke visions of foreign developers with dollar signs for eyes rolling into remote palm-lined paradises, ready to dynamite their way through the reefs and bulldoze the pristine jungle to make way for resorts and shopping malls.
To others, it’ll sound something closer to good sense. The perfect way to spread out tourists from Bali’s vastly overcrowded hotspots. Ideal for opening up opportunities for employment and infrastructure in other less developed parts of the country and perhaps even the chance to learn from the mistakes of the past and create better thought out tourist models that put local people, preservation and sustainability at the top of the agenda.
Since it was surfers that kicked off Bali’s tourism boom in the mid-70s, we first figured that these new locations being crafted in its image must be similarly full of surfing riches.
However, a quick scan of a map reveals that of the ten, three are entirely landlocked and another three are blocked from receiving any swell. While these locations are each beguiling in their own ways, counting beautiful beaches, world-class diving spots, a huge majestic lake and one of the easiest to access volcanos in the world among their ranks, for our purposes, we’ve decided to hone on the four that look to have some surfing potential.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a deep dive into each to find out more about the setups, the tourist developments and what it all means for the people that live there.
First up, perhaps the most remote, pristine and wave-rich of the earmarked locations; the beautiful island of Morotai, situated at the top of the Maluku archipelago in northern Indo. Although just over 50 thousand people live on the island, which is roughly the size of Dorset, the densely forested interior remains largely unexplored, even by locals. So much so, in fact, that a Japanese soldier stationed on Morotai during the war managed to live in the jungle completely undetected for almost 30 years, before finally emerging from the wilderness to surrender in 1974.
According to John Callahan, the Bali based photographer and man behind SurfExplore, Morotai is home to a wide array of high-quality surf setups including reefs, beachies and river mouth points scattered down both the island’s east and west coasts, with consistent swells hitting throughout the monsoon season from November to March. And although it never gets very big, he says, it’s hardly ever flat either.
The island is also home to a unique and thriving traditional surfing culture, passed down through the generations since the art of riding waves was first taught to locals by American soldiers stationed there during World War Two. Nowadays, there are several surf clubs dotted around the island with some modern equipment available, while local kids still fashion their own finless boards out of slabs of tree trunk and regularly paddle out to share the waves in large, jubilant packs.
Historically, a lack of direct flights and basic infrastructure have deterred large numbers of domestic and foreign tourists from visiting the island. A few years ago, in an article for Wavelength, a locally based correspondent explained how sanitation and sewer systems were still severely lacking, most children were malnourished and medical provisions very limited. She added that the majority of locals were farmers and fisherman by trade and generally made very small incomes.
So when, back in 2016, the national government identified Morotai as one of the ‘Ten New Balis’, forecasting half a million tourists by 2019, there was no doubt there were big changes afoot. According to our correspondent on the ground at the time, the general reaction to the plans was one of optimism, with some local people expressing aspirations to set up new businesses to cater to the promised influx, while others were simply buoyed by the prospect of meeting foreigners and sharing the natural beauty and culture of their homeland.
While historically government corruption has been rife on Morotai, there was also a lot of enthusiasm around the newly elected Bupati and his wife; a well educated and forward-looking pair, who expressed commitments to developing Morotai in a way that benefited locals and preserved the natural environment, creating renewable energy sources and marine protected zones.
So, four years on since the plans were announced, what’s changed?
Well firstly it turns out, even before the pandemic, the influx in tourism hadn’t been anywhere near as swift as forecast. Despite a stated completion date of 2019, Morotai’s airport is still not equipped to take international flights, meaning the island remains difficult to access, even from other parts of Indonesia. When the new international airport is completed, it will put the country within four hours of Japan, potentially serving as the starting gun on the government’s desired tourism boom. Lest we forget, prior to the completion of Bali’s airport in ‘69, the island welcomed little more than 10,000 tourists a year. Now, that number is more than three million.
An investor pitch, dated November 2018, described a range of projects, planned by Indonesian developers Jababeka, in the ‘special economic zone’ (which offers tax breaks and other perks for potential investors) just north of the capital on the island’s south-westerly tip. The several thousand-acre site was billed to include a golf course, a shopping mall, a sports centre, a theme park and over 500 acres of residential properties. However, at the time of writing, there is no evidence to suggest that the construction process has yet begun.
There have been some developments though. The new coastal road, which will encircle the whole island, is almost complete and almost every village now has phone signal, internet access and waste collection. Small amounts of coastal land have been reportedly bought up by foreigners, but outside the capital, there remains just one resort and a scattering of locally run homestays.
Since 2018, Conservation International and Save The Waves have been supporting local organisations and the government as they work to establish the world’s first Surf Protected Area Network in the north of Morotai to combat a wide range of threats including unchecked coastal development, overfishing and climate change.
“There’s a lot of resources that are going in from the Indonesian government into developing Morotai as a tourism hotspot,” said Nik Strong-Cvetich from Save The Waves, “and they’re now faced with a choice on how to develop; on a sustainable path, where these places are protected forever, or the mass tourism development path.”
Of course, the SPAN scheme is shooting for the former and if successful would make illegal any developments that might damage the waves or ecology of an area comprising 31 miles of coastline and nearly 250,000 acres of coral reef and coastal forest. The plan would also promote sustainable developments, preserve traditional fishing and farming livelihoods and empower locals to benefit from low impact surf and nature tourism.
Although the zone is just one part of the puzzle that is Morotai’s future development, if successful it could well be expanded to include more of the local coastline. And in a world of rapid development and exponential growth, it certainly would be nice to believe that more considered models can triumph over the cycle of slash, burn and profit that’s reigned so supreme elsewhere.
Cover image: Jason Childs