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Indonesians pack onto slow boats despite the rise of budget airlines

Long-haul ferries cater to cash-strapped locals and, more recently, tourists

Sunset over the Banda Sea from the back of the Kapal Pelni Dobonsolo (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

MAKASSAR, Indonesia The atmosphere in the waiting room at the port is heavy with silent anticipation. Nearly 100 people of all ages look wearily at the open sea stretching beyond the glass wall ahead. They are waiting for the Dobonsolo, one of the nation's remaining fleet of affordable long-distance ships, still popular with many locals despite long journeys, delays, congestion and the rise of budget carriers.

The Dobonsolo, bound for West Papua, is eight hours late. Some of the passengers already look exhausted after the long wait, sitting around piles of battered suitcases and cardboard boxes reinforced with masking tape. And from the port of Makassar, one of the operator's main hubs, it will take them up to another five days at sea to reach their far-off homes or new business prospects.

The ship is operated by state-run Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia, or Indonesian National Lines. Known as Pelni, it is one of the world's last remaining long-distance passenger ship operators.

The company's 28 vessels still crisscross the entire length of the Indonesian archipelago, connecting almost 100 ports nationwide. One of the longest Pelni routes departs from the capital Jakarta, on the island of Java, to Jayapura, Papua: The weeklong, 4,390km journey is comparable to the distance between London and Herat in Afghanistan.

As a black dot appears on the horizon, someone in the front-row seats cheers, "Kapal!" meaning "ship." The crowd leaps into action as if a starting pistol has been fired, their voices growing louder as they line up to pass ticket inspection and see the shape of the Dobonsolo, heavily laden with cargo containers and a multitude of souls, slowly move into Makassar's port.

This scene is a daily ritual in port towns across Indonesia. With no onerous luggage restrictions, Pelni ships are crucial in connecting people and businesses throughout the archipelago's far-flung islands and offer a unique insight into the lives of ordinary Indonesians.

Porters help passengers and businessmen load up their luggage and cargo when the Pelni ships are docked in port. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

Before the late 2000s and the consolidation of budget air carriers in the region, state-run Pelni shuttled up to 8 million passengers per year. It was particularly instrumental during the period of former strongman leader Suharto's Transmigration Program in the 1980s and 1990s -- a time when air transport was either too expensive for ordinary people, or simply not available. The program saw ships move migrants from overpopulated areas of Java to other remote islands that could offer them a better life and work opportunities.

But by 2013, Pelni's estimated passenger numbers had fallen to only 3 million per year; in 2014, the company was sustained by a government subsidy of $80 million. But, despite the recent rise of budget airlines in Indonesia, by the end of that year, Pelni had made a $500,000 profit, safeguarding its status as the national carrier of the rakyat, or "everyday people."

Pelni ships stop briefly at each major port to unload cargo, collect new passengers and containers, and fuel up. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"I'm taking the boat because I want to see my country," Justinius, 28, told the Nikkei Asian Review. Born in West Timor, he had just finished his studies in Yogyakarta and had boarded the Dobonsolo in Surabaya to return home to Jayapura. "Taking the boat is also less expensive than the plane," he added.

Pelni tickets cost between half and a third less than air fares servicing the same routes and mostly appeal to the Indonesian working class, whose minimum wages barely surpass 1 million Indonesian rupiah ($74) per month.

Once aboard, passengers are packed into the ship like sardines, occupying all available bunk beds and rest spots. Some snooze, while others play cards and smoke, or enjoy the fresh sea air and views from the upper decks. There are no different ticket classes, and each passenger must find an empty berth in the communal sleeping compartments, or be content with laying a sheet on the floor and sharing life at sea with an army of strangers for days on end.

Onboard accommodation:​ people, luggage, and food and drink sellers ​cram into common bunk-bed​ ​areas. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

The biggest Pelni ships can legally carry up to 3,000 people and weigh about 15,000 gross tons. Despite often being overloaded with cargo and passengers, they still maintain a relatively impressive safety record -- apart from a serious disaster on Jan. 27, 1981, when the Tampomas II caught fire and sank off the coast of Java, killing 431 people. In a recent incident off Indonesian Borneo last December, the Kelimutu, with 511 passengers, crashed into the Maju 88, which was loaded with fertilizer. There were no casualties.

Pelni ships offer Wi-Fi services for a small fee, provided by Indonesia's leading mobile operator Telkomsel. Small cinema halls show at least a couple of movies daily, a kitchen serves three complimentary meals a day, and there are also modest cafeterias. The biggest ships also have karaoke rooms where small musical combos play dangdut concerts -- one of Indonesia's most popular music styles which blends Hindustani and Arabic rhythms spruced up with modern techno. For the many Muslim passengers on board, loudspeakers announce the opening times of the prayer room.

Pelni's Muslim passengers prepare to enter the ship's prayer room. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

Lately, Pelni has tried to shake off its reputation as a working-class carrier by rebranding as a cruise operator for tourists. Launched in 2016 as a joint effort between Pelni and the state tourism department's "Wonderful Indonesia" campaign, the program "Ship Xperience: New Way to Explore Wonderful Indonesia" targets local tourists by offering affordable, live-aboard cruises to some of the archipelago's marine hot spots.

The three-day, two-night packages include meals, cabin accommodation, island hopping and activities such as hiking and snorkeling, and are priced between 1.4 million and 3.7 million Indonesian rupiah.

"The concept we offer is similar to a 'live-aboard' cruise. Pelni ships have full facilities, so tourists don't have to worry," Didik Dwi Prasetio, corporate secretary of Pelni, told the local Tribun News ahead of the program's launch in August 2016. "We already provide hot showers, a varied food menu, and of course, electric sockets to keep tourists happily snapping selfies."

The challenge is whether the company can shake off its image as Indonesia's low-class sea carrier and tempt middle-class locals and even foreign tourists away from budget airlines and onto slow boats throughout the sprawling archipelago.

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