KOMODO ISLAND, Indonesia -- This remote island has become a global bucket-list attraction because of its namesake Komodo dragons, protected in the 1,733-sq.-km Komodo National Park. A prehistoric relic, the dragons are the world's largest lizards, with sharp teeth and a toxic bite. While the dragons were once threatened by poachers, it is now the tourism industry that has sprung up around them that is under threat.
Until recently only naturalists visited the island, which lies about 1,500 km east of Jakarta in the far-flung archipelago of Nusa Tenggara Timur (East Nusa Tenggara), Indonesia's southernmost province. But an estimated 200,000 tourists swarmed to the UNESCO World Heritage park in 2018, all eager to check out the rare lizards, which can reach 3 meters in length and weigh more than 100 kg.
"Nobody knew anything about this area until the craze for the Komodo dragons," said Lydia Susanti, guest service manager at Puri Sari Beach Hotel in Labuan Bajo, on Flores Island, the base for hundreds of high-speed boats that ply to Komodo Island.
A fishing village until a decade ago, Labuan Bajo is now a ramshackle boomtown, with up to 200 hotels and guesthouses and dozens of diving shops. The giant lizards are celebrated everywhere, including at the town's Komodo Airport, currently connected only to Jakarta and Bali but being expanded to handle international flights. "The dragons put us on the map," said Susanti.
Fears are growing, however, that the provincial government will destroy the golden egg. For the past year, perplexing government proclamations have kept Labuan Bajo and Komodo Island in constant controversy. NTT Gov. Viktor Laiskodat initially stirred the tempest in early 2019, vowing to close the park for a year to improve the habitat for the dragons and the deer they like to eat.
Officials pushed back the deadline after a local uproar, but Laiskodat sparked renewed outrage with plans for huge increases in fees for visitors to the park, from about $15 to $500. Tour operators protested that the hike would destroy the tourist boom, but Laiskodat responded by suggesting fees of $1,000.
This set off a tourism panic across Labuan Bajo. "We had lots of calls and cancellations," said Susanti. "If they close Komodo Island, Labuan Bajo will close. If people cannot see the dragons, no one will come here." Worst of all, say locals, is the prolonged uncertainty, fed by flip-flop stories in the media about the park's imminent closure or retention, and the level of fees.
"Talk of the closure created this mass of miscommunication," said Anna Karas, who oversees public relations for Ayana Komodo Resort, the area's first luxury hotel, on Waecicu Beach, just outside Labuan Bajo. "People are constantly asking, 'Is the park closing?' and we have to reassure them they can still come and see the dragons."
But for how long? In February, Indonesia's Antara News Agency said the $1,000 fees would go ahead, although the date of implementation remained vague. "It's crazy, totally crazy," said a travel operator and executive with the local branch of the Association of the Indonesian Tour & Travel Agencies, who asked not to be named. "There is so much confusion. Everything is up in the air."
Government officials met travel and hotel operators in Labuan Bajo in early February to discuss the plan, and suggested that the $1,000 fee would buy annual membership of the park, allowing multiple visits. "But it's still in formulation. They had no real details," said the travel operator. "Everyone is super angry. We're all against this."
The confusion extends to the rationale. Officials say the plan is to limit tourism to protect the park's habitat, as well as the dragons, but no details have been released. It is not even clear how many dragons there are. The last reputable study, in 2014, concluded that there were 3,000 in the wild, but other estimates range as high as 6,000. Besides Komodo Island, the lizards are found on Rinca, Gili Motang and Nusa Kode islands. All lie within the national park, established in 1980.
The provincial government has suggested that higher fees would cut the number of visitors to about 50,000 a year, making the park a profitable luxury attraction. "Poor tourists shouldn't come to NTT, because [the island] has been designed for tourists with money," Laiskodat said after a meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, according to Antara.
"I told the president that when poor tourists come, many of us in NTT are already poor, so it's boring," he added. "If possible, let only the rich come, those with money; we are bored with the poor ones."
There are justifiable concerns about management of the park. Most tourists join fast boat trips from Labuan Bajo that take in Komodo Island along with up to five other attractions. These include Padar Island, which has become a global sensation thanks to social media pictures of its mountaintop views mirrored in near-perfect bays. The rest of the day is spent traversing crystalline waters over dazzling coral reefs, snorkeling with manta rays and turtles, and swimming in blindingly blue water embracing spits of sparkling snow-white sand.
Yet the buzz is about Komodo Island. "This is why we came," said a beaming tourist from San Diego on the boat I joined. But faces fell flat as we reached the island, which looks drab and dusty. We disembarked, registered with park rangers and hiked to a visitor center. Under the stairs, shaded from the blazing sun, lazed half a dozen lackluster Komodo dragons of monstrous size. Tourists snapped pictures; some paid rangers to pose close to the gigantic lizards, which have been known to kill people. "But not for a long time," said Fani, a guide whose reflective sunglasses hid any jesting twinkle.
Fani led our group on a short hike -- tourists must be accompanied within the park -- pointing out several dragons and a nest. He said there are about 1,700 of the giant lizards on the island, but numbers are not increasing. "Only about 20% of the young survive," he said. Birds eat the eggs, as do other dragons. Human attacks are rare -- a Singaporean tourist bitten in May 2017 was said to have been angling too close for pictures. He survived, but dragons have sharp teeth and bacteria-rich saliva. Sometimes their prey escapes only to succumb to infection.
Little was known about Komodo dragons until just over a century ago, when a Dutch colonial official on Flores heard reports of large land crocodiles on the remote island and sent a specimen to a zoo on Indonesia's Java Island. Fossils have since confirmed that the dragons are survivors of a species that roamed the planet millions of years ago.
Naturalists say that little research has been done on either the animals or the park. "Komodo Island is not well-managed. Everyone does whatever they want," said a consultant in the area, who asked not to be named. Things were even worse a decade ago, he said, when there were no rangers. But Fani said he had no wildlife training, and said the same was true for most of his colleagues. "The government is talking all these fees," the consultant said, "but where will the money go? What is the plan for Komodo?"
Most of the discussion focuses on dollars rather than dragons, with investment already flooding Flores as part of an ambitious central government scheme to create 10 new tourist destinations comparable to Bali, Indonesia's best-known resort destination, which welcomes about 40% of the country's foreign visitors.
Flores is one of the most developed of the target locations. Labuan Bajo's airport, opened in 2013, was upgraded with a new terminal in 2015, and is to become an international destination as a result of a deal with Singapore's Changi Airport -- possibly by the end of the year. A $2 billion overhaul of the harbor added a luxury hotel in late 2019, and will soon provide docks for fast ferries and cruise ships.
"But what will it mean for the Komodo dragons and tourism," said Ndiwar Kewali, owner of Komodo Dominik Tour, who has worked in tourism in Labuan Bajo for 27 years. "Nobody tells as anything," he said. "It's all just politics."