Would You Pay $1,000 to See the World’s Biggest Lizards?

PADAR ISLAND, Indonesia — The tourists arrived by the boatload, ready to climb 900 steps to the summit of remote Padar Island for their sunrise reward: a sweeping vista of turquoise bays set off by white-sand beaches. In the distance, they could see Komodo Island, where the world’s largest lizard, the fearsome Komodo dragon, roams freely, evoking the age of the dinosaurs.

This is one of the most dramatic scenes that Indonesia offers. But for many would-be visitors, it is about to become a lot more expensive.

The Indonesian government plans to raise the entrance fee for the most popular parts of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site made up of 29 islands, including the five that are home to the endangered dragon. The new price: $1,000 for a group of one to four visitors, up from as little as $10 for foreigners and 32 cents for Indonesians.

The sudden fee hike announcement in late July set off a strike by tourism workers; street protests joined by 1,000 people; and a wave of tourist cancellations in Labuan Bajo, a coastal town on the northwestern tip of Flores Island that is the jumping off point for the park.

A tourist guide, Rajiwansah, 27, right, wearing his protest T-shirt, with visitors to Padar Island.
Construction of a new hotel in Labuan Bajo, a coastal town that is the jumping off point for Komodo National Park.

It is also one of several controversies stemming from the government’s efforts to bolster tourism, which before the pandemic made up 5 percent of the economy. Some say the move to make a quick return by raising the price at Komodo — a crown jewel in the national park system — has backfired, pushing the eastern Indonesian region’s once-thriving tourism industry to the brink of collapse.

“If there are no tourists, I won’t make any money,” said Ariansyah, a guide on Komodo Island who, like many Indonesians, uses one name and joined protests against the new fee. “Everyone opposes the ticket price increase because it will ruin our livelihood.”

In 2016, in an attempt to expand Indonesia’s tourism industry, the country’s president, Joko Widodo, launched a campaign to create “Ten New Balis” and improve existing tourist destinations while invoking the magic of Bali, the country’s premier attraction. The program included a slew of development projects across Indonesia, including at Labuan Bajo.

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The sites chosen were all places where the government hoped that greater public and private investment in new airports, ports and hotels would help draw more visitors. At some locations, little progress has been made. At others, major investors have stepped forward, as at the $3 billion Mandalika project on Lombok, which is partly financed by the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Enjoying the view this month in Labuan Bajo.
Arriving at Labuan Bajo port from a dive in Komodo National Park.

In Labuan Bajo, the government expanded the airport and redeveloped the harbor with new wharves and a festival stage. Large new luxury hotels are under construction along the coast.

But despite the push to capitalize on Bali’s global reputation, there has been little effort to replicate its “eat, pray, love” mantra. At Mandalika, for instance, the government built a coastal MotoGP racetrack for major motorcycle races. A large statue of Mr. Joko astride a speeding motorbike welcomes guests at the entrance.

And many of the projects have encountered resistance from local residents.

At Lake Toba on Sumatra Island, the world’s largest crater lake, residents protested the seizure of farmland for new roads. On Lombok Island, civil society groups said thousands of people were forcibly evicted from their ancestral land without adequate compensation to make way for the Mandalika project.

Tourists looking for information from travel agents in Labuan Bajo.
A new marina and commercial development at Labuan Bajo port this month.

At Java Island’s Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, a push to raise entrance fees to about $50 for Indonesians and $100 for foreigners was met by fierce opposition, prompting Mr. Joko to cancel that plan.

The government says its proposal for a higher entrance fee at Komodo Park was needed for conservation efforts. But environmentalists argue that government development plans pose the biggest threat to the islands.

When tourism workers went on strike and took to the streets of Labuan Bajo in July and August to protest the fee hike, many foreign visitors cut their trips short and fled, heading to the airport under police and military escort as protection against the unrest. At the same time, tourists around the world canceled hotel reservations for the coming year.

“We marched in the street shouting, ‘Reduce the ticket price,’” said a tour guide, Rajiwansah, as he admired the Padar Island view from a popular photo spot. His T-shirt, inspired by the protests, depicted a Komodo dragon dressed like a government official and grasping a briefcase full of money.

The entrance to Komodo National Park.
Studies say the dragon population could tolerate up to 292,000 human visitors a year.

The fee hike was originally scheduled to take effect on Aug. 1, but the turmoil prompted officials to postpone it until Jan. 1. Even so, during what should be the peak tourist season, many hotels in Labuan Bajo are nearly empty, while dozens of tour boats sit idle and the town’s once-bustling tourist street is largely deserted.

The setback came just as the tourism industry was looking up. “We had many reservations for 2023, but now we have none,” said Alief Khunaefi, general manager of Sylvia Resort Komodo and secretary general of the Hotel General Managers Association for the province, East Nusa Tenggara.

Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s minister of tourism, said the government was considering postponing the price increase further.

The fee hike is the brainchild of Viktor Laiskodat, the governor of East Nusa Tenggara, who said he was inspired by earlier conservation work with wild Sumatran tigers.

“If it has extraordinary beauty then you have to pay more,” he said. Tickets will be valid for a year but will not be sold individually. Even single travelers must pay the full $1,000, he said.

Tourists can approach within a few yards of the lizards in Komodo National Park.
Lukita Awang Nistyantara, the head of Komodo National Park, at his office in Labuan Bajo in November. Only about 3,300 dragons live in the wild, and more than half are found on Komodo Island, Mr. Lukita says.

Tourists can still pay the lower park fee and see Komodo dragons on Rinca Island at a newly built observatory dubbed Jurassic Park, he noted. But there, the dragons are visible only at a great distance and the site receives few visitors.

He argued that the park had been poorly managed and that more resources were needed for scientific research, halting illegal fishing and preventing the poaching of deer the dragons eat, among other conservation efforts.

But environmentalists said the real problem was a plan to build hotels in the park, which they said could harm the habitat and endanger the 3,300 dragons living in the wild.

More than half are found on Komodo Island, the most popular spot for dragon viewing.

On a recent visit, nine dragons lounging near the park’s main entrance seemed unfazed by the humans hovering around taking photos. Guides who accompany the tourists stood by with long sticks to fend off any dragon that came too close.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, a prominent environmental group known by its Indonesian acronym, Walhi, said the national government had issued permits to four companies allowing them to build tourist facilities in the park.

A sculpture at the entrance of a new tourist attraction on Rinca Island in Komodo National Park in November.
“Small agencies will slowly die,” said Putu Iwan Pratama, co-owner of Jaya Komodo Tour in Labuan Bajo.

“The government is causing the problem but blaming the tourists,” said Umbu Paranggi, the group’s executive director for East Nusa Tenggara.

The province — in a deal it made with the national government — has set up a company, PT. Flobamor, to collect revenue from the park and take over six oceanfront sites, totaling 1,750 acres, for training and other administrative functions. The company would also have authority over which tour operators could operate in the Komodo-Padar zone, which would become the most lucrative in the park. Tour guides would be required to register with Flobamor to do business there.

Tour operators contend the company is seeking to dominate the region’s tourism business, to the detriment of locals.

“PT. Flobamor will provide big ships for the tourists, and the small agencies will slowly die,” said Putu Iwan Pratama, a co-owner of Jaya Komodo Tour, which organizes boat trips to the park.

After the fee hike was announced, he and his co-owners closed their shop and joined the protests. “The government doesn’t care about us,” he said.

Dera Menra Sijabat contributed reporting.

An aerial view of Komodo National Park.
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