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An indigenous village navigates its sustainable ecotourism success

Does a boom in ecotourism need to backfire for the culture and the environment? Not when the community acts together to make it sustainable. Indonesia's Wae Rebo village shows how.

Reaching the village of Wae Rebo on Indonesia’s Flores Island requires a seven-hour drive down rugged jungle roads from the port town of Labuan Bajo. At the edge of the village of Kombo, motorcycle taxis whiz tourists to a trailhead, where they hike three hours up to a mountain. Passing stunning views of the jungle valley and the ocean and leading travellers over a bamboo bridge, the trail meanders through a forest interspersed with ripening coffee trees. Finally, it gives way to a stunning sight: the village of Wae Rebo. Nestled into a mountain valley 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) above sea level, its seven conical houses are tipped with mist from passing clouds.

While the journey may sound challenging, it doesn’t dissuade an average of 50 tourists from making it every day. Arriving anywhere from the late morning until the late evening, visitors from all over the world sleep on simple woven mats in the five-story-tall cone-shaped “drum houses,” called mbaru niangin the Tombo Manggarai language. They are free to explore the village grounds and chat with locals before sitting down to a traditional dinner, all for the equivalent of about $24 a night.

The village of 1,200 inhabitants began its dalliance with ecotourism in 2007 and by 2016 it was already recording 6,000 annual visitors. The rapid tourism growth is almost as spectacular as the locals’ apparent acceptance of it, considering that the first recorded outsider to visit came just three decades ago, in 1984. As its popularity as a destination grows, there are concerns that the community’s traditions and way of life could be sacrificed in the process, as can happen when an influx of tourists enters a small community.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

Ecotourism offers an alternative to mass tourism that can help locals prosper financially while fostering intercultural exchange. Tourism is a major industry in Indonesia; the island of Bali, for example, hosted more than 5 million tourists last year. Based on Bali’s success, in 2017 President Joko Widodo presented a “10 New Balis” plan to increase tourism around the country. The main city on Flores Island, Labuan Bajo, is among the 10 sites, meaning tourism to Wae Rebo, its closest ecotourism village, will likely continue to increase.

Ecotourism can allow communities to generate income without relying on natural resource extraction, which can harm the environment if overdone. In Wae Rebo, agriculture and ecotourism work side by side.

Residents of the village have traditionally relied on coffee production as a primary source of income. They harvest and process the crop, before carrying it on their backs down the mountain to nearby markets. But with unpredictable weather in recent years, the harvest wasn’t enough to keep the community afloat. In the early 2000s, Martin Anggu, a Manggarai local who now runs a guesthouse in the nearby village of Denge, approached Indonesian ecotourism NGO Indecon with the idea of patching up Wae Rebo’s two ailing drum houses and building five new ones, introducing ecotourism in the process.

“He told me the community was quite frustrated with the economic situation because their agriculture isn’t really enough to support them,” Indecon’s Ary S. Suhandi, who has worked with the village from the outset, told Mongabay.

A series of high-level meetings followed in Jakarta, and eventually Jakarta-based architect Yori Antar took on the building component of the project. With input from locals, his team built five new drum houses with funding from private donors, including French water company Danone. In 2012, the village received a UNESCO Cultural Heritage award, further putting it on the map.

Indecon, which had already helped nine other villages in Flores introduce ecotourism, guided the villagers through the process at the beginning and offered counsel when they requested it. The mountain path was made more accessible, Indecon offered tourism-management lessons, and the villagers set up working groups to cook meals for tourists, maintain the grounds, and continue with agricultural activities.

“We never wanted tourism to take [the] place of agriculture; they have to go hand in hand,” said Suhandi. His team also focused on a slow tourism growth model for Wae Rebo: “We realise that if business is too booming, it will backfire for the culture.” Today, Indecon advises on ecotourism operations and a small council of Wae Rebo residents controls the revenue from tourism, as they have done from the beginning.

That the village was groomed for ecotourism does not seem to bother many of the inhabitants, including Kassius Manie, a 26-year-old from Wae Rebo who is one of several people responsible for managing tourists.

“The old houses were not good enough to live in and rebuilding them is so expensive, so we were lucky when some organizations and Indonesian architects came here and said ‘this is perfect for ecotourism,’” he told Mongabay. “We needed some help from people and at that time, people came to help us. It’s a lucky place.”

The drum houses are undeniably unique. Made of palm thatch, the 15-meter-high (50-foot) buildings are each home to six to eight families who live side by side, as they have done for centuries, in small adjacent rooms separated by curtains for privacy.

Families share the large hearth built into the centre of the floor, and sacred drums hang above it—the medium to communicate with the ancestral spirits. Each house has five floors, each with a specific purpose. The second floor, for instance, is used to store food and supplies, and the fifth is reserved for offerings to the spirits. Two houses in the village have been designated specifically for tourists.

During an early Sunday afternoon visit, the village was unusually quiet. Many of the residents live between Wae Rebo and its sister village of Kombo at the base of the mountain, where schools and other facilities are located. On this particular day, there was a school celebration and most people had travelled down to attend it.

Sitting under the scorching sun in a traditional Manggarai sarong paired with a faded red T-shirt, middle-aged villager Lodovikus Damput said tourism had benefitted Wae Rebo. “It’s had so many positive effects on the community. We used to have simple wooden homes before and now we have only a few houses that are not in very good condition,” said Damput. Villagers who do not live in the drum houses reside in basic homes financed by ecotourism revenue.

The money generated from tourism means the community can rely less on government support and send their children to school, added Damput’s friend, Kobus Lori Bai.

In addition to the fee for a one-night stay, tourists also contribute a small symbolic amount—$1 or $2—during the welcome ceremony given by “Papa” Alex, the 90-year-old village chief, who gives a prayer to the spirits of the ancestors when each visitor arrives. All the revenue goes into the fund managed by community members, who put it toward maintaining the houses and grounds, funding children’s education through university, building new houses in Kombo and maintaining a pension for the elderly.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.

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