Hearing that Gili Trawangan, the most developed of Lombok’s famed trio of Northern Gilis, was experiencing one long high season, The Playmate and I decided to revisit the “party island.”
It had been three and a half years since we’d stepped onto Trawangan’s balmy shores. In the 12 months before that last visit, when we’d crossed frequently from our mainland Lombok base to Trawangan and its neighbouring islands of Meno and Air, the idyllic trio was struggling.
Many Trawangan dive operators were trying to scrape together cash for much-needed improvements and many accommodation operators had delayed essential upgrades. With a few exceptions, the island then was a tad shabby.
Even so, the plight of Trawangan tourism was not as severe as that of Lombok proper, whose downturn was exacerbated by fast boats taking tourists and residents direct from Bali to The Gilis, bypassing the culturally rich Lombok mainland.
Short-sighted industry operators in Bali were reluctant to support travel packages to both Bali and Lombok. For reasons of pure self-interest, many people in Bali would and still do rather theatrically warn travellers against “primitive” and “unsafe” Lombok.
And while everyone waits to see if Lombok’s troubled new international airport development will in fact take off, the island remains serviced by only one or two direct international flights a week, from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
After a rocky and delayed landing on the short runway at Mataram’s Selaparang Airport, we enjoyed Lombok’s smooth, uncrowded roads and checked out our old stamping ground around the tourist centre of Senggigi.
At face value, not a lot had changed, but a look beyond the main stretch of Jl Raya Senggigi revealed a healthy number of new boutique resorts, a healthier number of private luxury villas and some not-so-pleasing plans for “upscale” high-density development.
Plans are in place to clean up Lombok’s key tourist sites, improve infrastructure and build new facilities to support the West Nusa Tenggara government’s aim to attract one million visitors to Lombok and Sumbawa in 2012.
Our neighbours would dearly love to pull visitors disillusioned by Bali’s overcrowded tourist centres, chaotic traffic, dwindling physical identity thanks to inappropriate condotel-style development and unreliable supplies of power and water.
While nearby Lombok, physically magnificent and relatively undeveloped, should be superbly placed to capitalise on Bali’s woes, it remains to be seen if travellers from across the full spectrum of the global market who pile on to Bali will be drawn from the Island of the Gods and to the Island of a Thousand Mosques.
Some of West Nusa Tenggara’s more religiously dedicated leaders have proposed developing Lombok tourism through making the island an official alternative Hajj destination.
Suspicion suggests that any such overt focus to develop strands of exclusively Islamic tourism, especially in these times of acute sensitivity to anti-Western sentiments which have resulted in acts of terror, will only alienate non-Muslim travellers.
And that would be a great shame, especially when Bali is “full” in terms of infrastructure and capacity to cope with ever-rising arrivals and also is on a path to development which is destroying its own historic tourism appeal. Both situations are already causing visitors to mourn the attrition of the Bali they knew and loved and to seek an alternative. Logically, that should be Lombok.
A large part of Bali’s success is due to its intensely rich Hindu culture being nurtured in tandem with practices of religious and ethnic tolerance and inclusivity rather than the opposite. Hindus from throughout the world make their own way to Bali, just as Muslims will be drawn to Lombok if it is an attractive destination for all.
The island of Trawangan, which you can walk round at a brisk pace in only 90 minutes, perhaps presents this case most strongly. Trawangan has some points of difference. The local villagers will not accept police on their island and deal with complaints or crime through their traditional structures. There is some tolerance of mild narcotics and topless sunbathing.
On Trawangan this week, business people said they were suffering a low before the Christmas peak, yet the island was abuzz. Many dive operations displayed new equipment and revamped and expanded premises. New dive companies had opened.
Beachside cafes had spread onto the main beach and new and upgraded resorts and bungalows abounded. There were many more shops, all manned by islanders. Nightly, the local marketplace was full of tourists and locals sharing tables and food, as were some of the bars and warungs.
More sellers of Lombok pearls and other souvenirs made the daily trip from the mainland to trade on Trawangan. Many and varied craft plied the waters off the island whose main beach was full of visitors meeting, chatting and playing games with locals.
As well as a bustling mix of international visitors and many more domestic tourists, mostly family groups, strolled the island. One little scene spoke a thousand words. As the faithful were called to sunset prayers at the island’s mosque, a tourist who’d been sunbathing topless prepared to dress and depart the beach. Beside her, a Muslim visitor sat in the sand and gazed from her jilbab at the changing light on the ocean.