On Lombok, which has a rich history of kingdoms led by expansionist Balinese from Karangasem, attention was fixed on Britain’s recent royal wedding.
Our resort manager, a fine Swiss fellow who asserts he is not a royalist, declined our offer of drinks in favour of the royal telecast and admitted later that the spectacle brought a tear to his normally quite cynical eye. Lombok islanders, who proudly preserve their distinctive heritage of fascinating and often vibrant rituals, jostled for space around every available TV set on the West Lombok tourist strip of Senggigi, intent on witnessing all the pageantry of the royal event. They were spellbound.
The next afternoon they massed with equal enthusiasm to watch a highly animated exhibition of traditional stick-fighting. One suspects that their West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) neighbours on the island of Sumbawa, who also love a ceremony and have just reinstated their ancient sultanate as a means of rejuvenating cultural traditions, would have welcomed the regal pomp and splendour with similar eagerness.
While your columnist chose wine and conversation over the royal telecast, it was wonderful to see Lombok islanders showing the same sort of appreciation for this lavish display of imperial ceremony that they expect from visitors viewing their own historic rituals. People’s universal love of celebration may be underrated as a counter to cultural conflict.
After the excitement of the wedding and stick-fighting had abated and the crowds had thinned, it was possible to take a proper look around Senggigi, which remains Lombok’s key tourist precinct, apart from the northern party islet of Trawangan, despite official attempts to divert development and visitors to the island’s south. Having lived on the island in 2006/2007, when a paucity of activity and visitors caused the Playmate to cruelly dub the place Lameback, we were keen to assess progress of NTB’s flagship programme to put itself on the world tourist map.
And, after a prolonged period of inertia speckled with a string of false starts and unrealised infrastructure projects (highlighted by the embarrassingly stalled new international airport), it seems Lombok’s time might finally have come.
A healthy scattering of new and renovated resorts, some quite stylish, have opened and one property developer reports work has started on a further 30 accommodation projects. Some existing large resorts are finally turning a modest profit. Smaller, good-quality properties felt the upswing sooner.
Noticeable tourist presence comes from domestic groups, Australia, Russia and parts of Europe and Asia. Many Lombok visitors say they have rejected Bali, which has become too developed and too busy.
Select Senggigi residential areas are giving multiple birth to upmarket homes whose predominantly foreign owners – who almost invariably make comparisons to Bali – say they are attracted to Lombok’s unspoiled natural environment and lack of pollution, peacefulness and slow pace of life, infrequent traffic problems, good roads and generally low costs. Problems of water and electricity supply remain common to both islands.
Tellingly, prices for some premium Lombok land, while still normally much lower than on Bali, have tripled in the past year or so after a lengthy stagnation.
NTB’s governments have devised a host of programmes to smarten up Lombok’s key tourist attractions, to improve the professionalism of tourism staff and to encourage investment and development by cutting bureaucracy and promoting potential projects. As a matter of policy, though perhaps insufficiently in practice, the central government supports the growth of Lombok as an alternative tourist destination to Bali and Jakarta.
How will Bali, if the Lombok trend grows real legs, respond? Lombok tourism operators report an historical aversion by many of their Bali counterparts to cooperate on mutually beneficial programmes such as the promotion of two-island tours. Surely it’s time for industry leaders on Bali to embrace Lombok’s emerging popularity as a means of supporting national tourism growth, giving travellers an experience not available here and possibly easing the excessive demand on Bali’s infrastructure and limited resources. Clearly, Bali needs some breathing space which a sensible commitment to sharing some of its success with a developing neighbour could provide. It’s certainly time for people on Bali, often working unofficially as guides or drivers, to stop scaremongering about Lombok.
Lombok has many issues to address to realise its potential. It must, one way or another, get as a priority a runway long enough to accommodate the aircraft of airlines which might consider flying to the island and especially of those which have indicated they would if they could. It must acknowledge the evidence, in the number of new karaoke bars on the island, that most Arabs visitors will not spend their holiday at mosque. Branding Lombok the Island of a Thousand Mosques has limited appeal, including to a target Muslim market. Lombok must contain its elements of religious radicals and educate its people in tolerance. It would help, too, if its leaders stopped lining up to be photographed in uniforms from the museum of tin-pot Latin dictators. Image does count.