Indonesia’s idyllic Raja Ampat islands get infrastructure boost in bid to attract more visitors

 A bird's eye view of the pristine white sand beaches found in the Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia.
A bird's eye view of the pristine white sand beaches found in the Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS INDONESIA
A birds eye view of the pristine white-sand beaches found in the Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia.
A birds eye view of the pristine white-sand beaches found in the Indonesian islands of Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia. ST PHOTO: IDAYU SUPARTO
Signs warning visitors not to fish, step on corals or litter are seen on Arborek island, one of the many islands popular among tourists in Indonesia's Raja Ampat.
Signs warning visitors not to fish, step on corals or litter are seen on Arborek island, one of the many islands popular among tourists in Indonesia's Raja Ampat.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS INDONESIA
Ferry passengers are seen at the Waisai Port in Indonesia's Raja Ampat islands.
Ferry passengers are seen at the Waisai Port in Indonesia's Raja Ampat islands. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS INDONESIA
Visitors snorkelling at Arborek, one of the many islands popular among tourists in Indonesia's Raja Ampat.
Visitors snorkelling at Arborek, one of the many islands popular among tourists in Indonesia's Raja Ampat. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS INDONESIA

RAJA AMPAT, Indonesia - The Raja Ampat islands in eastern Indonesia have beautiful white-sand beaches, untouched jungles and hidden blue lagoons - perfect for the growing back-to-nature tourism. 

Fiercely proud of the renowned diving destination located in the province of West Papua, the local government of the islands even has a catchy slogan for prospective visitors. "Raja Ampat is a hidden slice of heaven on earth," Mr Semuel Belseran, a senior official with the local government," told a group of visiting Asean journalists last month. "Don't die before you make a visit here."

While the natural beauty of the islands - home to the world's highest bio-diversity of fish and coral recorded by scientists - has been no secret to divers drawn by the numerous underwater sights, the local government is hoping to also draw more casual visitors to their shores. 

As part of those efforts, Indonesia has launched key infrastructure projects that aim to make it easier for visitors to get to Raja Ampat - its name means Four Kings to denote the four main islands in the chain - even as it seeks to strike a delicate balance between promoting the paradise islands while protecting the fragile marine ecosystem there. 

For now, the infrastructure projects are focused on boosting the connectivity of the two airports that currently service flights to the islands.

With no direct flights to Raja Ampat, visitors heading to the islands have to take a domestic flight to the airport in nearby Sorong city, before taking another two-hour boat ride.

The main airport in Sorong will undergo works to enable it to accommodate international flights, while improvements are also being made to allow the small airport in Raja Ampat - which currently only plies the Sorong to Raja Ampat route - to service domestic flights from other Indonesian cities. 

There are also plans to build five-star hotels on the main Waigeo island, although the local government did not provide a specific timeline for those plans. 

Developing the infrastructure and boosting tourism development in Raja Ampat is part of President Joko Widodo's pledge to focus more attention to the Papua region. The two provinces in the region - West Papua and neighbouring Papua province - are among the least developed and poorest of the country's 34 provinces. Papua has also seen a long-running separatist conflict since being incorporated into Indonesia in the 1960s. 

Mr Joko has made at least four trips to the region since becoming President - the most number of times for a sitting President - as he tries to pull this huge corner of the country into the mainstream as well as defuse tensions between the separatists and security forces.

"Jokowi's government had made a promise during his campaign that Indonesia must be built from the periphery and not just from the centre.

That means there must also be development in the villages and the remote areas," said political analyst Indria Samego from the Habibie Center think tank in Jakarta, referring to Mr Joko by his nickname. 

Adding to the challenges of development and infrastructure, there is also the problem of attracting investments to an area that while rich in natural resources, remains sparsely populated. 

For the idyllic gem that is Raja Ampat, part of that means overcoming the tough task of luring investors to build more tourism amenities such as fancy hotels and a good menu of restaurants - all of which would help to grow the number of tourists. 

"From the market perspective, the market is not there, so there is a minimum incentive to developing that area. But thinking from an economic nationalism perspective, of course this is very important because Papua is also part of Indonesia. So we can't leave Papua too far from behind from the other areas," said Dr Indria. 

Given the importance of Raja Ampat's oceanic resources, the Tourism Ministry stressed that it is only promoting the islands as a special interest destination for marine tourism. It says it is also well aware that the efforts for the islands' tourism development must be calibrated carefully to ensure they do not have an adverse impact on the environment. "Of course we need more volume of tourists, but we dont want to destroy the natural environment," said Dr I Gde Pitana, Indonesia's deputy minister for international promotion development. "So we have to calculate our tourism capacity as well as how to develop the area without destroying the environment." 

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