Over the rainbow: Are Indonesia’s colorful village makeovers sustainable?

The Rainbow Village in Wonosari, Semarang. Source: Reuters

INDONESIA hit headlines recently thanks to a colorful new addition to its tourism scene in the form of a new Kampung Pelangi or “Rainbow Village” in Wonosari, Semarang.

The village, which previously held little interest for tourists, received 300 million rupiah (US$22k) from the council of Semarang to paint its buildings a variety of colorful hues in order to attract a new wave of visitors.

The strategy appears to have worked. Wonosari is now a veritable Instagram hit as tourists flock to the area to take pictures in this “technicolor” enclave of Central Java.

In addition to the new eye-catching color scheme, which included a new lick of paint for the local mosque, art has popped up all over Wonosari, with angel wings, rainbows, and even a shark being doodled onto the walls of the village.

SEE ALSO: Indonesian village gets ‘rainbow’ makeover

The idea was the brainchild of Slamet Widodo, a teacher from the area who told The Jakarta Post that he had been impressed by the tourist pulling-power of other rainbow villages across Indonesia and hoped to replicate the model in Wonosari.

“The idea to create Kampung Pelangi came after we saw the beauty of Kampung Warna-warni and Kampung Tridi in Malang, and later Kampung Kali Code in Yogyakarta,” he said.

He also hoped that Kampung Pelangi would bring more revenue into the area and “offer a new tourist attraction in Semarang”.

A post shared by SEMARANG (@sudutsemarang) on

For now, Kampung Pelangi appears to have put Wonosari firmly on the tourist map in Central Java, at least with the domestic market.

But it remains to be seen whether Indonesia’s Rainbow Villages will prove to be a sustainable form of tourism. The problem comes when villages such as Wonosari become famous for a vibrant new color scheme but don’t have much infrastructure or other attractions that add value to the visitor experience.

After all, once you have taken photos with the pretty murals, is there anything else to do in the village or the wider area? If the answer is no, then once the paint fades or the popularity of Instagram wanes, will Wonosari have anything left to offer visitors?

SEE ALSO: Villagers in tourist-heavy island of Lombok try beating poverty

One of the first travel websites to feature Kampung Pelangi was Travelfish, an independent travel guide to Southeast Asia. Travel Wire Asia asked its Indonesia researcher Sally Arnold, who has visited Wonosari, for her thoughts on whether it will be able to sustain its popularity following its new found Insta-fame.

“The market for “Insta-tourism” such as the Rainbow Villages in Indonesia, can certainly inspire travel in the first instance, yet whether it’s sustainable has yet to be seen,” she said.

“My thoughts are that the market in general is too fickle and is always after the next new thing — without history or cultural reference to back it up, like any fad or trend the novelty will soon fade, particularly if more and more villages get on the bandwagon with similar projects.”

This is already happening, as Wonosari itself has sought to capitalize on the success of Kampung Pelangi in both Malang and Yogyakarta, and if many more villages around Indonesia follow suit, one has to wonder if the 300 million rupiah investment will cease to look like money well spent.

A post shared by Safir Makki (@safirmakki) on

There is also an argument, however, that all tourism is positive if it brings in revenue and raises the profile of previously impoverished areas, and Wonosari is already working on improving other parts of the village with another injection of cash totaling 16 billion rupiah (US$120k).

Part of this is to fix the drainage systems in the village, and according to the Mayor of Semarang, Hendrar Prihadi: “The government is also going to build a food court in what is now a car repair shop, located beside Kembang market. And we’re also going to make a parking area in that location.”

This implies that, for now at least, Wonosari’s newfound celebrity status is proving to be a positive move for the local community, and that the village also has an eye on the future in terms of development that will support a wider influx of visitors.

SEE ALSO: Bali’s ‘waste warriors’ work against the clock to save island

Indonesia is also a country that struggles to pull in international tourists to areas outside the main hubs of Bali, Lombok and, to a lesser extent, some larger cities like Jakarta, but Kampung Pelangi has made international news with features in publications such as The Independent and Vogue.

When it comes to encouraging international tourists to venture outside Bali, highlighting lesser-known areas in the archipelago can only be a good thing for the Indonesian tourism industry.

If Kampung Pelangi can capitalize on the publicity and makes firms plans to develop other aspects of the village that may be attractive to visitors, then it may well still find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.