Lombok: It got knocked down, but it will get up again
A MONTH on from the chain of earthquakes that blitzed Lombok, the Indonesian idyll is still being shaken by aftershocks.
Hotels remain shuttered, and a series of tent villages stand as wretched reminders of the tumult.
But instead of giving islanders time to mourn, Indonesia’s president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is demanding they pick themselves up and move on.
It may seem heartless, but it simply reflects the fact that tourism is one of the main pillars of Jokowi’s national economic strategy. Now the question is, how long will it take for the island to pick itself up again?
How Indonesia responds to the devastation in Lombok – far from an isolated incident in the disaster-prone country – will be critical as it relies increasingly on tourism as a driver of economic development and poverty reduction.
The clean-up will certainly be a huge task. Since the first earthquake hit Lombok on July 29, scientists estimate that the island has been hit by five further quakes and roughly 1,000 aftershocks.
Over 550 people died in the earthquakes and 400,000 displaced, with authorities estimating that the damage will exceed US$500 million. Each new spike on the seismograph leaves a chaotic ripple effect, forcing rescue workers back to square one.
The humanitarian devastation has been matched by economic turmoil, with the earthquakes particularly badly timed for Indonesia’s tourism industry; the convulsions sent Lombok into lockdown at the very height of summer, and the country’s tourism minister estimates the island will lose 100,000 visitors this year alone.
What’s more, disaster struck just weeks after Jokowi had ordered ministers to make a concerted push for new visitors, as the defining policy of his leadership reaches a climactic stage.
The new administration quickly latched on to tourism in its quest for diversification, seeing it as a viable way to drive employment, spur economic development, and harvest foreign currencies.
Jokowi’s five-year plan, unveiled in 2015, pledged to raise international arrivals from nine to 20 million; his government has since relaxed visa rules, liberalized rules on foreign investment, and rebuilt roads and airports to meet this lofty target.
The government’s vision is based on its ‘10 new Balis’ strategy, which seeks to spread the tourist bounty beyond Indonesia’s most famous island and across the archipelago.
Officials have been particularly keen to promote Lombok, a surfer’s paradise situated next door to Bali which offers easy access to the beautiful Gili islands, as well as a network of mosques perfectly attuned to the burgeoning ‘halal tourism’ sector. Tourism bosses have sought to harness this potential through the Mandilika Resort, a US$3 billion leisure development and special investment zone complete with theme park, marina and golf course.
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The island has also garnered increasing interest from investors, notably the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), which recently signed an MoU with the government of Indonesia to invest up to US$500 million in the country’s tourism sector. QIA, which was founded in 2005 as part of an effort to diversify the emirate’s economy, had previously expressed interest in investing in Lombok’s Mandalika Special Economic Zone.
Now, Jakarta’s hope is that other foreign investors will follow QIA’s example and take a view towards the long-term, bringing the much-needed cash that will be needed to help turn Lombok into a major generator of both tourism and economic development.
Given these ambitions, it’s not surprising that the country’s tourism officials have been striking a bullish tone as they try to prevent the bubble from bursting.
One described Lombok’s recent earthquakes as merely a “temporary shock”, while another pointed out that only 25 hotels had suffered any damage during the tremors – although there are questions around whether this will reassure nervous visitors.
Jokowi himself has pushed a number of initiatives to quicken the recovery, announcing investment directives and ordering that tourism offices promote those areas left undamaged by the quakes.
Will Lombok be able to answer the rallying cry? Well, the Indonesian people are certainly no strangers to adversity.
The country is located in one of the most tectonically active areas in the world and regularly witnesses natural disasters, notably the massive tsunami of 2004. It has also suffered from major terror attacks such as the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people – mainly Australian tourists.
At the time, both events – particularly the brazen attack on a tourist hotspot in Bali – might have been expected to chase tourists away for good.
Yet each time, Indonesia’s tourism industry managed to bounce back, and with its robust economic growth rates. This suggests that, despite the prospect of a long and painful recovery looming ahead, Lombok will be able to do the same.
And for growth-hungry Indonesia, this is good news indeed.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Asian Correspondent.