Indonesia is an evermore attractive tourist destination, famed for its natural beauty, but can travel to the island nation ever be truly sustainable?

The tropical island of Bali in Indonesia was named by TripAdvisor as the second most popular global destination in 2023, surpassing the likes of London, Paris and Rome. With 5.47 million international tourists visiting Indonesia in 2022, and a steady rise up the ranks of international tourism, it seems there has never been a more pressing need for sustainable travel to the archipelago. But is ‘sustainable travel’ really possible?

The vision

Travelling through Indonesia, you could be forgiven for believing you have stumbled upon an environmental utopia in places. A visit to the magnificent Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park in East Java delivers astounding panoramic views of the active volcano, Bromo, while local tour guides donning “BROMO ECOTOUR” jackets pace along the caldera’s rim, informing wide-eyed tourists of the volcano’s history.

Wandering along the beautiful white-sand beaches of southern Bali, you see dozens of eye-catching handwritten signs promising free beer in exchange for collecting bags of washed up litter — along with an equal number of satisfied young beachgoers, cheerfully carrying their full rubbish bags towards the nearest beach bar.

Take a second look at these scenes, however, and a less idealistic picture quickly forms. At the bottom of Bromo, hundreds of diesel-chugging Jeeps line the famous expanse of the “Sea of Sand”, and the resulting mixture of fumes is close to unbearable. Along those Balinese beaches, internationally-owned luxury resorts dominate the limited freshwater supply so much so that it’s cut off for local people, who are deprived of it between 10am and 6pm in order to leave the majority for those hotels.

Ecotourism, both theoretically and in practice, seems so rife with contradictions that its ability to positively reform current and future touristic practices must seriously be called into question.

The definition of ecotourism has been contested amongst researchers, organisations and governing bodies, although the International Ecotourism Society’s definition may be most succinct: they define it as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education,” the latter including both operators and guests.

Indonesia has long been a global leader in the ecotourism movement, naming 2002 as their “National Ecotourism Year”. The former Indonesian Minister of Culture and Tourism, I Gede Ardika, has stated that the country should regard ecotourism as a long-term strategy, and in 1995 the Indonesian Ecotourism Network (INDECON) was established, now operating across five regions in Indonesia. Despite nationwide efforts to minimise its impact, tourism in the region poses serious threats to sustainability, and indeed has already inflicted significant environmental damage, particularly in the province of Bali.

The reality

Although Indonesia attracts growing numbers of visitors each year due to its vast array of natural gems, unmatched coral reefs, and diverse flora and fauna — it is, after all, the second most biodiverse nation in the world — the archipelago (bar Bali) sees far less international tourism than its regional peers. And, more and more, tourists are attracted by just that: the chance to experience the largely unaltered natural environment in all its untapped (and thus generally inexpensive) glory. Yet visiting off-the-beaten-path islands and regions may not be as mutually beneficial as self-conscious tourists convince themselves it is.

Take the small yet increasingly popular Gili islands, off the coast of Lombok. A two-hour ferry from Bali, the allure of these previously uninhabited islands lies largely in their isolation and natural beauty; backpackers, divers, surfers and families alike frequent “the Gilis” in swathes during high season, and the plethora of snorkelling, diving, and watersports activities available along every beach reflects this.

“With the right tools, they can show the rest of us how it’s done.”

Gili Trawangan, or colloquially Gili T, is the most popular island for tourism and diving in particular, thus attracting a wealthier crowd — specifically divers. The island does not have access to subterranean freshwater like neighbouring Gili Air, and as a result researchers have warned that wealthy tourists may cause significant harm to the island, through demanding more water for Western-style baths and toilets, and staying in upscale diving resorts that use up the majority of the limited water supply. They also create a growing demand for plastic-wrapped packaged food in the form of biscuits and confectionery rather than local food. Thomas Egil’s 2018 overtourism documentary highlights the huge waste disposal issues in Gili T, occurring directly as a result of increasing numbers of tourists to an island under-equipped to accommodate them all. The attraction of a trip to such a remote island soon fades when the impact of such an influx of tourists becomes clear.

Another major issue with Indonesian ecotourism, although it is also an issue with the movement at large, concerns the consistent mistaken attribution of the label “ecotourism” to activities and organisations that actually offer forms of nature tourism. Nature tourism centres primarily around touristic interaction with natural resources like parks, reserves, flora and fauna, and often has little or no consideration of sustainable practices for doing so. Many tour agencies capitalise on this ambiguity in order to draw interest in their services.

A stroll along Lovina Beach in Northern Bali reinforces this notion of nature tourism versus ecotourism; a vast array of boats lie docked along the shoreline, advertising their dolphin-watching “eco-tours”, which in practice are anything but. Not only do dozens of fuel-guzzling boats chase dolphins at high speed away from their feeding grounds, but the rise in popularity of the practice may be negatively impacting the population in the long-term. As simple as the distinction between nature and eco-tourism might be, the resulting confusion leads tourists and locals alike to believe their participation in such activities is actively helping to protect, rather than harming, the natural landscapes.

The future

Clearly, the contradictions in ecotourism make it somewhat of a wicked problem. Tourism constitutes 80% of the Balinese economy alone, so it seems the solution is not to do away with it completely. A strong sustainability perspective of Southeast Asian sustainable tourism promotes a radical reappraisal of the very tenets of tourism development, prioritising conservation and genuine developmental benefits for those in greatest need. Perhaps this is what the ecotourism industry needs if it is to maximise the potential benefits: a diversion from the status quo into radically new forms of tourism, based upon fundamentally different principles and practices, and an upheaval of existing facilities, management, education and financing nationwide.

A country as culturally and naturally rich as Indonesia has the potential to be a world leader in successful, genuinely sustainable travel. With the right tools, they can show the rest of us how it’s done.