Feb 28, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Togians: ecotourism is not the answer

Published: Sep 30, 2007

While others hope environmentally sensitive tourism will help the Togian Islands, KATE NAPTHALI wants to beef up traditional industries instead.

The Togian economy is based on trade in fish and copra. Transport is the major barrier. Farmers and fishing households accept prices well below mainland market rates from produce traders who travel through the region.

Tourism is a growth industry in the Togian Islands, and this is the major interest for most government agencies and for non-government organisations (NGOs). However most villagers cannot afford to participate in this industry because they possess neither the capital nor the skills required.


The table provides a breakdown of the socio-economic structure of one particular village. This NGO study reflects the main industries in the region. Households considered 'poor' own only the tools required to participate in the fishing industry - and this is line-and-hook fishing at that. To own a net placed the household in the 'middle class' of Togian society. To own in excess of five hectares of plantation land and to own a net placed it in the upper class.

Village Classes

% of householdsOwnership of:
High 0.8 Motor boat
Fishing canoe
Fishing nets
Coconut plantation over 5 ha
Satellite dish
Video player
Middle 19.5 Fishing canoe with outboard
Fishing net
Coconut plantation under 5 ha
Low 79.7 Small fishing canoe (no motor)

Socio-Economic Structure of Kabalutan Village, Sub-District Walea Kepulauan (Source: LKLH Ibnu Chaldun, 1995).

Many villagers would like to participate in the coconut plantation industry, producing copra, the dried meat of the coconut, for export. But they face significant barriers. Land is not a problem, because its ownership is not concentrated within a small and powerful group. Land is traditional, ancestral and passed on from parents to children. But people cannot get credit to establish the plantation.

Most Togian Islanders work as fishermen. The Bajau-Sama have an affinity with the sea, fishing tools are cheap, and profits are in hand more quickly than elsewhere.


Central, provincial and regional plans for the Togians make it clear they see growth in the tourist sector as the cornerstone for economic development. The kind of tourism they promote is known as ecotourism. Janet Cochrane says in her new book ('The sustainability of ecotourism in Indonesia', 1996), that the term has changed its meaning since the genesis of the concept in the late 1980's. Then, it was 'travelling to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated natural areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas.'

Today, ecotourism is described as 'responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local people'. However, promoting a Togian Island tourist industry ignores significant risks, not only to island and coastal ecosystems, but also to local society, culture and traditional economic practices.

The strictly limited transport infrastructure and natural resources (including water), will mean that growing numbers of 'ecotourists' will soon, and inevitably, generate the same demands as traditional, mass tourism. Even well-planned implementation of a good ecotourism policy will tend to have the same impacts as conventional tourism. Large national and international operators, attracted by the obvious profitability of tourism in the superbly beautiful Togian Islands can encroach upon an industry which may initially have been managed by local people.


Modern tourism is growing rapidly. Thousands of tourists travel from Gorontalo, Tanah Toraja and Palu each year. The most obvious risk is the marginalisation of local people. Investment from Ujung Pandang, Gorontalo, Menado, and even Jakarta and Denpasar is beginning to control the local tourist sector. Income generated leaves the local economy and provides little real local growth.

The industry is competitive. The successful operators already have experience outside the islands. For example, some operators who own a hotel in the centre of Wakai and a bungalow establishment on the island of Kadidiri borrowed money from relatives in Jakarta. They had spent 14 years working in Rotterdam.

An Italian-funded diving venture is operating in the far eastern part of the islands, at Tanjung Keramat in Kecamatan Walea Kepulauan. This reflects growing international interest in tourist development in the region. A proposed airstrip to cater for the growing tourist industry is supported by Danish investment.


An interesting trend is that many medical practitioners now promote tourism here. They do not actually run hotels, but some act as the local contact for investors from outside. The local contact for the airstrip project, for example, was the Head of Provincial Health Services and Planning, in the Department of Health in Palu. He then directed the medical practitioner from the community health centre in Wakai to conduct the necessary negotiations with land owners, which he did during an immunisation campaign in the village.

Just as the airstrip would cater for the upper end of the tourist market, the two speedboats which are rented by high level public servants and businessmen who come to the Togian Islands are also owned by a medical practitioner. The speedboats represent an investment of US$ 20,000 or more, as each of the fibre glass boats has a 40 and a 25 horsepower engine.

The network within the medical fraternity develops out of the enforced national service after graduation. Most new graduates are reluctant to spend two or three years in an isolated village. Their seminars in regional centres every three months or so gives them an opportunity to share their experiences in the villages.

In the Togian Islands only the medical practitioners and hotel operators have experience in the modern urban sector. Consequently close relationships have developed between these groups.

Paramedics, as well, are involved in the tourist industry. In the village of Malenge, both hostels (losmen), are owned by paramedics (mantri). A third, under construction in September 1996, will be owned and operated by the headmistress of the local primary school. These are all educated professionals.


NGOs and government agencies say the tourist industry in the Togians will provide employment in the local community. However the reality is less clear. A family operating a small villagelosmen will use profits earned to send children to school in Gorontalo or Poso, or to buy consumer goods such as a satellite dish, television or refrigerator. So profits leak out of the local economy.

Increased tourist numbers will require more food purchases. But in the village of Malenge, for example, there is no market where local farmers can sell their produce to losmen owners. Solosmen owners travel elsewhere to purchase food. NGOs promoting ecotourism should see that purchase of food and handcrafts really benefits local petty traders.

The tourist industry is at the moment dominated by the small, professional class of Togian society on one hand, and by wealthy business interests based in large cities outside the Togians on the other. If tourism is to reduce poverty, the human and financial barriers to entry into the tourist industry for the poor must be lowered.

The province of Central Sulawesi has recorded good rates of economic growth. However, this growth has occurred on the more densely populated and well serviced mainland of Sulawesi. The Togian Islands have remained isolated from change. Fishing and plantation techniques have remained traditional. Anecdotal evidence of falling fish and copra yields could actually indicate negative economic growth in the region.

Established industries

It could be that in the rush to promote tourism, other more established industries will continue to decline. If government programs redeveloped these industries through improved fishery and plantation management and better technologies, they could continue to provide both the cultural foundation and income source for the Togian Island communities for future generations.

The tourism industry may appear lucrative. But experience in Bali indicates that very little money stays in the region. Even at this early stage in the Togians, the industry is largely controlled by the professional classes and outside businessmen, with little benefit accruing to the poor.

It is disappointing to observe that NGO plans, agreed to by local government at all levels, assumes that tourism is the only means to develop the economy sustainably. The Togian Islands have a high level of ethnic diversity and consequently a rich tapestry of indigenous knowledge and culture.

The economy is a simple two-commodity agrarian affair. With reasonably good management skills, it is easy to manage in an environmentally friendly fashion. Roughly 90% of the 30,000 people in the Togians participate directly or indirectly in a plantation or in the fishing industry. This figure represents a depth of skills and knowledge which should be harnessed and developed rather than sidestepped in favour of the tourist industry.

Kate Napthali visited the Togian Islands in 1996 for her postgraduate research in international studies at the University of Sydney. She is currently doing Masters research in public health and tropical medicine at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia.
Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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