Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Eco-tourism for whom?

Eco-tourism for whom?

Leila Sievanen  

A boat operator brings tourists back to the mainland
photo: Leila Sievanen

Pak Victor is a fisher living in the main village of Bunaken Island in Bunaken National Marine Park. Like most villagers, he mainly fishes for pelagic (open ocean) species, but during the monsoon he fishes for reef species nearer the shore. He says, ‘We have to go further to catch pelagics than in the past because of overfishing by foreign boats with more modern technology… It’s also harder to get reef fish because there are so many tourists diving in the water.’ Victor wants protection from offshore foreign fishing fleets and some nearshore fishers’ destructive practices such as blast and cyanide fishing. But can eco-tourism protect the livelihoods of local people like Victor as well as conserving the local environment?

Bunaken National Marine Park, located in North Sulawesi, is one of Indonesia’s most successful examples of combining coral reef conservation with economic growth, by developing eco-tourism. Established in 1991 by the Indonesian government, the park nests in the heart of the Coral Triangle, home to some of the richest marine biodiversity in the world. In the interests of both the 30,000 people that live within park boundaries and the dive tourism industry, park managers aim to sustain a healthy reef system.

After its establishment, USAID, the US government aid agency, began to  support ecotourism in the park. From USAID’s perspective, eco-tourism in Bunaken offers a model of decentralising coastal resource management by involving the local community and forging partnerships with the private sector.

Eco-tourism, part of a sustainable development paradigm, has social and ecological goals. It aims to elicit beneficiaries’ participation in a way that can help reduce poverty and at the same time support biodiversity. One key assumption in this paradigm is that poverty is a cause of environmental destruction and that economic growth can help both people and the environment.

Eco-tourists who visit Bunaken are fond of the idea that they are helping to protect the local environment and eradicate poverty. But are they really doing so? In Bunaken the stated aims of eliciting community participation and eradicating poverty been overlooked in the rush to secure economic growth by seeking foreign private capital investment. As a result, many local fishers are relegated to the rank of lowly labourers for foreign owned dive operators and the park management board. 


Bunaken National Marine Park has received international awards for local participation, sustainable funding mechanisms and biodiversity conservation. Its multi-stakeholder management board was created to combine private tourism interests, NGOs, government representatives and local park residents in both managing the park entrance fee and sharing in decision-making processes. To minimise user group conflict, fishing zones are distinct from tourism zones and fishers and dive operators negotiated to determine which zones would be located where.
Within the park’s predefined eco-tourism agenda, what does participation mean? Village representatives sit on the management board. Yet many Bunaken villagers feel that park rules do not represent their interests. One fisher says, ‘No one who disagrees with park rules sits on the park management board.’ Similarly, an NGO representative says, ‘I don’t go to meetings anymore because I already know the outcome.’

Growth at any cost

Boys learn boat skills off the coast of Bunaken Island
photo: Leila Sievanen

The success of tourism in the park has had unintended effects for local fishers. In the past 20 years, the waters around the main island where tourism and management occur have largely been transformed from a working to a recreational seascape. While sustainable fishing practices are encouraged in the park’s community use zones, the relationship between fishing and the park is ambiguous at best.

From a cursory perusal of the zonation map of Bunaken Island it appears that the zone set aside for the community is larger than the tourism zone, but this is not the case. Community zones actually have fewer target fish species (the species that fishers desire) than tourism zones. The space in which fishing can occur becomes even smaller when we are told that community zones include tourism use, while recreational zones exclude local fishers. Allowing everyone access to this space disadvantages fishers as they must compete with tourists for access to marine resources.

Before the 1960s, Bunaken’s waters were mainly made up of small-scale fishers. In 1980 the governor of North Sulawesi declared Bunaken Island a Tourism Object of Manado. Indonesians began opening small homestays. In the 1980s, more established dive operators from Europe and the United States, with bigger capital backing, began to open resorts. In the past ten years, resorts on both Bunaken Island and the mainland have become larger and more focused on pre-paid package deals.

On Bunaken Island, this corresponded with a shift in resort ownership from Indonesian-owned resorts to foreign-owned resorts. Despite park stakeholders’ best intentions, the occupations of local people on Bunaken Island have largely shifted away from nearshore fishing and independent tourism activities such as tour guiding, boat chartering and homestay ownership. Many of these people are now employed as wage laborers by either foreign-owned dive resorts or by the park. In these dive operations, better paying jobs tend to be held by mainlanders from Manado and Minahasa, who are often better educated.

One Bunaken Island homestay owner whose business is suffering said, ‘The park only uses Bunaken people to collect the bins and pick up garbage. We’re only staff – we don’t have a say! We aren’t leaders! Bunaken people don’t work for the [park management board]. The salaries for all these people come from Bunaken but Bunaken people don’t get anything!’

Recently, even many of the foreigners who own smaller resorts have started to feel threatened by more powerful interests. As foreign live-aboard dive boats and larger resorts enter the area, smaller operators and park officials worry about the negative impacts of expanding tourism, and have commissioned dive carrying capacity studies in the area. Similar to the protection desired by fishers, smaller dive operators now desire protection from larger foreign competitors.

Many foreign donors have responded to the call for eco-tourism as a route to both conservation and poverty reduction. As a result, coral reef tourism will only grow in the coming years in Indonesia. We must ask ourselves if this strategy of economic growth is the answer to poverty and to the destruction of coral reefs. Is a successful marine park defined by its ability to open up a coastal space to international capital? In the case of Bunaken National Marine Park, it has resulted in the disenfranchisement of many local fishers with questionable effects for long-term ecological sustainability.     ii

Leila Sievanen (leilas@u.washington.edu) is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington.  She is writing her dissertation on the politics of conservation and development in Bunaken National Marine Park where she lived in 2004-2005.

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008

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