Update: Do you want to help the people of Raja Ampat protect their coral reefs? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign to create Locally Protected Areas signposted with marker buoys. For as little as $25, you can help a homestay declare a traditionally protected “sasi” area on its house reef.
When we came home from our big trip in 2016, we had a sense of unfinished business with Indonesia. We had fallen in love with this country’s landscapes, people, and above all its oceans. I logged most of my dives in Indonesia, and Paul went from reluctant swimmer to novice scuba diver. We explored the less-visited provinces of Sulawesi and Maluku, where we saw something amazing every time we got into the water.
Other travelers told us about Raja Ampat, the group of islands off the western tip of Papua. The name sounds exotic and the stories we heard about pristine beaches and dive sites swarming with fish sounded even better. But we also heard stories about strong currents and high prices relative to the rest of Indonesia. For these reasons, and due to the timing of weather and seasons, we went home without visiting the fabled islands of Raja Ampat.
The 1995 edition of Lonely Planet Indonesia doesn’t even mention Raja Ampat. A decade ago, the only tourists were divers in the know, who usually arrived on liveaboard dive boats. Today, tourist numbers are growing slowly but steadily. We wanted to get there soon. We came home, went back to work, and sat through a dreary Seattle winter watching our vacation days accrue. In late November 2017, we packed our masks and fins and flew halfway around the world to our underwater frontier.
Our trip to Raja Ampat lasted two weeks. First we spent six nights at the incredible Raja Ampat Biodiversity Eco Resort on Gam. We dove at many of the famous dive sites and Paul finished his Open Water dive certification. Next, we spent a total of eight nights at three homestays on Kri, Arborek, and Waigeo islands. We snorkeled coral dropoffs and jetties, visited white sand beaches, and hiked through the jungle to spot birds of paradise.
Raja Ampat is different from other destinations in Indonesia because of its conservation ethos. Local people, government entities, and business owners are working together to make sure that tourism stays sustainable. They are taking steps now, before tourist numbers skyrocket, in order to protect Raja Ampat’s rich biodiversity. So far, it looks like their efforts are paying off.
Divers and snorkelers come to Raja Ampat from around the world to experience its marine biodiversity. Raja Ampat has 75% of the world’s coral species, the record for the most species of fish at a single dive site, and an abundance of endemic species.
A patchwork of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) extends over the seas of Raja Ampat. Patrol boats monitor MPAs to enforce fishing restrictions and destructive practices like cyanide or dynamite fishing. MPAs benefit everyone. They benefit the marine ecosystems by letting organisms flourish undisturbed. They also increase fishing yields. When one area is declared a no-take zone, fish reproduce and move into unprotected areas, resulting in a greater bounty for fishermen. Finally, from a tourist’s point of view, MPAs are the best places for diving and snorkeling because of the abundance of fish.
There is an entry permit fee of IDR 1,000,000 for foreigners (500,000 for Indonesians) for the Raja Ampat Marine Park. Biodiversity Dive Resort, where we stayed for the first six nights of our trip, purchased our permits for us. Otherwise, permits are available near the ferry terminal in Sorong. The fees help pay for monitoring and management of the marine protected areas. You will have to show your permit at Manta Sandy and potentially anywhere else in Raja Ampat. Don’t be a jerk like the backpacker we talked to who was planning to avoid paying the fee.
Check out the official website for the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Areas for details.
Sasi: Traditional Resource Management
Sasi is the traditional method of resource conservation in Raja Ampat. Under sasi law, a landowner or village chief prohibits people from fishing at certain places at certain times of the year. Sasi ensures that fish populations are never exhausted from any single area so that there is always enough fish for everyone. It is an example of how resource conservation is not a new idea and does not have to go against the wishes of local people. Our understanding is that sasi uses community pressure and some element of spiritual power or magic to enforce its prohibitions. Consequently, we suspect that local people are more likely to comply with sasi than with governmental decrees coming down from Sorong or Jakarta.
Sasi protections are in place for some reefs in Raja Ampat, including Arborek jetty and an area of reef right next to Biodiversity dive resort on Gam island.
As a result of the marine protections, Raja Ampat has an abundance of underwater life. During our visit, we saw schools of parrotfish, snapper, jacks, and bumpheads. We saw the endemic wobbegong and walking sharks and a pair of elusive guitar sharks. Also, reef shark sightings were the rule, not the exception, every time we got into the water. Frequent shark sightings are sadly rare in most places we’ve dived and snorkeled, mostly due to the loathsome practice of shark finning for the East Asian market.
Raja Ampat Homestay Association
It’s a story that has been played out on many a tropical beach around the world. A trickle of travelers to a pristine beach turns into a steady stream of tourists who demand Western-style accommodations. Investors move in, buy the land from the local people for a pittance, and develop five-star resorts. The locals and their children have to move away or end up working low-paid service jobs in the resorts on the land their family used to own.
Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet in Raja Ampat. What’s more, as tourist numbers are increasing, local families are taking steps to make sure that the benefits of tourism stay in local hands. To that end, local homestay owners formed the Raja Ampat Homestay Association. Its goals are to maintain a sustainable tourism economy that empowers locals to advocate for conservation, to develop ecotourism business skills, and to set minimum standards for accommodation.
There are over 100 homestays in Raja Ampat. Travelers can book their stay at the website of the wonderful organization Stay Raja Ampat. Stay Raja Ampat acts as a bridge between the homestay association and tourists by providing homestay listings, reviews, and booking forms. It also has a wealth of information about transportation, activities, and conservation issues in Raja Ampat.
The word “homestay” conjures images of sleeping in a family’s spare room. In reality, homestays in Raja Ampat are more like rustic backpacker resorts. A typical homestay consists of 2-5 simple bamboo bungalows with a common dining area and shared bathroom. The cost is around IDR350,000 (about U$26) per person per night including accommodation and meals.
Homestay facilities are very simple and not the best choice for anyone afraid of rats or bugs. We also recommend learning some Indonesian phrases because most families speak little to no English. That said, staying in a homestay is the best way to get a glimpse of local life and put your money into the local economy. Most of them are on white sand beaches that look like five-star resorts.
We stayed at three homestays: Warahnus on Kri, Worisun on Arborek, and Warimpurem on Waigeo. We booked all the homestays through Stay Raja Ampat. Of the three, Worisun stood out for its warm welcome and stunning location.
Locally run Bird of Paradise tourism
Raja Ampat isn’t just about the underwater world. The rugged jungles of the island interiors are home to many colorful birds, including two endemic species of bird of paradise. Male birds of paradise have evolved outlandish plumage, colors, and squawking, hopping, flapping courtship displays. The 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace studied birds of paradise in Raja Ampat and articulated the theory of sexual selection. In short, males evolve the characteristics that females prefer in their mates. The male with the reddest tail or the highest jump will have the most reproductive success, so these traits are passed down to his offspring.
Red Bird of Paradise on Gam
On the island of Gam, we went to see the red birds of paradise with Simon, a guide from a nearby village. Simon picked us up from Biodiversity dive resort before dawn in his wooden motorboat. As the sun rose, we motored up a narrow mangrove inlet to its terminus deep in the jungle. The male birds of paradise display in a particular tree on a hill about a kilometer inland. It was a thrilling sight to watch the brilliant red birds flit between the branches while their cries rose above the canopy.
The hike through the jungle was steep and slippery, but it would have been a lot harder without the steps and handrails that Simon built. He also built the jetty and a bench below the display tree. Now, it’s a little easier for tourists to see the birds of paradise and Simon has an income stream.
Wilson’s Bird of Paradise on Waigeo
The village of Saporkren on Waigeo also has a locally-run birdwatching industry. In addition to the red bird of paradise, Waigeo is home to the Wilson’s bird of paradise. Smaller than the red bird of paradise, with a blue head that doesn’t quite look real, the Wilson’s is easier to see because it stays on the ground. The male spends most of its time cleaning leaves and twigs from its lek, or display ground, on the forest floor. The female of the species prefers males who keep their home tidy!
Waigeo Island is unlike the rest of Raja Ampat because it has a road along the coastline with several radial roads going inland. Our guide, Abraham, told us that on the other side of the island, the population of Wilson’s bird of paradise declined after the road was built. In response, the people of Saporkren decided to protect their Wilson’s habitat. To this end, they declared a protected forest area and gated the road a few kilometers from the Wilson’s site. Now, birdwatchers have to walk along the closed road, but the bird population is stable.
Sustainable Manta Ray Diving
Manta Sandy is the most popular manta ray dive and snorkel site in Raja Ampat. It is a shallow, sandy area with a lump of coral where mantas congregate. To prevent overcrowding and protect the mantas, there are regulations governing tourism at Manta Sandy. No more than 20 divers and snorkelers can be at the site at a time. Rangers enforce the regulations from their brand-new stilt hut in the shallows. When we arrived, we had to wait an hour because there was already a large group in the water with the mantas.
Divers at Manta Sandy have to follow a code of conduct. The most important rule is to stay behind the line of rocks several meters behind the cleaning station. If you chase a manta ray or get too close to it, it will get frightened and swim away. Then all the other divers will be mad at you! At Manta Sandy, divers kneel behind a line of rocks. Consequently, the mantas are relaxed and behave normally. Several mantas swam right over our heads during our hour-long dive. It goes to show that if you keep your distance from the mantas, you will have closer encounters with them.
Arborek: Eco-Conscious Tourism
On the map, the island of Arborek looks like a pinpoint in the middle of the sea. Ashore, it only feels slightly bigger. It’s a palm-fringed island with a village of about twelve families, the same number of homestays, and a jetty and reef teeming with fish. A sandy path runs around the perimeter of the island. In this way, it’s a little like Gili Air without the upscale hotels and stoned backpackers. However, it looks like the people of Arborek are taking the initiative to prevent the “Gilification” of their island.
The Bank Negara Indonesia (Indonesia State Bank) sponsors sustainable tourism programs in Arborek. The most obvious effort was the anti-littering campaign. Anyone who has visited Indonesia will understand how badly the entire country needs to clean up its garbage. To this end, BNI installed garbage cans and posted signs with anti-littering messages. There are signs with “Arborek is not a trash can” and “The ocean is not a trash can” in Indonesian and English. Because of these efforts, Arborek is noticeably cleaner than most places in Indonesia.
In some ways, ecotourism in Arborek looks suspiciously like advertising. The picket fences along the two streets are painted blue and orange, the colors of BNI. But if corporate branding is what it takes to keep rubbish out of the ocean, we are all for it.
We have so many great things to say about Arborek that we’ll write a separate blog post about it.
Conclusion: Ecotourism for real?
Ecotourism is a tricky word. It’s easy to get cynical about sustainable tourism because so many places use the “eco” buzzword without the corresponding actions. But we think that Raja Ampat is on the right track. The people of Raja Ampat have obvious pride in their land. They are taking the necessary steps now to protect it while they share it with tourists. Not everything works perfectly, but if any destination is going to survive this century, Raja Ampat might be it.
There are a lot of things that you can do to help preserve Raja Ampat when you visit. Bring a reusable water bottle and refill it from your homestay’s keg of drinking water. Use reef-safe sunscreen or cover up with a rash guard and swim tights to reduce sunscreen. Take your rubbish back home with you unless you want it to go into the ocean. Don’t step on the coral. Divers, practice good buoyancy control to avoid breaking coral. Don’t buy the endangered coconut crabs for sale at the Fam Islands. Have fun and tell your hosts by your words and actions how much you value this place.
We mentioned a lot of sustainability efforts in this post without going into details. Watch the well-made documentary Guardians of Raja Ampat for more information. It has many examples of how the people of Raja Ampat are consciously choosing sustainability. Its gorgeous footage of Raja Ampat above and below the water will get you ready to book your ticket. You won’t be alone: we’re already planning our return trip.