What happens when a rising star bursts into a thousand pieces? This is the burning question on Lombok these days. After years of double-digit growth in the tourism sector, the island now faces an uncertain future thanks to a string of strong earthquakes that toppled homes and hotels. Much has been lost, but there are signs that the future will be brighter, more eco-focused, and, perhaps, increasingly Islamic as Lombok rebuilds in a conscientious way.
An Unshakable Spirit
Three separate earthquakes rocked Lombok in July and August 2018, leaving an estimated 563 people dead and hundreds of thousands more homeless. The sheer force of the event lifted the island by as much as 25cm and damaged some 80% of all structures in North Lombok. Toss in a few landslides on the slopes of Gunung Rinjani, the fear of a tsunami in the Gilis (which never actually materialised) and a malaria outbreak caused by thousands of earthquake refugees living in makeshift tents, and you can begin to understand why Lombok was left completely shell-shocked.
Like any earthquake, the level of damage depended greatly on the distance from the epicentre and the building materials involved. In general, buildings made in the traditional style with wood or bamboo survived, while those built using unreinforced concrete crumbled to the ground. Towns north of Gunung Rinjani took the hardest hit, followed by the Gili Islands, Senggigi and, to a lesser extent, Mataram. Most places in South Lombok sustained little more than cosmetic damages.
Rebuilding was relatively swift in economically important tourist centres, including the Gili Islands and Senggigi. The trekking hubs on the north side of Gunung Rinjani were far slower to recover, particularly after the most popular routes up Gunung Rinjani were closed for reparations. A new two-day, one-night trek up the volcano from the south side near Aik Berik opened in late 2018 to provide an alternative route that could lure back tourists.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised payments of between 10 million and 50 million rupiah to those whose homes were damaged or destroyed. However, as of December 2018, only a fraction of those eligible for the money had actually received it.
Frustrated by the government’s response to the disaster, residents from all across Lombok banded together to raise money for their neighbours, rebuild homes and chart a new path forward. There were fundraisers, concerts, rallies and numerous opportunities for tourists to get involved as volunteers. Through all the hardship came a reaffirmation of the indomitable spirit of Lombok. It may have been shaken hard, but it has every intention of rising again.
The Rise of Halal Tourism
Though it’s still possible to find alcohol at major tourist centres, mainland Lombok has become increasingly conservative in recent years. The Ministry of Tourism’s Halal Tourism Development Acceleration Team, formed in 2016, has worked hard to position the island as Indonesia’s premier destination for Muslim families who abide by the rules of Islam. One of the most visible moves in this direction was the creation of a massive new Islamic Center in Mataram in 2016. The stunning green and gold mosque towers over the city with observation decks and a minaret rising to a height of 114 metres. Of course, this is but one of nearly a thousand mosques scattered across the island, and the government is betting that Lombok’s devout population can play a starring role in its plan to attract 5 million Muslim visitors by 2020.
The rise of the Gili Islands from hedonistic backpacker ghettos (with dirt-cheap bungalows) to linchpins of the Instagram influencer circuit (with ultra-luxurious villas) has been swift and steady. However, as the number of tourists multiples ever year, so too do the pressures on the fragile ecosystem. Long gone are the days when you could swim just offshore to pristine reefs teeming with colourful fish. Thankfully, there are a growing number of eco-conscious tourism operators on the islands who are ensuring that the future is brighter.
Dive shops, in particular, have led the way, educating visitors about responsible behaviour and placing more than 150 Biorock installations around the islands to stimulate reef restoration. The Gili Eco Trust has also been at the forefront of change, placing 1000 recycling bins on the islands, encouraging restaurants to use bamboo or steel straws, and installing more than 150 mooring buoys to stop coral anchoring.
Of course, the threat of overtourism still lingers on the horizon, particularly on Gili T. Behind closed doors, some residents will tell you that the earthquakes of 2018 had a silver lining in that they knocked down many of the dangerously shoddily tourist hovels that had sprouted like mushrooms in recent years. The earthquakes also forced the police to set up what will likely become a permanent presence on the islands. The hope is that the Gilis can rebuild and restart with a more conscientious plan in mind.