A 'cheaper, more natural Bali' ready to boom

/ Source: The Associated Press

As the tropical monsoon clouds roll in, obscuring the towering volcanoes along the Bali coastline, the pristine neighboring island of Lombok seems a world away from Indonesia's premier tourist destination. In fact, it almost is.

This unique isle lays to the east of one of the sharpest fissures in nature, the so-called Wallace Line that cuts through the Indonesian archipelago and divides the flora and fauna of Asia and that of Australia, Papua, New Zealand and other Pacific islands.

Long overshadowed by Bali, an Asian tourist mecca, Lombok is located some 670 miles east of Jakarta. Its 2 million inhabitants hope its exceptional combination of spectacular unspoiled scenery, wonderful beaches and exotic mosaic of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures will provide an adequate lure to tourists seeking a less-developed tropical escape, unobscured by sprawling resorts, fast-food chains, shopping malls or traffic jams.

"Bali has been an internationally well-known brand since the first Hollywood film stars began arriving in the 1920s, while Lombok has usually been overlooked as 'that place near Bali,'" said Kemal K. Kaul, director of the exclusive, Oberoi Hotel on Lombok's west coastline. "But we see that attitude changing gradually, and last year was our best so far."

Bali accounts for nearly three-quarters of Indonesia's earnings from tourism, expected to exceed $6 billion this year. But tourist arrivals plunged after the terrorist bombings in 2002 and last year, and the traditional hordes of sun worshippers, scuba divers and surfers have been slow to return to this previously prized paradise.

Building out the infrastructure
Surprisingly, the downturn in Bali didn't echo much in next-door Lombok, which had a very good year in 2005. It now ranks among Indonesia's top earners from tourism, although still behind Bali, the island of Batam opposite Singapore, and Java, Indonesia's dominant region.

Although Lombok residents know their island is a real gem for those seeking a true tropical escape where they can experience authentic island life, they believe that existing plans to improve the island's infrastructure and accessibility, including a new international airport, will bring them out of Bali's shadow, and give them a bigger slice of the burgeoning tourist trade in Asia.

Recent developments on the island have seen an increase in accommodations of an international standard, such as the Oberoi, the Sheraton Sengiggi, the Holiday Inn and the Novotel hotels.

Officials say the lack of air links has been the main factor hampering tourist growth. "If they could only get direct flights from places like Perth and Kuala Lumpur, Lombok could position itself as the second beach resort in Indonesia," Kaul said.

Singapore's Silk Air operates the only international flight to the island. There are also daily flights from Bali, which is just a half-hour away by air.

Indonesia's flag-carrier, Garuda, normally offers a daily flight from Jakarta through the central city of Yogyakarta, but the Yogyakarta airport has been temporarily affected by the earthquake that hit there May 27. Lombok itself was unaffected by the earthquake, which was hundreds of miles away.

In contrast to Bali's tourist hustle and bustle, Lombok offers a view of the old Indonesia, with its dense forests, traditional thatched villages, empty beaches and bygone transport -- the ubiquitous "dokar" carts pulled by sturdy Sumbawan ponies.

'Lombok is cheaper and much more natural'
A massive volcano, the 12,000-foot Mt. Rinjani is Indonesia's second-highest peak. Visitors should be prepared for a two-day trek to get to the dormant crater and the lake that lies in its center.

"There are more cultural things to see in Bali, but Lombok is cheaper and much more natural -- you get a village feel here," said Christy Oliver, of Ottawa, Canada, who was visiting with her family. "It's still untouched by mass tourism," she said.

While not up to Bali's level in terms of goods and services, Lombok offers adventure and eco tourism, as well as handicrafts such as pottery, weaving and pearl jewelry. The coral gardens fringing the three tiny and unspoiled Gili islands off its northwest corner are a draw for snorkelers and divers and includes the second-largest patch of Blue Coral in the world. Surfers and backpackers congregate at the Kuta beach area, which faces the Indian Ocean.

"Lombok is well-known among Korean honeymooners because it's quieter and less touristy than Bali," said Simok Kim, from Taegu, South Korea, who was visiting the island with his bride Eunjoo Lee.

"A lot of couples come here," he said. He complained though that there was very little tourist information about the island available in South Korea. "It's mostly by word-of mouth," Kim said.

One of the Lesser Sunda Islands, Lombok lies across a deep 25-mile wide waterway used by hundreds of merchant ships and, reportedly, U.S. nuclear submarines, traversing between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is of similar size and population, about 2.3 million people, as Bali.

It first came to international attention in the second half of the 19th century, when Alfred Russel Wallace, the "father of animal geography," reported on the sharp differences between plants and wildlife on Bali and Lombok. On Bali, the flora and fauna were the same as in the west of the Indonesian archipelago and neighboring Malaya. In contrast, on Lombok, they were obviously linked to Australia and its surrounding islands.

Wallace's ideas on the two separate biological zones and on natural selection were later incorporated into Charles Darwin's theory on evolution.

"Not many people ask us about the Wallace Line, but occasionally some divers want to see the ocean floor in the straits because they say it represents the divide between Australia and Asia," said Wayan Asmara, a diving instructor in the Gilis.