When the region of Aceh, West Sumatra, suffered a devastating tsunami back in 2007, the small islands suffered the most. The island of Simeulue did not escape this tragedy. Back then, the remote island was only connected to Sumatra by a long boat ride of over 7 hours. After the disaster, help to rebuild was urgently needed and the population got together to create the first airport runaway in record time. The tsunami of 2007 was the beginning of Simeulue as a tourism destination.
It was the people from the aid relief team who came to help, that brought the first surfboards to the island. From then, and particularly in the last 5 years, a total of 17 surf camps (as of June 2018) have popped up around the surf breaks.
Today, the island could well be one of the most idyllic surfing destinations in the world: extremely friendly and honest locals, tropical vegetation, good weather, warm water, uncrowded waves, and endless bike rides between palm trees in search of the perfect barrel. It is indeed any surfer’s dream, and these assets are what draws people to travel huge distances and make their holiday investment worthwhile.
The type of tourist visiting Simeulue is any tourism destinations dream: affluent solo or small group travellers, generally middle-aged environmentally conscious men, staying for an average of 1 to 2 weeks and doing low impact activities. Where is the downfall you might ask?
In an island where tourism is relatively new, the way it has developed it is quite particular. Foreign investors that saw the potential and didn’t hesitate to co-own a piece of land with a local partner to build a surf camp. When I visited, for example, the only option to stay on the island was by paying between 50 and 150 US$ per person per night, including meals, motorbike rental, and surf guiding. This is practically everything you need when the only purpose of your holiday is surf, eat, sleep and repeat.
Of course, you are paying the full amount before you arrive, preferably via PayPal and in US dollars to an address outside the island. In a country where you can easily have a meal for a dollar or two and an overnight stay for less than 5$ a night, the huge price you pay in advance shows how the tourism model is based on a huge economic leakage.
The very few who benefit from the current system are probably unaware of how much they are trapped under the market forces. Visitors to this island are willing to pay such prices because they know they can get the waves they expect. However, this perfect situation is slowly becoming unsustainable for some: as the issue of land speculation becomes more prominent and more surf camps develop, more people would come to the island. Under this business as usual scenario, prices would have to drop at the same time that surf peaks would become busier. Simeulue could easily quickly become one more crowded surfing destination in Indonesia.
There is still time for Simeulue to set the basis of a more sustainable tourism model. One that really benefits the local population, that allows the visitor to make a real impact in the local economy and provides the island to grow responsibly taking into account their natural resources. This destination has the potential to create a model replicable to other small islands, to become an example of well-managed tourism and keep the current profile of visitor coming in the long term. However, the time to act is now.
Angela Rodriguez is travelling the world discovering sustainable tourism stories to tell. She work with responsible tourism tour operators and travel companies to help them communicate sustainability in an innovative and inspiring way, connecting people who are doing great things and inquisitive travellers who love to discover the real essence of the places they are visiting.