Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was emerging as a boon to rural communities seeking to supplement their incomes while preserving their way of life. With little tourism to rely on as the coronavirus rages on, two rural communities in Indonesia are finding other ways to cope.
Virtual voyages: Lakoat.Kujawas
Can the magic of a revered water source in the Mollo highlands be felt across a virtual video tour?
Perhaps not as much as Dicky Senda would like. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting his hometown off from tourism revenue, such experiments provide a way to bring the sights and sounds of his hometown into people’s homes and a means to sustain his community’s way of life.
Just a little more than a year ago, Dicky had debuted the M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail and was looking forward to welcoming guests regularly in 2020. Run as a monthly day trip in Taiftob, South Central Timor by local collective Lakoat.Kujawas, the guided tour introduces guests to Mollo ecosystems, cuisine and narratives. Like its namesake, the Mollo Timorese m’nahat fe’u ritual, it celebrates the harvest season by serving new food.
But the COVID-19 pandemic ground the heritage trail, as well as the many livelihoods it created, to a halt. While Lakoat.Kujawas cooperative members are mostly farmers who could continue with agriculture, they lost the valuable supplementary income they earned as guides and cooks for travellers. The revenue from these endeavours had also been intended to go into a collective savings programme to fund critical needs of members’ children.
Sales for their produce such as coffee, condiments and jagung bose (puffed maize for porridge) also declined, as these were sold mainly on the heritage trail. Without these sales, the farmers are vulnerable to middlemen who set prices so unfairly low that farmers often leave produce unsold — a system that creates the poverty and hunger common throughout Indonesian Timor.
“Economically we are impacted,” admits Dicky, co-founder of Lakoat.Kujawas, citing logistical problems such as closures of the postal services and sporadic operations of shuttles leaving Taiftob for the provincial capital Kupang. At one point, it took a fortnight for a package to reach Jakarta.
Nevertheless, with the help of friends, Dicky found opportunities to reinvent the heritage trail.
Enter Pasar M’nahat Fe’u (“new food market”), one of Lakoat.Kujawas’ digital initiatives. Via its social media channels, anyone in South Central Timor can now pre-order lunch boxes containing healthy, traditional Timorese dishes normally served on the heritage trail, prepared and delivered by collective members. “Our open orders promote no MSG, no palm oil, only local coconut oil, traditional dishes and recipes, and a plastic-free lunch packaged in banana leaves,” said Dicky.
Lakoat.Kujawas also debuted a digital version of the M’nahat Fe’u Heritage Trail as part of the Virtual Heritage series on the travel platform Traval.co. The free pilot was sponsored by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism; currently it is still available for free, but participants are encouraged to "pay-as-you-wish”.
Featuring singer and activist Rara Sekar as a special guest, the virtual tour, in Bahasa Indonesia only, recreates much of the M’nahat Fe’u experience in a part-live two-hour Zoom Meeting format. Explaining the need to pre-record some portions of the tour, Dicky elaborated, “Patchy internet is a challenge: nudge your phone and you lose the signal. It’s impossible to broadcast live from the wellspring, Napjam Rock, etc.”
In the virtual format, Lakoat.Kujawas has also introduced new seasonal elements, such as a tour inside an ume kbubu traditional house, a demonstration of how jagung bose is made, and a showcase of new preserved products such as sayur asin (pickled mustard greens), guava wine, ginger beer, and roselle jam. Husband-and-wife team Willybrodus Oematan (guide) and Marlinda Nau (head cook) also presented segments of the virtual tour.
Local demand for Lakoat.Kujawas’ digital initiatives remains modest in the South Central Timor region. “But at least there is demand and it helps,” added Dicky, mentioning plans to open a Lakoat.Kujawas shop in Kupang where hot lunches can be prepared on-site and gluten-free sourdough bread and preserved goods can be sold.
In the meantime, community empowerment remains Lakoat.Kujawas’ priority. In July 2020 it restarted its Skol Tamolok learning initiative for locals, after a forced hiatus due to the pandemic. It currently offers workshops on food fermentation and preservation, documenting the local dialect, video filming and editing, and traditional music and dance.
Post-pandemic preparation: Decotourism
RMC Detusoko is a farmers’ collective that creates opportunities for young farmers through ecotourism ventures like homestays and artisan food production, to help them diversify their livelihoods while staying grounded in their agricultural and spiritual traditions. COVID-19, however, has dampened those efforts.
“Tourism revenues are in trouble, but then tourism is a supplementary income rather than a main income for us,” says Nando, who has started serving as Head of Village Government in Detusoko Barat Village. “We are focusing on things we can do now: developing village products, creating jobs related to infrastructure, and distributing help for those who need it.”
In collaboration with the Department of Tourism and Universitas Flores, Nando is investing in capacity-building for homestay owners, guides, farmers, and other professionals so that Decotourism is ready when travellers return.
The government is also funding jobs in local infrastructure improvements such as for roads, irrigation, pools for hot springs, and villages displaying traditional homes, while providing social security to many of the villagers during the pandemic.
Nando also still occasionally handles a trickle of guests for Mount Kelimutu National Park, which currently allows a quota of 200 visitors per day with strict COVID-19 protocols, and regularly schedules fortnight-long closings for clean-ups and disinfection of indoor spaces.
But hope in physical travel does not mean not using technology to innovate. Since the pandemic, RMC has been marketing local produce to customers in Ende and Maumere via WhatsApp.
The village administration also runs a Decotourism online shop where guests can book tours in Detusoko and Kelimutu, and buy coffee and condiments. Launched in late 2020, the online shop is primarily designed for Indonesian consumers, but an English site enabling payment via major credit cards and PayPal is in the works.
Not everything in the Decotourism store is suitable for shopping; perhaps a testament to the fact that some things can only be experienced in person. And both Decotourism and Lakoat.Kujuwas stand posted to receive guests, when borders open once more.