Labuan Bajo, a Paradise in Progress

A rising star of Indonesia’s tourism industry, Komodo National Park and the nearby port of Labuan Bajo now face important questions about their collective future.

Photographs by Putu Sayoga.

Morning light washes over Ayana Komodo Resort’s 250-meter jetty, Naga Pier, and the island-studded Flores Sea.

When Italian chef Marco Bertini first arrived in the sleepy fishing village of Labuan Bajo nine years ago, the 12-year veteran of Bali’s dining scene saw a golden opportunity.

“At the time,” he recalls, “Labuan Bajo was nothing like it is now. The roads weren’t properly paved, and the town was much smaller. I liked how it was not like Bali. Not that there is anything wrong with Bali, but it was different. I thought it was the right time and place to try something new.”

An ikat vendor in Labuan Bajo.

To some observers, the less-heralded Indonesian island of Flores might have seemed like a strange place to put down roots and open a restaurant. But Marco’s gamble ultimately paid off. Brisk business at Made In Italy, the venue he launched in 2011, is indicative of Labuan Bajo’s ongoing tourism boom. Fueled by its proximity to the reefs and islands of UNESCO-listed Komodo National Park, as well as major improvements to the nearby airport, the town is busier than ever.

The harbor at first light.

I meet Marco on a sweltering April afternoon at Made In Italy’s newer digs, which he designed and built from the ground up. In a nod to his native region, dry-stone walls and arched wood-framed windows lend the venue a rustic Tuscan feel. Marco strikes me as someone with remarkable foresight: aside from the restaurant, he also owns a boat running day trips and overnight cruises with authentic Italian cuisine served on board. “The real beauty of this place is out there, so I knew I had to find a way to get my food into the national park,” he tells me.

And what glorious food it is. Marco’s largely Tuscan-inspired menu offers unerringly traditional fare and 20 kinds of pizza using fresh sourdough, double-leavened for a total of 54 hours. All pastas—such as the chitarra, which, in my case, comes cooked with a medley of locally caught seafood—are also created in-house. One bite of the silky chitarra strands, coated in a buttery sauce yielding the sweetness of the ocean, is enough to convince me: this is the best Italian food I’ve had while living in Indonesia for the past three years.

Inside Honzen, the Ayana’s Japanese fine-diner.

In spite of all the recent development, Labuan Bajo still retains a ramshackle charm. There’s a noticeable absence of fast-food chains, and flip-flops are casually left outside dive centers on the main strip, where a jumble of corrugated-iron roofed houses step down to a harbor filled with phinisi schooners. As the setting sun turns both sky and sea into a canvas of dusky pink and gold, vendors at the newly revamped food court grill ocean-fresh fish beside their pushcarts.

The most obvious sign of change is a boxy five-story hotel taking shape on the waterfront, alongside a soon-to-open shopping arcade with glass storefronts and small tree-shaded courtyards. Both structures belong to a marina development financed by two state-owned enterprises, PP and ASDP Indonesia Ferry, which together have poured more than US$28 million into the project.

That kind of investment reflects the government’s ambition to turn Labuan Bajo into one of Indonesia’s “10 new Balis,” a batch of up-and-coming destinations where President Joko Widodo hopes to accelerate development by improving access and tourism infrastructure. First announced in 2016, the initiative aims to double the country’s annual foreign visitor arrivals to 20 million by the end of this year, while generating US$18 billion in revenue, employing 13 million locals in the sector, and spreading tourist numbers more evenly throughout the archipelago. But the tendency to lean on annual arrivals as the key benchmark—with a target of half a million overseas visitors and five million domestic tourists for Labuan Bajo alone—raises questions about the plan’s sustainability.

Aboard the Ayana vessel Lako Cama.

The following day, I hire a taxi for the 15-minute drive north of town to check in at the Ayana Komodo Resort. Billed as the first five-star property in Flores when it opened last September, it’s palatial compared to the guesthouse I’ve just left behind, with plenty of Balinese woodwork, bamboo and rattan furniture evoking elements from the natural world—a cocoon, a sandbank, a starfish—and plush armchairs that are an invitation to soak up the ocean views. Half of the 300-odd staff members here have been hired locally; the remainder are transplants from Ayana’s 90-hectare flagship resort in Bali, on hand to support and train the new recruits.

Ayana Komodo’s open-air lobby lounge, Mesa Bar.

There’s no doubt that the Ayana represents a significant upgrade for the local hospitality scene. Situated on a steeply sloping site that fronts a tranquil arm of the Flores Sea, the resort descends 10 stories from the open-air rooftop lobby. Global architecture firm Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, or WATG, incorporated locally inspired flourishes into a contemporary design: its ridged roofline acknowledges the mountains of Flores, while the curving facade sports tessellated surfaces abstracted from the skin and body of the Komodo dragon.

Made In Italy’s chef-owner Marco Bertin.

Inside the 192 guest rooms and 13 suites, the nod to Flores continues with ikat motifs that adorn a feature wall behind the king-size beds. Deep soaking tubs are present in every bathroom; sliding screens and balconies make the most of fiery sunsets over Kukusan Island and the sinuous tendril of the aptly named Naga Pier (naga is Indonesian for “dragon”). The latter hosts one of three open-air bars on the property, a coral nursery overseen by the in-house marine biologist, and a staging point for the resort’s three vessels—among them a nine-cabin luxury phinisi called Lako Di’a.

Elsewhere at the Ayana, guests can avail themselves of two inter-locking infinity pools and a gym, a full-fledged dive center, plus a spa offering a 90-minute Bajawa Coffee Treatment, which includes a body scrub made with Flores-grown arabica grinds, vanilla, and cacao. And as my photographer friend Putu Sayoga and I discover during our stay, the food here is also a treat.

Millefoglie at restaurant Made In Italy.

Poolside all-day dining restaurant Rinca offers a satisfying buffet breakfast, while ninth-floor venue Honzen dishes up excellent Japanese cuisine to rival that found in any major Asian city. Fukuoka-born chef Hiroyuki Arai has created an extensive menu that includes artfully plated sushi platters, teppanyaki sets focused on imported meats and locally caught lobster, along with a variety of skewers like chili-flecked pork, melted cheese–stuffed wagyu, and unagi.

By night, the restaurant of choice is Kisik Grill, an alfresco venue of just 10 candlelit tables along the shoreline where diners sit with their toes in the sand. At a display counter piled high with that day’s catch, I settle for the giant seafood skewer, a prodigious kebab strung with thick cuts of snapper, swordfish, squid, plus a tiger prawn. But then I succumb to what Indonesians call lapar mata, or “hungry eyes,” adding on a tuna fillet with sweet soy sauce and three large clams basted in garlic butter.

Kushiyaki skewers at Honzen.

The next morning, I rise well before dawn to walk off the calories on a sunrise hike with Herlianus “Jeri” Pas, a trim 26-year-old Labuan Bajo native on Ayana’s recreation team. It’s an easy half-hour climb from the road up to Bukit Amelia, a hill positioned between two bays. As we survey a newly laid ribbon of asphalt tracing the contours of Flores’ heavily indented shoreline, Jeri motions to the Ayana far below. “This all used to be forest,” he says. “Now, with the new roads and developments, things have completely changed.”

The rooftops of Labuan Bajo.

And yet, Jakarta’s grand plans for Labuan Bajo are being challenged in an ongoing political controversy. It began last November when Indonesian newspaper Kompas reported that the newly inaugurated provincial governor, Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, wanted to raise the daily admission fee for Komodo National Park from US$11 to a hefty US$500. Recreational boats, he added, could be charged as much as US$50,000.

Then came the news of a potential year-long closure of Komodo Island starting next January. Laiskodat cited the need for habitat restoration in response to declining populations of deer—important prey for the dragons—due to poaching. The national government initially dismissed the move as “irrelevant,” but changed its tune after the bust of a smuggling ring with five Komodos in its possession. The traffickers had already sold 41 of the reptiles via Facebook.

Ayana Komodo resort’s rooftop bar, Unique, is just the place to admire Flores sea sunsets with a cocktail in hand.

Media reports that followed often exaggerated the scope of the shutdown, a problem those in Labuan Bajo are well aware of. “People are getting the wrong idea that they might close the whole park, but it’s just Komodo Island,” Marco had told me the previous day. And was he worried about its impact on his business? “It’s not going to affect anything,” he declared. “In my nine years here, I’ve never been to Komodo Island. None of my boat trips take guests there. We always bring them to the big ranger station on Rinca—you can see Komodos behind the kitchen and everyone has a laugh.”

Despite the shared name, Komodo Island makes up less than a quarter of the national park’s total area. And few tourists actually visit that isle to see the dragons; its resident reptiles are more elusive and less habituated to humans than their counterparts on nearby Rinca. In fact, I’m not surprised to find Komodo Island off the itinerary of our excursion aboard Lako Cama, the Ayana’s 12-meter flybridge cruiser, the very next day.

Tackling a rocky trail on savanna-cloaked Padar Island.

Lako Cama means “traveling together” in the local Manggarai language, and we do just that, tagging along with the good-humored Oudendyk family from Melbourne: Hank, Anna, and their two kids. The vessel never feels crowded, thanks to a surprisingly spacious indoor lounge equipped with a small pantry, and a guest cabin that doubles as the children’s playroom. Tucked behind a padded banquette, the Lako Cama’s three 250-horsepower outboard engines take little more than an hour to propel us across the 47 kilometers between the resort and craggy Padar Island, whose serrated peaks and multiple bays have made it a poster child for the national park. I hadn’t expected the hike up its southernmost arm to be so punishing, but then again, there is precious little shade on the trail leading to a heavily Instagrammed viewpoint. I pass a middle-aged woman who sits catching her breath on the stone steps. “Why isn’t there a lift?” she laments. Up ahead, the Oudendyks forge on, still in high spirits despite the blazing heat and sauna-like humidity.

A female Komodo dragon on Rinca.

Much to our relief, we’re greeted back on board the Lako Cama with ice-cold face towels before motoring to Pink Beach on the far side of the island. So named for the granules of ruby-red organ pipe coral mixed in with the fine white sand, it is entirely deserted, and we spend the next hour snorkeling over a healthy reef of hard corals. Anna, Hank, and I don our masks once more at Manta Point, where five reef mantas come exhilaratingly close, mouths agape as they feed on plankton near the surface. Were it not for the snorkels, our own mouths would be too.

Then it’s time to meet Rinca’s dragons. A locally born naturalist guide introduces himself as Jojo soon after we disembark at the mangrove-fringed bay of Loh Buaya. Once in the grounds of the ranger station, he takes us aside to highlight a few rules, leaving space for a dramatic pause before turning his gaze to the Oudendyk kids. “No screaming or shouting. And no running around.”

We eventually see two of the oversize monitor lizards lounging in the shade, and another eight behind the rangers’ kitchen—just as Marco had said. A short walk down the trail brings us to a pair of reptile nests dug into the earth, where Jojo explains that Komodo dragons can consume up to 80 percent of their body weight at one time. Even more memorable is his tale of the lizards’ cannibalistic tendencies. Mothers are known to prey on their newly hatched offspring—only those that climb trees survive. “Did you hear that, kids?” Anna chuckles. “I’m not such a bad mum after all!”

Naturalist guide “Jojo” Subarja.

Funnily enough, local legend states that humans and Komodo dragons are twins born of the same mother. When Putu asks Jojo how it is to live among the beasts, our guide replies without an ounce of hesitation. “We’re already used to it,” he says. “People here respect the animal. It’s said that if a Komodo enters our home, good luck will come our way.”

Jojo and other local islanders already understand a principle that some distant bureaucrats do not: to continue reaping the good fortune brought on by the world’s largest lizards, the environment needs better protection. As politicians wrangle over the future of Komodo National Park, perhaps the best way forward is neither closing off its natural wonders to all but a privileged few, nor opening the floodgates to mass tourism. Labuan Bajo may already have the answer hiding in plain sight. It’s the fact that a traditional fishing town can thrive on the doorstep of a protected seascape and wildlife reserve, that the two can coexist in harmony, however imperfect that might be.

The Lako Cama.


Getting There
As international flights are still a few years away, Labuan Bajo’s Komodo Airport is best reached via Bali or Jakarta. National carrier Garuda Indonesia makes the 90-minute hop from Bali five times a week, on top of daily services from the capital.

Where to Stay
Ayana Komodo Resort

doubles from US$269

When to Go
Labuan Bajo and Komodo National Park welcome tourists throughout the year, though conditions for outdoor activities are typically at their most pleasant during the dry season from May to September.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Paradise In Progress”).

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