Wangi-wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko are the four largest islands of what used to be known as the Tukangbesi Archipelago in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Today, the first two letters of the names of each of these islands form the official new name of this district (since 2003) and the name of the luxury diving resort that is responsible for the preservation of the marine life in this area.
Although luxury island resorts tend to bring to mind images of exploitative foreign owners living off the ecological riches of a faraway tropical aisle, the Wakatobi Dive Resort is the exact opposite. Founded by Swiss ecologist Lorenz Mäder in 1995, Wakatobi Dive Resort is a world-renowned example of sustainable eco-tourism that has invested millions of dollars over the past few decades to restore coral reefs and marine life in the area and ensuring the area around its resort remains healthy and unspoilt.
Building a Sustainable Enterprise: Changing Mindsets Through Cooperation
Built on Onemobaa, a small island off the western coast of Tomia island, Mäder first arrived on the island in 1994 on a quest to build a sustainable resort after reading about the inaccessibility of the island in a travel guide.
“There were numerous challenges in creating what would become a world-class resort in an area so remote,” shared Mäder. “The local people had not seen Europeans since the Dutch left the country, and electricity and running water were still unavailable. But equally important to me was establishing a business model that would provide protection for one of the world’s most pristine and beautiful ecosystems, while at the same time developing benefits for local economic welfare and social responsibility. “
Arriving on a bare island without electricity, Mäder was practical in how he went about fulfilling his vision of sustainability – by working inclusively with the local villagers.
“One of our earliest efforts was to encourage area fishermen and villagers to cease destructive fishing methods,” Mäder revealed. “Rather than attempt to change behaviors through autocratic regulation, we worked with these groups to create an understanding of the benefits of conservation not only to the resort, but to themselves. During the construction of the resort, we relied on local materials and labour to create structures that were in harmony with the surroundings and local traditions, while at the same time providing the levels of comfort and luxury guests expected.”
Mäder’s passion for the preservation of marine life extended far beyond the island to the entire group of islands in Southeast Sulawesi.
Creating the Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme
“In 1997, we created the Collaborative Reef Conservation Programme. This was the first such programme of its kind. It provided lease payments made directly to local fishermen and villagers to halt destructive fishing practices and encourage local participation in creating a marine reserve. This reserve now stretches across 20 kilometres of prime coral reef habitat.
“We believe that conservation and protection efforts are most effective when they originate at the local level and can be shown to provide tangible benefits for all, not just those who come to visit. This is why we have always and will continue to work within the community to create such programmes.”
To ensure that its marine conservation efforts are not undone by tourist visitors to its resort, Wakatobi has enacted strict regulations – enforced and educated through its dive guides and staff – to protect the Wakatobi Marine Reserve.
“We have created, defined and enforced standards of behavior for all visitors to the Wakatobi Marine Reserve. This includes a no-touch policy to the reefs and a no-harass policy to marine life. When such standards are in place, human impact is mitigated, even as more visitors are able to enjoy the reefs.”
Over the last 24 years, Wakatobi has significantly improved the ecological balance of the Wakatobi Marine Reserve even as its popularity among tourists has increased – a fact that Mäder is very proud of.
“Sharing the beauty of coral reefs through dive tourism provided a means to share my love of the ocean, while also creating methods for protecting the ecosystem. Establishing what would grow to become a world-class resort property was actually just a means to this end. I’m proud we’ve come so far while at the same time maintaining the protection of our ecosystem.”
Looking ahead to the next 10 years, Mäder has even more impressive sustainability goals in mind for Wakatobi Dive Resort.
Outlining his vision for Wakatobi for the next decade, Mäder hopes “to continue operating in an ecologically sound and socially responsible manner that provides proactive protection for the marine ecosystem, while at the same time upgrade our amenities and provide guests with the highest levels of service, and to reduce our carbon footprint through initiates such as the integration of solar power.”
Reducing Carbon Footprint Through Solar Power
Like the well thought out plans that has brought about the sustainable success of the Wakatobi Dive Resort, Wakatobi’s venture into solar power has been years in the making.
“Wakatobi’s efforts to bring solar power to the region date back more than a dozen years when we convinced the Indonesian government to establish the region’s first solar power plant on the adjacent island of Tomia.”
Built on Tomia island, where the resort’s private airstrip is located, this 75-kilowatt photovoltaic installation was followed several years later by a second solar installation at the village of Lamanggau on Onemobaa, the island which the Wakatobi Resort resides. Flying in from America on flights sponsored by Mäder, engineers from an American foundation evaluated, financed and installed the second photovoltaic facility. The same contractor later installed two additional photovoltaic plants on Tomia, paid for by private Indonesian investors.
The village of Lamanggau recently established an additional kilowatt photovoltaic plant. Wakatobi and Mäder were able to encourage the village and PLN (Indonesia’s national utility company) to cooperate by connecting the solar installation to the island’s power grid. This enabled the village to sell any excess solar-generated power during the day, and in return, receive generator-produced power during the night. This arrangement is considered more cost-effective and efficient than adding the complexity and expense associated with the use of large battery banks to store excess energy.
Thanks in part to Mäder’s ongoing work in bringing solar power to the Wakatobi region, Tomia is currently the only island in Eastern Indonesia entirely powered by solar power during a sunny day, with photovoltaic plants that collectively produce a megawatt of electricity. This capacity represents a third of the island’s total 24-hour power requirements.
By April of 2019, Wakatobi Resort expects to be connected to Tomia’s solar power stations. The staff is working with PLN, to bring grid power to the resort grounds, where it will be tied into the existing power generation system. This solution will allow Wakatobi to take advantage of clean solar energy during the day, draw power from a central generation facility during the night, and still maintain the ability to operate autonomously at full power should the grid experience a temporary blackout. Work on this connection is currently underway.