In the history of modern tourism, Raja Ampat is a new entrant. The redeye flights to all of Eastern Indonesia still means it is a bit of an epic overnight passage from say Bali. In some ways, its a great blessing that one of the world's most beautiful waterways has been discovered last.
The idea that tourism is the main driver behind coastal Papua's 9.9% , record breaking GDP growth is a myth, as the “boom time” in Sorong is happening founded only in small part, on tourism. Indonesian tourism still means Bali to the 5 million odd visitors, now headed by Chinese at 1.3million each year, with a predicted 6 fold increase globally by 2030...dwarfing the 1.2million Australians who have for years dominated Bali visitation.
80% of the visitors to Raja Ampat are European, spread across two polarised categories, the first being the low cost Homestay visitors, with 100 businesses to chose from, and the second group, paying a much higher price on the 70 odd diveboats, and a small handful of resorts. Our Bigkanu sits in the middle, as the lowest price point boat on the Liveaboard listings.
The vast size of the island chain that makes up Raja Ampat insures that it will be decades before anything like the Komodo overcrowding will unfold, plus, the inability to build in Raja Ampat due to local customary land restrictions ensues island resort development is stillborn. Unlike the Philippines, cyclones do not wander into Raja Ampat, and the equatorial weather means seasonality is not an big impediment, so its a potentially friendlier place for both visitors and guests all year round, with clearer skies and windier conditions in July to September.
Transport systems within Raja Ampat are undeveloped and expensive. Tour groups of Jakarta based groups opt to stay in package hotel spots in Sorong, and venture out in groups of maybe 15, chartering small minibus sized speedboats, rarely staying overnight on the water.
Most dive boats operate in and around Dampier Straight and their focus is underwater, at the expense of the many other beaches, bays and villages.
The one big distinguishing feature of Raja Ampat tourism is in the local buy in. Normally, ownership of tourism enterprises falls into the hands of those with capital, with Bali for example be largely owned by expats, Indo Chinese, with a minority of local investment power.
The remote ownership put a big cultural drain on any destination, where Billabong sales outstrip sarong sales, and cuisine is now less and less Indonesia, and something like 40,000 new compact, 3- 5 story hotel rooms, dominate where once bungalows and losmens where the only accommodation choices.
By contrast in Raja Ampat, the simple, locally built, traditional styled thatched, on-water bunglow, at €28 per night, provides the vast amount of accommodation in the Raja Ampat Islands, outside Waisai.
Its great to at last see an area develop under stewardship of local Papuans. As a group under the Homestay Association, and aided by a NGO, who for years funded their marketing and sales via www.stayrajaampat.com, the tourism group resists undercutting prices, a the biodegradable nature of each little homestay built, insures minimal impact on the environment, creating a winning offering on many fronts, for all stakeholders.