Cultural Sustainability in Flores, Indonesia

2015 Honours Fellow Indigo Phibbs looks at how Flores, Indonesia is making sure tourism remains culturally sustainable

Flores, Indonesia is a tourist’s paradise. Its versatile landscape boasts pristine beaches, cascading waterfalls and a volcanic range. It hosts some of the most sought after diving spots in the world and also includes UNESCO World Heritage listed sites. Cultural remnants of prehistoric civilisations pervade the island and it is characterised by a strong tradition of customs and culture. It’s no wonder that Flores was listed in the Lonely Planet’s ‘Top 10 Regions for Travel’ for 2015.

This burgeoning tourism industry places tourism in Flores at a critical juncture. While tourism is rapidly increasing, the shape of the tourism industry is only beginning to be determined. As such, tourism presents Florenese culture with huge opportunities as well as huge risks. Issues of cultural demise and misappropriation could easily confront Flores if tourism is mismanaged. Hence, non-government organisations (NGOs) and community members alike are intervening in the industry in attempt to shape it in a culturally sustainable way.

But will the involvement of the local community have a positive effect on the sustainability of culture? Or is the demise of culture in Flores an inevitable outcome following increases in tourism?

While concessions in cultural sustainability are to be expected from the dominating global influences tourism can introduce, in Flores, the community has been working hard to further cultural sustainability through small-scale tourism initiatives.

The Flores Homestay Network (FHN) is just one example of a small but interesting player in the Flores tourism industry. It is an accommodation community based initiative founded by geographer Stroma Cole and NGO president Nina von Toulon. The FHN was conceived of as a way for remote areas of Flores to be given the opportunity to involve themselves in tourism and its benefits. The FHN provides local communities with knowledge and guidance on how best to run local homestays. This support is offered through workshops, conferences and the assistance of professional volunteers. The FHN has given remote Florenese communities a place within the tourism industry and has significantly impacted the cultural sustainability of these areas.

The FHN has attempted to limit the effect of tourism on culture in Flores. During their time at the homestay, tourists are invited to participate in local culture. There are many opportunities for this, from attending a ceremony in the native dress of lawo lambu to witnessing the strong weaving (ikat) tradition of Flores. However, regardless of which aspect of culture is being practiced, one rule is very clear for the tourists: YOU must adapt to the local culture and NOT the other way around.

The principle that the onus is placed on the tourist to adapt to culture is implemented through the use of cultural codes of conduct. These are village-specific list of cultural guidelines written by the villagers with the assistance of professional volunteers. The codes of conduct are promoted by the FHN as crucial to each tourist’s stay in a local village.

Therefore, the practice of culture is sustained because the ways that tourists can disrupt this practice is intentionally limited. Among the FHN homestay owners, the view that tourists should adjust to the culture of each village was widespread and all homestay owners felt this was effectively practiced in their village. One homestay owner in the village of Pemo, Bu Desi, commented that Pemo culture has “not changed [due to tourism] … because this is our authentic culture which has been passed down generation to generation”. The active awareness on the behalf of homestay owners suggests the impact of tourism on culture to be limited.

The FHN is not a flawless program and has room for improvement. However, the community program has done much to further cultural sustainability in the communities. A proud tradition of culture continues in the villages of the FHN despite the introduction of foreign influences brought through tourism.

The strength and endurance of this cultural sustainability will be tested as tourism inevitably increases on the island. However, the strong foundation the FHN has implemented in its successful cultural programs will only be advantageous for the homestay owners and the local communities in the future.


Indigo Phibbs was awarded a 2015 Sydney Environment Institute Honours Research Fellowship. She recently completed her thesis “The sustainability opportunities and risks for tourism in Flores, Indonesia” with the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.




Images: Supplied by Indigo Phibbs