Asean leaders meeting in Labuan Bajo: Why is the Indonesian town known as the next Bali?

Labuan Bajo is a once-quiet fishing village nestled in the westernmost part of Flores Island, in east Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.

Raul Dancel

Raul Dancel

The Straits Times


Labuan Bajo has been called one of Indonesia's "10 new Balis", and is the gateway to the Komodo National Park. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

May 11, 2023

SINGAPORE – South-east Asia’s leaders are meeting this week in an enchanting harbour town known as a “gateway to the dragons” and one of Indonesia’s “10 new Balis”.

Labuan Bajo is a once-quiet fishing village nestled in the westernmost part of Flores Island, in east Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara region.

It serves as a jumping-off point for Komodo and Rinca islands, home to colonies of Komodo dragons, the world’s largest lizards, which are known for wearing down and killing their prey slowly with a bite that delivers a concoction of lethal toxins and deadly bacteria.

Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the Komodo National Park, where travellers, apart from checking out the lizards, can hike over picturesque terrain, frolic on white beaches and dive in crystal-clear waters that are home to large clusters of colourful reefs and exotic aquatic creatures.

A popular destination is Kanawa Island, a paradise of chalk-white beaches and turquoise waters that rival the best beaches in Thailand and the Philippines.

Another is Kalong Island for the spectacular display of thousands of bats – flying foxes – streaming out of their caves to search for food across Flores Island as the sun sets.

Labuan Bajo’s main street, Jalan Soekarno Hatta, is a busy artery of restaurants, local rumah makan (eating houses), cafes, travel agencies and dive shops.

About 4km from the town’s centre is the “mirror cave” – Batu Cermin – which has a dazzling array of stalactites and stalagmites and light that seeps through the cave roof and reflects off several clear surfaces and pools of water to illuminate whole sections of the cave.

The best way to reach Labuan Bajo is by flying to Komodo Airport. There are multiple flights daily from Jakarta, Denpasar and Surabaya, serviced by Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, Batik Air, Citilink Indonesia and Super Air Jet.

Labuan Bajo is one of the “10 new Balis” that Indonesia is seeking to develop to further prop up its tourism industry.

But it is small, with a population of just over 5,000. With a land area of 13 sq km, the size of Ang Mo Kio in Singapore, it can be explored from end to end by foot in about two hours.

Labuan Bajo is now at a tipping point. The goal is to see it reeling in at least 500,000 tourists a year, or five times what it can currently accommodate.

Tourists enjoying a view of Marina Labuan Bajo ahead of the 42nd Asean Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, on May 9, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

So, more lodgings and tourist facilities are being planned.

This planned expansion, though, may come at the expense of Labuan Bajo’s small-town charm and laid-back vibe.

“It is getting busy in paradise,” said travel website Lonely Planet.

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