- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

LOMBOK, Indonesia — As the tropical monsoon clouds roll in, obscuring the towering volcanoes along the Bali coastline, the pristine neighboring island of Lombok seems a world away from Indonesia’s premier tourist destination. In fact, it almost is.

This unique isle is to the east of one of the sharpest fissures in nature, the Wallace Line, which cuts through the Indonesian archipelago and divides the flora and fauna of Asia and that of Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and other Pacific islands.

Long overshadowed by Bali, an Asian tourist mecca, Lombok is about 670 miles east of Jakarta. Its 2 million inhabitants hope its exceptional combination of spectacular unspoiled scenery; wonderful beaches; and exotic mosaic of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian cultures will lure tourists seeking a less-developed tropical escape unobscured by sprawling resorts, fast-food chains, shopping malls or traffic jams.

“Bali has been an internationally well-known brand since the first Hollywood film stars began arriving in the 1920s, while Lombok usually has been overlooked as ‘that place near Bali,’” says Kemal K. Kaul, director of the exclusive Oberoi Hotel on Lombok’s western coastline. “But we see that attitude changing gradually, and last year was our best so far.”

Bali accounts for nearly three-quarters of Indonesia’s earnings from tourism, expected to exceed $6 billion this year. Tourist arrivals plunged after the terrorist bombings in 2002 and last year, and the traditional hordes of sun worshippers, scuba divers and surfers have been slow to return to this previously prized paradise.

Surprisingly, the downturn in Bali didn’t echo much in next-door Lombok, which had a very good year in 2005. It now ranks among Indonesia’s top earners from tourism, although still behind Bali, the island of Batam opposite Singapore, and Java, Indonesia’s dominant region.

Although Lombok’s residents know their island is a gem for those seeking a true tropical escape where they can experience authentic island life, they believe existing plans to improve the island’s infrastructure and accessibility — including a new international airport — will bring them out of Bali’s shadow and give them a larger slice of the burgeoning tourist trade in Asia.

Recent developments on the island have seen an increase in accommodations of an international standard, such as the Oberoi, the Sheraton Senggigi, Holiday Inn and Novotel hotels.

Officials say the lack of air links has been the main factor hampering tourist growth. “If they could only get direct flights from places like Perth [Australia] and Kuala Lumpur [Malaysia], Lombok could position itself as the second beach resort in Indonesia,” Mr. Kaul says.

Singapore’s Silk Air operates the only international flight to the island. There also are daily flights from Bali, which is just half an hour away by air.

Indonesia’s flag carrier, Garuda, normally offers a daily flight from Jakarta through the central city of Yogyakarta, but the Yogyakarta airport has been affected temporarily by the earthquake that hit there May 27. Lombok was unaffected by the earthquake, which was hundreds of miles away.

In contrast to Bali’s tourist hustle and bustle, Lombok offers a view of the old Indonesia, with its dense forests, traditional thatched villages, empty beaches and bygone transport — the ubiquitous dokar carts pulled by sturdy Sumbawan ponies.

A massive volcano, the 12,000-foot Mount Rinjani, is Indonesia’s second-highest peak. Visitors should be prepared for a two-day trek to get to the dormant crater and the lake in its center.

Though not up to Bali’s level in goods and services, Lombok offers adventure and eco-tourism, plus handicrafts such as pottery, weaving and pearl jewelry. The coral gardens fringing the three tiny and unspoiled Gili islands off its northwestern corner are a draw for snorkelers and divers and include the second-largest patch of blue coral in the world. Surfers and backpackers congregate at the Kuta Beach area, which faces the Indian Ocean.

“Lombok is well-known among Korean honeymooners because it’s quieter and less touristy than Bali,” says Simok Kim of Taegu, South Korea, visiting the island with his bride, Eunjoo Lee.

“A lot of couples come here,” he says. He complains, though, that very little tourist information about the island is available in South Korea. “It’s mostly by word of mouth,” Mr. Kim says.

One of the Lesser Sunda Islands, Lombok lies across a deep 25-mile-wide waterway used by hundreds of merchant ships and, reportedly, U.S. nuclear submarines, traversing between the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is of similar size and population as Bali — about 2.3 million people.

It first came to international attention in the second half of the 19th century, when Alfred Russel Wallace, the “father of animal geography,” reported on the sharp differences between plants and wildlife on Bali and Lombok. On Bali, the flora and fauna were the same as in the west of the Indonesian archipelago and neighboring Malaya. In contrast, on Lombok, they obviously were linked to Australia and its surrounding islands.

Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin’s, developed his own theory of natural selection based on his observations in the South Pacific and even mailed Darwin a scientific paper he had written on the topic, which reportedly prompted Darwin to publish his findings after 20 years of hesitation.

“Not many people ask us about the Wallace Line, but occasionally some divers want to see the ocean floor in the straits because they say it represents the divide between Australia and Asia,” says Wayan Asmara, a diving instructor in the Gilis.

• • •

Lombok has daily flights from the Denpasar airport on Bali. Guidebooks include Lonely Planet’s “Bali & Lombok” and Eyewitness Travel Guides’ “Bali & Lombok.” Visit www.lombok-network.com for more information.

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