Tourists at Kawah Ijen
In Indonesia, 9,000 feet above sea level, on the Kawah Ijen volcano crater, one can see two kinds of people: sulfur miners suffering backbreaking labor in toxic conditions, and tourists wealthy enough to afford gas masks and enjoy the rugged beauty of the landscape.

Background

The miners are locals of the region. They trek up the steep cliffs, carrying 80 kilograms of sulfur per trip for compensation of about 7 cents per kilogram. PT Candi Ngrimi employs them and processes the sulfur into powder, slabs and granules for sale to manufacturing companies. In particular, sugar processing companies use sulfur to refine and whiten sugar crystals.

Despite working next to the most acidic lake in the world and within the toxic fumes of the volcano, the workers have virtually no equipment to protect themselves from hazards. Most wear only a thin piece of cloth over their nose and mouth.

Unlike the miners, who have been active since 1954, the tourists at Kawah Ijen are a new addition to the volcano. East Java was rather obscure until 2010. Then, Abdullah Azwar Anas became regent of the Banyuwangi Regency (the city in which the volcano is located). Upon his election, Azwar developed fervent promotions for tourism, and now millions of people visit Banyuwangi yearly.

Benefits of Tourism

The economic impact of tourism is immense for many countries around the world. For instance, Maldives has shifted from a least developed to a developing country largely because of tourism, which is the dominant economic sector for that country.

Tourism is a growing economic force for Indonesia, too, as it accounts for 5.2% of GDP and 3.7% of total employment. Tourists at Kawah Ijen create the potential for public and private sector cooperation. This relationship could build infrastructure to support tourism, ultimately increasing employment and income.

Tourist attractions like the Kawah Ijen crater rely on the environmental and cultural health of the area. Thus, the governments and corporations in Banyuwangi have the motivation to preserve these aspects. Although there may be increased infrastructure development in the area, it is unlikely that there will be large-scale changes that would alter the natural and cultural beauty of Banyuwangi.

Consequences of Tourism

The primary concern of tourism at Kawah Ijen is that the sulfur miners become an attraction, much like the alluring blue fire, yellow sulfur and acidic lake of the volcano’s crater. Tourists reflect this concern by taking selfies with miners who are about to begin their trek back to base for their daily $5. Despite their popularity, the miners have not seen any monetary rewards during Banyuwangi’s tourism boom, barring small fees for photographs. Their wages remain as they have for decades.

Tourists at Kawah Ijen are not an inherently bad thing, of course. However, the sulfur miners are a big reason that the volcano is a tourist attraction at all, yet they continue to live in poverty. It is an extreme example of exploitation without compensation.

So popular is the hardship of the sulfur miners’ lives that they are documented on a database of “dark tourism.” Dark tourism, according to the website, is “travel to sites that are in some way connected to death or disaster.” Kawah Ijen received a 10/10 on its “dark-o-meter” rating, alongside memorials to the Hiroshima bombing and the Rwandan genocide.

How to Ensure Positive Development

There are ways that tourism can theoretically provide a positive experience for host communities. These ways not only avoid voyeurism but seek to alleviate some of the challenges host communities experience.

One example of this is voluntourism, which melds volunteer service work with tourism. Tourists could plant trees resistant to sea-level rise on the coast of East Java. They could help build a road to make the miners’ travels easier. Voluntourism, however, is a potentially deleterious activity that can strip local communities of their agency. If implemented at Kawah Ijen, officials would have to monitor voluntourism with extreme caution and attention to detail.

Another example is pro-poor tourism, which aims to create a net benefit for impoverished communities in host countries. This often takes the form of governments or private companies training impoverished populations to take part in the tourist industry, perhaps as a travel guide or an education specialist.

Because of tourism’s growing economic importance in Banyuwangi, tourists themselves have indirect political power in the region. Considering this, tourists at Kawah Ijen have an opportunity to become activists. If they demanded that miners received just compensation for their work, the regency or PT Cambri Ngimri may oblige. This is called justice tourism, and although it may seem idealistic, it could produce a serious change in places like Kawah Ijen, if it were done correctly.

Sublime photos of Kawah Ijen’s sulfur mines and blue fire continue to circulate on the internet. It is clear that the volcano’s popularity is not dwindling. Governments and companies, then, should try and discover ways to make tourism socially sustainable. This practice is necessary not just in Indonesia, but in any place that is worth visiting and celebrating.

Christopher Orion Bresnahan
Photo: Flickr