The Beauty of Lombok

Lombok. Source:

"Crowds came to watch when this airport first opened," one local businessman told me. "Families brought picnics and spent the whole day here. Some had not even seen a plane before. They cheered every time one landed."

Locals here will have to get used to the phenomenon of jets touching down. Lombok's new airport – relocated to the south and five times larger than the previous one – marks a serious attempt to raise the island's game as a tourist destination. The build-it-and-they-will-come strategy aims to attract visitors who might otherwise have chosen neighbouring Bali or elsewhere in southeast Asia.

Already the Indonesian carrier Garuda and SilkAir, an offshoot of Singapore Airlines, operate international flights here. Malaysia's low-cost AirAsia says it is also planning to do so soon. During my stay the first chartered jet from Moscow landed, delivering a planeload of Russians to the tropical sunshine. There are already plans to extend the runway to accommodate the wider-bodied aircraft that operate on longer-haul routes.

For the indigenous Sasaks who live in this area life has already changed. In the past they made a living from growing rice and weaving textiles. Now a substantial stream of their income is from selling sarongs and other souvenirs. One village, Sukarara, a short drive from the airport, has converted almost all the ground floors of its homes into small souvenir shops with the women demonstrating how to use a loom. "In the past we used to have one or two groups come by," explained the village's resident guide, who enterprisingly has called himself 'Uncle Sam'. "Now there are more than a hundred tourists a day. Business is great."

Some may be disappointed by how swiftly the village has become so commercial; a stopover is more of a shopping tour than an insight into local culture. The challenge for Lombok is whether it can develop its tourism sector while keeping intact its cultural identity and unspoilt landscapes.

Above all else Lombok's trump card is its wonderful coastline: wild surfing beaches in the south; sweeping bays and calm waters on the west coast and the Gili Islands in the northwest. It is also home to Mount Rinjani, a 3,726m-tall mountain that is arguably more spectacular and certainly less crowded than Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo and one of the most popular draws for trekkers in southeast Asia. For those aiming to reach Rinjani's highest point, campsites are located on the rim of the caldera looking down at a blue-green crater lake fringed with bubbling hot springs.

I began my journey exploring Lombok's southern beaches such as the horseshoe-shaped bay Tanjung Aan, which is popular with serious surfers. The infrastructure here is still limited: a few fishing villages, a handful of restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as one lonely hotel, the Novotel Lombok. Not for much longer: when the Indonesian President Yudhoyono opened the new airport in October last year he also announced plans for a new 1,250-hectare resort, the Mandalika, with five-star accommodation and convention facilities.

On the island's north shore there are hopes of luxurious, less crowded tourism, pioneered by the likes of The Oberoi which opened more than a dozen years ago. West of here the town of Senggigi has also seen a swathe of openings of stylish new properties including Qunci Pool Villas, and restaurants like Square and Asmara. Beaches here are sheltered with a backdrop of mountain peaks, and sunset views across to the volcanoes of Bali.

From Senggigi it is a 30-minute boat ride to Lombok's most popular destination, the Gili Islands, which are ringed by fine sand and coral reefs. Until recently these three islands were mainly visited by backpackers paying £10 a night for simple beach accommodation. Now the biggest island, Gili Trawangan, is going upmarket with the opening of villa resorts, eco- lodges and spa retreats.

Clive Riddington, a property developer who originally hails from Britain, says the market has shifted since he first moved here. "In the old days it was all about smoking spliffs and listening to Bob Marley and parties on the beach," he told me. "But now the island is going the way of boutique hotels and villa properties. The cost of land has soared."

Of the other two islands Gili Meno is the least developed and the more peaceful but its beaches have exposed coral at low tide. The most westerly island, Gili Air, has soft sandy beaches and is popular with families. There is still a bohemian feel across all three islands: instead of cars and motorcycles, local transport is by bicycle or horse-drawn carts called cidomos.

In the past few years fast boats began operating between Bali and the Gili Islands, traversing the Lombok Channel in less than two hours and making access here much more straightforward. But the new airport should further boost visitor numbers as international flights draw in tourists from afar. Millions of people visit Bali each year seeking a beach paradise, but they may do better looking about 30 miles east, to the lesser-known island of Lombok.