Tourism Rebounds on Island of "Hobbit" Fossil Find

By Jessie Johnston and Drew Mackie
for National Geographic Traveler
December 22, 2004
Picture a tropical island with three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall) locals, dolphin-size lizards, rabbit-size rats, and pygmy elephants, all coexisting in the shadows of active volcanoes. This was the island of Flores, Indonesia, thousands of years ago.

Modern-day Flores, an isle of small villages and crude infrastructure, never sought to be a major tourist attraction. But last October scientists announced a surprising discovery—the excavation of the 18,000-year-old remains of some of Flores's earliest inhabitants, a hobbit-like species of diminutive humans known as Homo floresiensis. (See pictures.) As a result, many now believe that Flores could be Indonesia's next travel hot spot.

Flores has generated headlines before, but not the kind that attract tourists: famines in the 1960s and natural disasters in the '70s and '90s. Economic crisis hit in the late '90s, followed by political problems in East Timor and Bali. By 2000 tourism had plummeted from 35,000 visitors a year to just 10,000.

This year, however, the Flores Tourist Authority reports that travel to the island has already rebounded by 21 percent, probably due to fossil-related media coverage.

Visiting Flores

Peter Paka, owner of Cita Travel Service, a Bali-based company that leads tours to Flores, noted a 1,000 percent increase in daily visits to his company's Web site immediately after the discovery was announced. "Flores" was the most searched subject on the site, he stated.

In response, Paka has peppered two of his itineraries with a day-trip to the site where the "hobbit" was unearthed.

Other companies offering travel to Flores include: Floressa Bali Tours, Asian Pacific Adventures, and A&S Travels.

Rates for these tours, which range from three to seven days, start from U.S. $400 to $2,250 per person. Prices cover transportation within Indonesia, accommodations, most meals, entrance fees, English-speaking guides, and drivers.

Despite Flores's newfound fame, visitors can expect to rough it once there. Poor infrastructure means a number of hotels don't offer showers. Most rooms come equipped with only a bed and a fan. And during the rainy season, the island's unpaved roads are often impassable.

Natural Attractions

A number of caves, most notably Liang Bua where the Homo floresiensis fossils were discovered, are open for tours. Liang Bua, which means "cold cave," is an impressive size—100 feet (30 meters) wide and over 130 feet (40 meters) deep.

Visitors must content themselves with the cave's limestone stalactite and stalagmite formations, however, since its famous fossils have been excavated and transported to Jakarta for further study.

Exotic creatures roam Flores, including dolphin-size Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards. A four-hour boat ride from Labuhanbajo, on Flores's western tip, can also take visitors to see the reptiles on Komodo, the island for which the lizards are named.

Equally unique is Flores's giant rat population. The creatures resemble "large rabbits with long tails," said Richard Roberts. One of Indonesia's leading scientists, Roberts helped discover the Homo floresiensis fossils.

Flores also boasts fascinating geology. The island's main attraction has long been the trio of crater lakes atop the Keli Mutu volcano. Once vibrant shades of red, white, and blue, the lakes have changed color over time to aquamarine, red-brown, and black as a result of dissolving minerals and varying oxygen levels. A truck from the nearby village of Moni takes visitors up the mountain each day before sunrise.

Religious Customs

Local religious customs can still be observed throughout the predominantly Catholic island. In the Ngada District near the town of Bajawa, communities center on a pair of ceremonial structures, the Bhaga (a small hut) and the Ngadhu (a kind of thatched umbrella). The two represent the power of female and male ancestors.

Here and elsewhere in Flores, Christian ritual is combined with local tradition, including the Reba festival, an annual event in December, which kicks off with a Catholic mass followed by a procession of swordsmen or a deer hunt that doubles as a fertility and puberty rite.

Flores's newfound fame, combined with its many offerings, has local guides confident about the future of travel there. Paka, the Bali-based tour operator, said, "I feel there will be many people coming to Flores."

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