Island gears for tourism as Aceh rejuvenates
Freddie Rousseau sinks his feet into the golden sand as another Indian Ocean wave crashes on the shore. Behind him, in bamboo-thatched bungalows perched on a rocky hillside, stressed-out aid workers from Aceh's tsunami zone crack open another beer and admire the view.
Two months after opening, Mr Rousseau's 10-room 'eco-tourism' resort is booked solid on weekends, and other foreign entrepreneurs are scoping out beachfront properties on Aceh's Sabang island.
His success offers a window into an unlikely beneficiary of Aceh's post-tsunami reconstruction: tourism. As the battered Indonesian province begins to look ahead to its economic future after the aid money runs out, politicians are weighing up tourism as a potential earner.
Taking a holiday in Aceh, a name synonymous with death and devastation, may be a step too far for many, but Sabang's sleepy beaches and vibrant coral reefs already draw thousands of foreign backpackers and aid workers who are quickly spreading the word.
Mr Rousseau, a South African who runs livelihood schemes for the United Nations Development Programme, arrived in Aceh not long after the December 26, 2004, earthquake and subsequent tsunami that killed over 160,000 people.
His initial task was co-ordinating corpse disposal in Banda Aceh, where everyone was searching for missing relatives.
To clear his head on days off, he began exploring the beaches on Sabang, which got off lightly from the tsunami, and discovered a hidden paradise. 'It was an escape from all the pain and hurt and suffering of Aceh. To come here and relax, I really needed it,' he said.
After 10 months of construction and an initial investment of around US$50,000, Santai Sumur Tiga resort opened in October. Mr Rousseau said most of his clientele were foreign aid workers, but he has begun fielding calls from backpackers coming to Sabang and was optimistic about developing a viable tourism industry on the island, a one-hour ferry ride from Banda Aceh.
The island has several dive shops that cater to foreigners, including a Dutch-owned operation called Lumba Lumba that opened in the 1990s. Aficionados say the diving is first-rate, and largely untapped compared to other popular Southeast Asian destinations. With a population of just 30,000 people, Sabang is best known to Indonesians as the nation's westernmost territory, a fact trumpeted by a patriotic song called 'From Sabang to Merauke' (a town in eastern Papua province).
Sabang has a thriving car import business as a result of the tax-free status on some goods. A young activist who fled to political asylum in the US during Aceh's separatist conflict, won the race for Sabang's mayor on December 11. Munawar Liza Zaim said he was eager to promote the island's tourism industry and its deep-water port, upgraded with support from Dublin Port.
'We must invest and support local tourist businesses,' he said.
Under this year's accord between rebels and the government, Aceh has the right to establish direct international sea and air links.
But luring foreign tourists may be a tough sell if the province's zealous sharia police have their way. Tough restrictions on alcohol sales, and frequent raids on unmarried Muslim couples and women not wearing headscarves, are not helping Aceh's international image.