How a village pond became a quirky tourist attraction in Indonesia in the social media age
- Villagers sank their money into a pond, and made it Insta-famous. In the process, they enriched themselves, wiped out unemployment, and became a model village
- Visitors flock to Umbul Ponggok in Central Java every weekend to take tongue-in-cheek underwater selfies, feed its fish, and buy food and souvenirs
Dery Sananya sits casually on a chair “watching” television – as carp, koi and pomfret swim past him. Later, he will upload a selfie of this pose to his Instagram feed, with a quip about how easy its is to find TV channels underwater.
He is one of the many tourists – Indonesian and foreign – who have flocked to Umbul Ponggok in Klaten, Central Java, Indonesia, to take tongue-in-cheek underwater selfies in a pond.
“Many visitors upload photos of themselves on motorbikes or bicycles, and even do pre-wedding photo shoots, which quickly become viral on their Instagram accounts,” says Umbul Ponggok’s 25-year-old manager, Muhammad Abdul Rahman.
Visitors can also swim or snorkel there. Those without underwater cameras can rent one for 60,000 rupiah (US$4.20) per half-hour.
Umbul is the local word for spring, although Umbul Ponggok – measuring 20 metres by 50 metres, and 2.5 metres deep in places – could more accurately be called a pond. Water flows into it continuously from 40 natural springs at a rate of 800 litres per second, keeping the waters crystal clear and fresh.
In a social-media-driven world where Instagram posts are as sought after a part of the tourist experience as the actual holiday, it was only a matter of time before enterprising villagers in nearby Ponggok took advantage of these attributes and made Umbul Ponggok a tourist attraction.
The pond has its own Instagram account, with more than 38,000 followers. As more photos taken there go viral, its visibility on local and national news portals has added to Umbul Ponggok’s fame. Indonesian president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, uploaded a photo on his Instagram account showing a man riding a motorcycle underwater at Umbul Ponggok in November 2018. The post has since been liked over 640,000 times.
The Umbul Ponggok of today is a far cry from the polluted, mossy pond that, 15 years ago, was used by villagers for bathing and washing clothes. Ponggok was poor and most of its people were not well educated. They farmed or worked in quarries. Unemployment was high.
It was village head Junaedi Mulyono who had the idea of turning Umbul Ponggok into a tourist destination soon after he was elected in 2006.
He began by inviting several students from Gadjah Mada University in the city of Yogyakarta, a little over 30km (20 miles) from Klaten, to create a database of Ponggok’s problems, potential resources, and possible solutions.
“We needed a real database containing all the information, in order for us to make plans to address the problems of the villagers,” says Mulyono.
Based on the information gathered, Mulyono established a village-owned business, Tirta Mandiri (which means Water Independent), to manage Ponggok’s finances and resources, and launch Umbul Ponggok tours.
Many villagers were initially hesitant, but Mulyono invited them to invest in Umbul Ponggok and benefit from the revenue it brought in. in 2011, the village began improving the pond and turned it into a tourist attraction.
They cleared the moss and cleaned the pond, and Mulyono, who was a koi fish farmer, put fish in it. Villagers built public bathrooms, kiosks and stalls. Since 2015, Ponggok has used central government funding to clean up dirty, polluted watercourses, dig drainage channels, create fish ponds, and build footpaths and roads.
“Initially many residents were reluctant to invest but after seeing the development of the pond, they changed their minds,” Mulyono says.
Of the roughly 700 families in Ponggok, 430 became investors. Each family put in some 5 million rupiah. In return, they have received a share of the profits – some 400,000 to 500,000 rupiah per month – for the past 10 years, which they have used to better their lives and fund their children’s education.
Today, villagers and community groups own close to 40 per cent of the shares in Umbol Ponggok, with the rest held by the village government.
The pond’s success in drawing tourists has eliminated unemployment in the village, Mulyono says. With the two dozen or so stalls villagers operate around Umbul Ponggok selling visitors such things as clothing, food, drinks, and souvenirs, the number of people who leave Ponggok for the cities to find work has dropped.
One of the stallholders, Sisminarti, who sells clothes and food, says she can earn 1 million rupiah in a weekend. “I used to be a housewife but my husband was sick and had to rest, so I became the breadwinner. I am grateful to be able to receive income to meet my and my family’s needs.”
“Five years ago, there were still poor villagers. But now all the unemployed have been absorbed into Tirta Mandiri. Our focus is to empower people to be independent,” Mulyono says.
Sisminarti says: “This pond provides economic income for citizens and reduces unemployment.”
Tirta Mandiri has expanded into other businesses, such as water management and event management, and established village shops. Housewives process farmed tilapia to make local food products.
In 2005 the village had an annual income of some 80 million rupiah. Today Tirta Mandiri’s revenue from its various businesses totals 14 billion rupiah (almost US$1 million) per year, and Ponggok is one of the richest villages in Indonesia.
“The arrival of tourists to see Umbul Ponggok is what made the economy … grow,” says Mulyono.
In 2017, the Indonesian government named Ponggok one of 10 model villages in the country that had successfully managed their potential to advance the community’s economy. Since then, many officials from other villages and even central government executives have visited Ponggok to learn from its achievements.
“We are very open to sharing our findings if there are other people or village officials who want to learn about village management such as livestock, fisheries, spatial planning, Tirta Mandiri, and tourism,” says Mulyono.
Ponggok draws crowds of tourists every weekend. Minimarkets, homestays and restaurants have been set up. Though the local people are careful to preserve the natural landscape, it has a modern air compared to other rural villages.
Mukharir, a visitor from Yogyakarta, says he is inspired by the villagers having seen the potential of their home and leveraged it creatively.
“Ponggok was not known at all,” he says. “Now it is famous, and has become one of the must-see tourist destinations in Klaten.”