Interview with Sustainable Tourism Advisor, Björn Svensson
Today we are lucky to be joined by a professional beach surveyor! Björn Svensson has an impressive career as a tourism professional. On his ongoing journey in the world of travel and tourism, so far he has worked as a diving instructor in the Maldives and Thailand; managed dive centers in Egypt and the Maldives; produced visual and textual material for a number of tourism companies; guided walking tours and expeditions in Australia and Antarctica; worked with multi-lingual services for tourists and expats in Spain and the Netherlands, designed new ecotourism products, and done training, planning, and mentoring along the way. With him, Björn carries his Canon camera, and his talents of capturing the moment and craft the best compositions has resulted in countless features in magazines, guide books, and promotional material. We could go on, but you get the picture.
Today, Björn is working with Australian Volunteers International as Sustainable Tourism Advisor at North Nias Tourism Department off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.
NIAS ISLAND, Indonesia
Area: 5,121 km² (1,977 sq. mi.)
Location: 125 km (78 mi.) off w. Sumatra
Population: 700,000+ “Nihas”
Language: Li Niha & Bahasa Indonesia
Capital: Gunung Sitoli
Highest Point: 886 m (2,907 ft.)
Weather: Hot and humid
Coastline: From rocky to sandy, big waves on Western shore
A: Björn Svensson
Q: First of all, thank you for joining us. You are our first featured guest, and we are very excited to have this opportunity to talk to you. Before this interview, you revealed to us that you survey beaches on North Nias – professionally! What does that entail? And do you need any help?
A: Thanks for having me! Perhaps I should start with explaining why there was a need for a beach survey in North Nias. Up until a few years ago North Nias was a very undeveloped and inaccessible area, even by Indonesian standards. In March 2005 there was a huge earthquake that apart from killing hundreds of people also completely ruined any existing infrastructure. The earthquake recovery highlighted how undeveloped the area was, and in a few years many organisations jointly managed to rebuilt and modernize the region so that it is now connected and in step with the rest of Indonesia. North Nias is still pretty poor and tourism was identified as a way to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. The local government asked Australia for help, and that’s how me and my wife came to be here.
Before starting to promote and develop North Nias for tourism we needed a basic understanding of what was there, an inventory of places that would be suitable for tourism. Our main priority was to survey the coast, as we figured the beaches and water sports would be the most important drawcard for people coming to Nias. During the earthquake the whole island was uplifted, in some places 2.5 meters. This changed the whole coastline; some beaches disappeared while in other places new ones were created. Because of this it was necessary to visit every part of the coastline to see for ourselves what the current situation was, hence the “Beach Survey”.
Google Earth was a great tool, but it can be deceptive. Beaches that look great on a satellite photo can turn out to be too gravelly or surrounded by a mosquito-infested swamp. It’s also important to visit a place more than once. We found one area of the coast that was stunningly beautiful (in March) but when we returned six months later huge waves were pounding the beaches and it was dangerous to go anywhere near the water. For every beach we filled out a survey sheet with detailed information about the site. Most importantly we gave each beach an assessment where we outlined in what way the location could be suitable for tourism development, or in some cases not suitable at all. Many factors play into this assessment; accessibility, distance from the airport, environment, cleanliness, local community and land ownership to name a few.
Using boat, motorbike and most of all, our own two feet, we covered the whole North Nias coastline. It was a tough job (lots of sand in my shoes), but someone had to do it! I lost all my camera gear once when I was swept off a rock by a huge wave. We also had a number of spills with the motorbike on the many small slippery tracks, but luckily no serious injuries. By the end of the survey I had a pretty good tan, having spent months walking up and down the coastline under the blazing sun.
In total we assessed 52 beaches, and we “found” several new really nice beaches that our office didn’t even know about. We combined the beach surveys with a list of potential natural and cultural tourism sites and compiled it into a report for the local government. Highlights of this report have also been shared with tourism industry stakeholders with an interest in North Nias.
The Survey of North Nias is now completed, but in 2015 we will continue with the rest of the Island. If travelers want to share their photos and information about beaches they’ve visited in Nias this would be most welcome!
Beaches around North Nias
Photo credits: North Nias Tourism – Björn Svensson
Q: I can easily picture riding on small bumpy dirt roads and discovering new beaches appearing from the wilderness. What an amazing and challenging job – certainly not for the frail-hearted! Other than surveying beaches, could you briefly tell us about your current role and concrete tasks in developing tourism on North Nias?
A: An important part of my role is capacity building, improving the skills of my colleagues at the local tourism department. Part of that is formal training in things like tourism promotion which includes photography, social media and web stuff. On a more informal level, I spend a lot of time talking about various aspects of tourism. Many locals have never been off the Island and have very little understanding of what tourists would find attractive or interesting on Nias.
Sustainability is another huge thing. I am trying to emphasize the importance of keeping tourism attractions clean. As a part of that effort we have organised beach clean-ups and training for the people who are in charge of this. We engage with the rather few local people who are involved in tourism and try to help them in any way we can. Another part of our job is to assist tourism industry stakeholders who are interested in North Nias, for example by sharing information from the beach survey.
Q: You mentioned that many locals might not be aware what actually attracts tourists to Nias. What is exciting, beautiful, and exotic to visitors, is most likely just “normal” to locals. In your opinion, what makes North Nias special – could you give us your 5 best reasons to visit Nias?
A: Okay, here we go:
- Miles upon miles of undeveloped beaches.
- World class surfing and great snorkeling.
- Get away from the crowds and go somewhere slightly off the beaten path; experience how places like Phuket and Bali looked like 30 years ago.
- The amazing and distinctly unique culture.
- The genuinely friendly and welcoming people of Nias.
There are many reasons to visit North Nias!
Photo credits: North Nias Tourism – Björn Svensson. See more inspiring images here.
Q: Sounds like Nias Island has a lot of the things we beachers are looking for in a beach destination. Where is North Nias today in regards to tourism development? Can you give a profile of the “typical” tourist coming to Nias island? What sort of products and experiences does the island currently offer?
A: North Nias is probably the part of Nias Island that gets least visitors. I would call it the step just before “pre-emerging destination”. To be honest the facilities are pretty basic up here, and the visitors who come are mostly adventurous surf travelers. People who are prepared to “rough it” just to have a great wave to themselves. But things are changing, there are both local and foreign projects underway, and I believe in the near future there will be some very interesting bungalows and lodge type accommodations up here.
90% of the tourists who come to Nias today are surfers. Most of them are experienced travelers who don’t mind the basic facilities. The lack of WiFi and good Café Lattes is not a problem for them. Many of them are “repeaters” who come back year after year, often staying with the same family. The surfers are great for the people near the surf waves, but they are not doing much for tourism elsewhere on the Island. There are so many things to do and places to see on Nias.
If you visit Nias you could base yourself at one of the surf-destinations. This is where there the guesthouses and tourist bungalows are located. One of the “Must-Do” things on Nias is visiting one of the traditional villages in the south. There are amazing traditional buildings and statues all over the island, but the most accessible and interesting can be found only 20 minutes from Sorake Beach. The largest village is actually nominated for world heritage listing – and deservedly so, it’s stunning! You can also explore the island by motorbike or a hire car. Stop for a swim on a beautiful beach, do some snorkeling or cool off in a waterfall. Many visitors also really enjoy the laid back vibe and rural scenery that can be seen travelling around on Nias. It’s a rare glimpse of remote Indonesia that very few visitors to other places would get to experience. I have heard several visitors compare it to Thailand 30 years ago.
Q: Which opportunities do you see in terms of developing North Nias into a successful and sustainable tourism destination? And just as important, what needs to happen in order to fulfill this goal?
A: It’s pretty clear that Nias has huge potential as a tourism destination. We have only scratched the surface of things to do and see here. Apart from your normal leisure beach holiday I see lots of opportunities for water sports, ecotourism and adventure activities here. Wellness tourism (yoga, spa, massage) is on the increase worldwide and Nias being a very natural place would be perfect for it.
Nias is very safe and socially stable. A majority of the population are very positive to Western visitors. There would be no issues with foreigners in swimwear having a beer on the beach. Everyone I meet is very positive to tourism development, both government and the community. I see this as an opportunity for Nias, as tourists increasingly consider safety and stability when making travel plans. Why would you go on holiday to a place where people don’t like you?
Because of recent infrastructure development, Nias is not remote anymore. Within two hours flight, you have Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and further afield Bangkok and Jakarta. Apart from overseas tourists there is a growing middle class in Southeast Asia plus a huge number of expats. These groups often travel locally and are always on the lookout for new interesting destinations. They also tend to be quite active, and they wouldn’t go to Nias just to hang out on the beach. With a bit of improvement in accommodation Nias will be perfectly placed for these kind of travelers.
It is one thing to promote a place, and another thing to actually take care of the visitors when they eventually come. The most important thing that has to happen now (2015-2016) is improved accommodation and tourism services. There also needs to be diversification of tourism away from the surf areas. There are many beautiful beaches and islands in the north and on the east-coast which are currently very difficult to visit because there is nowhere to stay there. Everyone involved in tourism must lift their game in terms of service and professionalism. I think the current laid-back attitude works fine with the hard core surfers, but if they want to attract other tourists there needs to be improvement in these areas.
Q: It’s difficult to anticipate the long-term impacts of tourism and to satisfy stakeholders with individual priorities and worries. Could you perhaps reveal to us some of the dilemmas, if any, the sustainable tourism development of North Nias is facing?
A: Ideally sustainable tourism operations should be owned and managed by people from the local community. In most cases that is just not possible here. This comes down to lack of experience and funds. To put it bluntly very few people on Nias would know how to operate a tourism business. And very few locals would have the financial means to set one up to begin with. Most, but not all, successful tourism operations on Nias have foreigners involved to various extents. But if Nias can attract the right kind of foreign investors this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Well managed foreign owned tourism operations serve as “seed” projects, attracting visitors and investment to Nias. By employing and training local people they will play an important role in the capacity building of Nias tourism workforce.
Nias Island consists of 5 different districts, each with their own tourism department. This is a problem as there is no overreaching plan or tourism authority for the whole Island. More advanced destinations like Bali or Phuket are often managed by a Destination Management Organisation. At the moment there are some serious barriers to tourism development caused by the lack of cooperation between the districts, for example the incomplete ring road around the Island, or the management of the airport. On the upside, this issue is being discussed at the moment and we might have a DMO for Nias in the near future.
Another dilemma is what type of tourism Nias should have. There are many different visions, but which one is the best for Nias? With my background in ecotourism, I am biased towards sustainable low-impact eco resorts evenly spread around the island. Others are talking about conference hotels, casinos and golf-courses. What right do I have as a foreigner to tell a senior government official that this is wrong, especially if these projects would create lots of local jobs? I am here as an advisor, not an activist or a whistle blower. The best thing I can do is to try to keep highlighting the advantages of sustainable tourism development to as many people as possible. I remain positive as most of the projects I have heard about seem really good!
Q: In response to critical comments such as “aren’t you afraid that tourism development will ruin Nias?” and “is this not just wealthy countries expanding their playground and exploiting yet another poor destination?”, what will your answer be? Why bring tourism to Nias?
A: In Indonesia anyone involved in tourism is always referencing Bali, both for good and bad examples of tourism development. Our goal has never been to turn Nias into another Bali. No one wants Nias to become mass tourism destination where locals are being pushed aside by rampant development.
Around 9% of worldwide GDP and employment is directly linked to tourism. On many island economies it’s much more than that. Currently tourism on Nias employs less than a fraction of a percent (a few hundred people). We think it’s only fair that Nias gets to be part of the global tourism economy. It would make a huge difference for the people of one the poorest regions of Indonesia. If we look at the (both good and bad) experiences from Bali it should be possible to develop Nias into a really great place, both for visitors and locals.
Q: What “development critics” sometimes forget is that local residents often welcome tourists and tourism development as this can be one of a few alternatives to farming crops that are highly susceptible to weather and market demands beyond their control.
Let’s change the subject a bit. We hope that this interview will entice readers to see Nias Island for themselves. How do we book? What should interested readers do if they want to go to Nias Island?
A: It’s very easy to get to Nias these days. The gateway to Nias is Medan, the capital of North Sumatra and Indonesia’s third largest city. There are 7 daily flights from Medan to Nias. The flight to Nias takes just under an hour. Medan is connected to all the big cities in Southeast Asia. As an example, if you leave Singapore in the morning, you can be on the beach on Nias after lunch. Check out our website for flight details. Once you arrive on Nias there are plenty of drivers waiting for each flight that can take you wherever you want to go. Many visitors who book accommodation also pre-arrange their pick up.
Q: Excellent. It sounds easier than could be expected from looking at the location of Nias on the map. How can interested beachers find more inspiration and information about North Nias?
A: First stop would be our website www.northniastourism.com. We also linked photos of beaches to Google Map, so it is possible to find the exact location of the various beaches. Then there is our Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+ pages for which you can find links below.
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Q: Thanks you for sharing your thoughts and insights with us, and good luck with the exciting challenges ahead.
A: Thanks for your interest in Nias Island. We will keep you posted on developments here on Nias!
If you are hungry for more information about Nias Island, there is now a new, up to date, and all encompassing website covering all about Nias Island. The website is called www.visitniasisland.com. Be sure to visit it.