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Sumba: The Forgotten Island no more?

Guiding Principle 5: Demand fair-income distribution. Set policies that counter unequal tourism benefits within destination communities that maximize retention of tourism revenues within those communities.

The under-the-radar Indonesian island of Sumba hosts paradisaical white-sand surf beaches, rugged, rolling hills, and a richly spiritual ancient culture that dates back millennia, in which local people worship their ancestral spirits (marupu) with sacrificial rituals and megalithic burial tradition.

Yet Sumba hasn’t experienced anything like the over-development seen in Bali. The ‘Forgotten Island’ is little-known and visited compared to its more famous neighbour. Over 16 million tourists visited Indonesia in 2019 but only 15,000 of these came to Sumba. However, this number is growing and, thanks in part to the Sumba Hospitality Foundation (SHF), the economic benefits of this will reach very poor communities, as well as bringing education and alternative livelihoods to an underserved population.

The SHF is a sustainability-focused hospitality school, eco-resort and organic farm for underprivileged people. Long-time visitor and founder Inge De Lathauwer worked with a local community to conceptualise, build and run the school which aims to teach young Sumbanese students the hospitality skills needed to work in tourism and the sustainability skills needed for tourism to thrive for local people in the longer term. Students get hands-on experience at Maringi Sumba, a 9-villa eco-resort, of which all proceeds go back into the programme. Luxury 5-star resort Nihi Sumba also works with SHF through 2-week internships, with the best performing often offered jobs upon graduation.

As well as upskilling students in hospitality and English, this vocational school also teaches sustainable development techniques including permaculture, dealing with plastic waste, building with bamboo, and how to recycle water. English classes are also free and open to all, to further benefit the wider community.

Sumba is one of the poorest regions in Indonesia. Poverty rates are high and less than 50% of children finish primary school. Without adequate education, investors may choose to import labour from Bali or Java as tourism grows on the island. SHF hopes to address this through its programme. It also works hard with local people and the small handful of already pioneering hoteliers to ensure that future investors and developers on Sumba share the same awareness for sustainable tourism development on this unique island.

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