Imagining The Reconstruction Of The Gili Islands Post-Earthquake
Three picturesque islands lie off the coast of North West Lombok like cosmically aligned pyramids.
With idyllic vistas, motor-less modes of transport, unparalleled vibes and a spiritual experience just a mushroom away, the Gili Islands seem to occupy another dimension.
Over the years, travel to these otherworldly islands increased exponentially and became Indonesia’s worst kept secret.
1 million tourists a year were visiting islands that have a combined population of 9,000. Gili Air, Meno and Trawangan were crumbling under the weight of their own magical allure.
Then, on the 29th September, a 6.4 earthquake brought the party to an abrupt end. Amongst rubble, debris and injuries, whispers of a Tsunami caused fresh panic on the low-lying islands.
Thankfully, the tidal wave only existed in the collective imagination. This didn’t prevent apocalyptic scenes of tourists scrambling for The Last Boat Out Of Trawangan.
Still raw from the trauma and visibly in disarray, the islands are welcoming back their main source of income – tourism – half-complete.
But what will reconstruction look like? How is it being approached?
Do we dare dream of a fantastical renaissance of the Gili Islands?
This is an imaginative exercise in realizing potential.
Destruction presents the opportunity for creation.
The earthquake has given us the chance to revisit the unsustainable trajectory of Gili island tourism.
Only an innovative design for reconstruction and future management of the islands will and save them from ruin.
The island’s majesty demands it.
Then & Now
If you’ve been to the Gili’s in the last 10 years, everything about the experience has radically transformed, including the boat ride over.
Rather than the cattle ferries of the past, competing boat companies have been able to consolidate their human cargo onto one convenient pleasure cruise.
After this most recent Deluge, a new and peculiar form of paradise has risen from the ashes.
To fully enjoy ones time, one needs to either put aside grievances for the locals and the visibly suffering businesses…
Or get creative. Because another future is possible.
A stroll past the empty bars and restaurants will give an appreciation for the semantic difference between a “desert” and a “deserted” island.
One is an island with no people. The other is an island that has undergone an exodus.
Imagine a floating, abandoned West World, complete with the clip-clop of horses hooves, not a sheriff in sight and tumble weeds replaced by the occasional plastic bag rolling in the ocean breeze.
When viewing the wreckage, it can be hard to tell between the dilapidated and the half-constructed.
Between the places under reconstruction and the new projects with the means and mindset of creation.
Indeed, many guesthouses appear to be paused indefinitely.
What is clear, though, is that government aid is, at best, invisible.
This is understandable after Indonesia’s terrible luck with natural disasters in 2018. While parts of Lombok have taken on the appearance of a corrugated iron refugee camp, the tourist hot spot with a tiny population remains down the pecking order.
PLN (the national electricity provider) have clearly neglected their duties.
Regular power outages have an obvious culprit.
This areal shot of the Ombak Hotel shows the extent of damage done to Gili Air’s largest accommodation, an expansion of the luxurious Villa Ombak on Trawangan.
Perhaps it is poetic justice for the unimaginative designers building an eye sore of a hotel that looks more like a government building.
But what of the local Gili population?
The people who don’t have the money to pay for Lombok’s in demand contractors have called on each other for help.
When their houses came down, a sturdy community revealed themselves – they are rebuilding everyones homes, together.
The collective mantra has become: “I’ll hold your ladder, chop your wood, house your family if you help with mine.” A beautiful example of symbiosis in action.
When the thin veneer of material reality crumbled at the seams, a strong social fabric has proved tougher than concrete.
Destruction has unleashed the creative and constructive forces of the community, expertly mobilizing to recreate homes for the people that stay long after the party has concluded.
The recovery effort will be slow.
And as three small islands, the resources for rebuilding can only come ashore one boat at a time.
But if it’s a job worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
Imagining A Sustainable Gili Islands
It would be sensible that reconstruction avoided an environmentally masochistic approach.
Can the islands become a carbon neutral? Could we design efficiency right into what comes next? Do we want a million tourists a year returning to swamp the islands?
Hidden in each of the Gili’s interior is an inkling into this potential.
PLN Solar panels have become common place ever since their introduction to Gili Trawangan in 2012.
Some eco-minded business owners have also implemented solar panels onto their properties. This must be continued. What if all new (and old) resorts were compelled to harness renewable energy, and the islands encouraged to go 100% carbon neutral?
We should hold these buildings to a strict environmental standards.
Minimising the carbon footprint in the building stage, while mitigating energy consumption once completed.
Is there a way to redesign the connectivity and flow of the islands town planning?
Building Low (one storey) and Set Back will help immerse occupants in the local flora and contextualise their experience. Building back a few meters from the shoreline will maintain a beautiful, natural setting, preserving the authentic feel of the islands.
Further, their design could take on traditional Sasak or Balinese architecture, rather than the ghastly grey of the Ombak Hotel.
1 Million tourists a year shows that there is enough money coming through to fund this transition. Imagine just a Rp.200,000 “Gili Tax” was levied? Turn the unsustainable interest into a fund for social development and sustainable energy while bringing tourism to more manageable levels.
There is an innate sustainability mindset that comes from living on small islands, where negative feedback loops are immediately visible.
Refills are encouraged over plastic bottles, #Iamnotplastic straws are fairly ubiquitous and the practice of burning rubbish is absent. This is a decent starting point, but more is needed to make The Gili’s the Green Utopia that will ensure the survival of it’s surrounding environment.
Mainland tourism brings an expectation of abundant plastic usage, which must come to an end.
This should not be considered wishful thinking.
Rather, this mindset must form the blue print of how reconstruction is approached. Get it right here, and we have a copyable blueprint to scale-up to other tourist destinations across Indonesia.
A renaissance is possible.
The Gili locals and workers were confident that the islands would return to the regularly scheduled shit show come Christmas time.
Short term memories and the Western tourists desire for festive debauchery will always go some way to ensuring this.
For sure, Bintangs are one commodity that hasn’t stopped arriving.
Action is needed now.
What is possible with the Gili’s rests only with the limits of our imagination.
Capital and interest are in abundance. They just have to be creatively distributed and based on sound design.
If we can collectively get this right with the Gili islands, like an experiment in a petri dish, the islands could be an example for Indonesia as a whole
Imagine - Indonesia’s environmental renaissance starting with its worst kept secret.