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Changing face of Banyuwangi

AAP logoAAP 20/11/2016 Jenny Tabakoff

Until recently Banyuwangi was a poor and remote region of eastern Java. But that is rapidly changing - and the province is campaigning to attract more foreign visitors.

Just east of Banyuwangi - an hour's ferry ride away - is the much-loved (some say over-loved) island of Bali, which draws about four million tourists a year.

Banyuwangi attracts a tiny fraction of those numbers, but it's experiencing a domestic-tourism boom driven by its natural and cultural wonders. The imminent opening of a new airport is part of the plan.

The province's regent, Abdullah Azwar Anas, wants to put Banyuwangi on the tourist map but also maintain the people's culture, environment and coastline. The new airport sets the tone: it's surrounded by rice fields and has lots of eco features, including a turf roof.

Anas, who is halfway through his second and final four-year term, wants a bright and sustainable future for Banyuwangi: "My main vision is to get the people here to live peacefully and to have enough of everything," he told a group of visiting foreign journalists in mid-October.

Banyuwangi has three big national parks: Ijen, home of the "blue flames" volcano where sulfur is mined; Alas Purwo, which includes Plengkung Beach (known to surfers as "G-Land") and the Sadengan savannah area where water buffalo and deer roam; and Meru Betiri, where sea turtles nest in large numbers at Sukamade Beach.

Other attractions include the exquisite white-sand Hijau Bay (safe from development as its surrounded by national park), and Merah Island (the "pink sand" beach).

Anas has instituted a busy program of cultural festivals and events. They include the Tour de Ijen, a one-day bicycle race held in May.

Banyuwangi is a food bowl, famous for its coffee, coconuts, rice, mangosteens, durian, dragon fruit and, especially, bananas. Many of the souvenirs and furniture items in Bali's shops were actually made in Banyuwangi.

At the moment Banyuwangi is probably best-suited to backpackers and adventure seekers, but more western-style hotels are being built, and European and Chinese voices already echo up and down the track that takes you to the wild, weird beauty of Ijen's crater.

If you are willing to rough it a bit, now is a good time to come to Banyuwangi. See what a beautiful place is like before the advent of mass tourism.

* The writer travelled as a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism's Wonderful Indonesia trip.

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