For much of Australia’s post colonial history, the Great Barrier Reef has been more of a problem than a tourism attraction. Just look at the name; Great Barrier. ‘Geat’ in this sense doesn’t mean ‘amazing,’ it means ‘pain in the ass’ and potentially fatal. Yet by the 1980’s, the meaning of ‘Great’ had changed. For almost a decade, the reef saw 30% more tourists visit the reef year on year. ‘Great’ now means ‘awesome’ and the reef has become one of the top tourism attractions in Australia. So why is the Great Barrier Reef now so Great? Any tourist will be able to tell you it’s the largest natural reef in the world. Which leaves the obvious question; where’s the second largest natural reef in the world?
The second largest coral reef in the world doesn’t even seem to have a name. It’s located in the Wakatobi National Park, Indonesia, which is a tentative World Heritage Site (the Great Barrier Reef is not a Tentative World Heritage Site, it’s a World Heritage Site). It’s also a part of the Asia-Pacific Coral Triangle, which sounds more like a trade organisation than a tourism destination.
Still, for all of the terrible marketing, there is something really great about Wakatobi. Jacques Cousteau went as far as calling it an “Underwater Nirvana.” Words which might never have actually left his lips, but make for a nice tourism byline. There are beautiful golden beaches lined with palm trees, crystal clear waters and lots of dive centres desperate to get you to enter the magical underwater world.
If I’m honest, I had never heard about Wakatobi before I came to Indonesia. The name meant little to me (it actually comes from an amalgamation of the names of four islands (Wa)ngi-Wangi, (Ka)ledupa, (To)mia and (Bi)nongko). After four years of living in Indonesia, I was incredibly excited when I actually got the chance to visit Wakatobi. These are my thoughts.
The Best Bits
Wakatobi is picturesque. The beaches, palm trees give the four islands a laid back tropical island feel. The water is calm and crystal clear and the coral reef doesn’t dissapoint. Head under the waves and you can find hammerhead sharks, manta rays, dolphins and even whale sharks. It’s not only the small things that catch your eye though. The coral is colorful and varied and the small fish – lion fish, nemo, etc. – are plentiful. Combine this with the floating villages on stilts and the isolation of the islands and you have a unique and unforgettable holiday experience.
Then there is the food. The islands that make up Wakatobi are so small and isolated that red and even white meat is hard to find. Instead you are served freshly caught fish and crab on a daily basis. It’s all delicious and as long as you don’t have any alergies you will be in heaven.
The Bad Bits
Wakatobi is isolated and unless you can afford the cost of a plane ticket, you’re going to have to take an overnight ferry to the islands. It’s a long trip and if you don’t have much time for a holiday, you are going to have a tough time justifying the trip. The second thing is that Wakatobi is a resort destination. You arrive in your resort, you stay in your resort and you don’t do much outside of your resort. That’s not that it’s unsafe, there’s simply nothing to do outside of the resort. There aren’t any bars or restaurants or social life, just empty beaches and coral reefs, which is great but also a bit boring.
The other thing about Wakatobi, which you won’t find talked about, are the sand flies and small midges. Sit down for any length of time on the busy beaches and you will be surrounded by small insects anxious to get at your blood. It’s not a nice experience, making beaches a nice place to take photos, but a terrible place to relax.
Wakatobi is an amazing holiday destination. The islands offer such biodiversity that any diver will be overwhelmed by the beauty of the underwater world (Jaques Cousteau may have had a point). The tropical islands surrounded by the warm waters of the Pacific are also not without its charms. However, if you are looking for a beach holiday or a place to party then you will be sorely dissapointed.