Legacy, January/February 2003, magazine of the National Association for Interpretation
In the Heart of Jurassic - ah, Komodo - Park
“Komodo could be a little like Jurassic Park,” muses Rili Djauhari, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Bali office in Indonesia, which supports Komodo National Park. She knows that live dinosaurs are hard to come by these days, but dragons are another matter. Komodo Island and its dragons, nevertheless, bear little resemblance to Jurassic Park Island and its dinosaurs, but that's ok, since Rili refers to the visitor experience.
Komodo, however, hasn’t yet considered the visitor experience in its management and neither do many parks around the world that boast magnificent attractions. I think of Mayan temples, lava-slobbering volcanoes, thick Amazonian jungle, and of course dragons. Tilden Freeman wrote that some attractions might not need interpretation because their beauty is so self-evident. Yet if a park wants to develop and sell a particular visitor experience, it better start interpreting for it.
Author Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and also Last Chance to See in which he recounted his “adventure” to Komodo in 1989.
We moored at a long, rickety, wooden jetty that stuck out from the middle of a wide pale beach. At the landward end the jetty was surmounted by an archway, nailed to the top of which was a wooden board which welcomed us to Komodo, and therefore served slightly to diminish our sense of intrepidness
The next blow to our sense of intrepidness was the rather neatly laid-out path. This led from the end of the jetty parallel to the shore toward the next and major blow to our sense of intrepidness, which was a visitors’ village This was a group of fairly ramshackle wooden buildings: an administration center from which the island is run, a cafeteria terrace, and a small museum.
Adams describes the cafeteria and then asks one American tourist, “Have you been here long?” “Oh, hours,” she said. “Done the dragons. Bored with them. The food’s terrible.”
The day was to consist almost entirely of things we had not been expecting, starting with the arrival of a group of about two dozen American tourists on a specially chartered boat. They were mostly of early retirement age, festooned with cameras, polyester leisure suits, gold-rimmed glasses and Midwestern accents We were severely put out by their arrival and felt that the last vestige of any sense of intrepidness we were still trying to hold on to was finally slipping away.
But Komodo, like so many other world-class attractions, has enormous potential to mould a unique visitor experience. With proper planning the park could eliminate the “Been-There, Done-That” syndrome suffered by many tourists. To capture a little of Jurassic Park without turning Komodo into an amusement park, consider the following.
2. Develop key messages. The messages should be about the park, for which the dragon is the most obvious flagship. In fact, the park has many unique features. Because it happened to be put down where the Indian and Pacific oceans collide, massive upwellings, whirlpools, and fast currents swirl around the islands. It has some of the greatest marine diversity in the world. There are more venomous snakes per square meter on Komodo Island than anywhere else on earth (7 of 15 species). There are lots of toxic animals underwater as well: scorpionfish, stonefish, sea snakes, corals, fire worms. With this kind of muscle, key messages are not so hard to craft:
a. Caught between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Komodo National Park’s waters churn with an unfathomable marine diversity.
3. Promotion. The visitor experience should begin long before intrepid travelers ever arrive at Komodo. As soon as they visit the web site (www.komodonationalpark.org) or read a brochure, the anticipation should begin. The park could use a tag line crafted from Adams’s observation that scavenging dragons in the past dug up buried villagers: “Not even the dead are safe from the dragons.”
4. Access. Access to the island should not be so easy. The four-hour boat ride gives time for the suspense to build and also incorporates the small obstacles into the experience. Boats should make an interpretive stop at a dragon-less island first to set the stage. Direct speedboat jumps to the island should be avoided. Let's not even talk about the giant cruise ships that pull right up alongside the island.
5. Interpretation. The park should exploit early maritime accounts of encounters with dragons to build mystique and cast a historical context. Use objects such as dragon teeth to pique interest and to discuss the dragon’s size, velocity, and lethality before visitors step ashore. People want to know, morbid or not, about the kills. Fortunately A Natural History Guide to Komodo National Park covers this point: “At least 8 people are thought to have been attacked by dragons, and one tourist is thought to have been eaten by dragons in the 1970s.”
6. Guides and Guards. Train them to build the experience; arm them with suspenseful stories; play them Jurassic Park. But don't ever let them say, “You can usually find the dragons over there.” Every dragon encounter must be a thrilling first for the visitor as well as for the guide.
7. Architecture. The opening archway should not be an embracing, friendly welcome, but an omen of an experience to come (visit www.jurassicpark.com for an ominous example). The park should use only modest buildings, hidden from incoming boats. The island panorama should scream “wilderness.” The cafeteria should be low to the ground, use primitive utensils, and play the sound of animal voices. It should definitely not use disposable plates or cups. And absolutely no feeding the dragons!
8. Interaction with other tourists. Few things pacify a wild experience faster than repeated encounters with other tourists, especially in big groups. The park can control visitor flow and group size much better. They should separate visitor pick-up and drop-off spots. They should make trails one-way and stagger groups by 20 minutes. Guides should minimize encounters and group noise. And the park should recalculate costs and benefits to the visitor experience of cruise ship-based amphibious attacks.
9. Management of dragons. The park should not give dragons any excuse to approach human areas by eliminating unnatural sources of food — except for the visitors. Send people into the dragon’s environment, thus increasing the anticipation to blood-boiling levels.
Remember that the dragon is just the centerpiece of a broader visitor experience. “I wouldn’t have come from Bali only to see the dragons,” admits Italian tourist Nella Lascialfari, “I want to see real dragons in their own environment.”
To avoid “Been-There-Done-That” we plan for the entire experience. As interpretive planner, John Veverka wrote in Legacy (May/June 2000), “The total interpretive-planning process must focus on the ‘experience package’ a visitor receives from the total interpretive or heritage tourism site, region, or facility — not just on individual interpretive experiences.”