Lake Toba, a typical Indonesian case of missed opportunities

The road is sinuous and with traffic jam, it might take over four hours to cover the 180 km which separates Medan, North Sumatra capital to the Lake Toba. But it is worth the visit. Lake Toba offers certainly one of the most stunning landscapes in Southeast Asia. Just imagine a deep fresh water lake with its shores surrounded by a chain of volcanoes. Toba dimension makes it the largest lakes in Southeast Asia. Its surface reaches 100 km x 30 km and it takes approximately two hours by boat and three hours by car to just go around it. The Lake stands 900 m over the sea level providing for a year-round cool climate.

Discovered by the Dutch in the early XX° century, Lake Toba became a favorite retreat for public servants and rich Indonesians looking to escape the balmy heat from Medan. A beautiful black and white art deco style villa dominating the small resort city of Parapat over the Lake Toba was even the residence for Indonesia’s first President Soekarno as a prisoner of the Dutch colonial administration.

Lush green landscapes, waterfalls and small villages dominated by churches’ bell towers and boat-shaped Batak Toba houses with their intricate wood sculpture create stunning sceneries. A tourist paradise, then? Definitely yes, except that little has been so far done to attract more travelers, especially a more sophisticated crowd with a bigger purchasing power.

Accessing Lake Toba from Medan can already be quite a challenge. The road from North Sumatra capital city is relatively good but the two-lane highway suffers of chronic congestion due to a high number of trucks. And connecting Parapat to Berastagi -a nearby mountain resort city and also a popular tourist destination- is another exhausting experience: over three hours driving for a distance of less than 120 km! Parts of the road seem to have not been renovated since the sixties…

Another problem is the lack of cleanliness, especially in tourist spots. Despite many campaigns to educate people and make them more aware about protecting the environment, a lot must still be done to ensure that piles of rubbish do not stand next to tourist attractions and spoil wonderful landscapes. “It is a problem that we fully understand and where we had only little results so far. We have to work out new strategies to ensure the cleanliness of all major tourist areas not only at Lake Toba but in the entire North Sumatra Province,” acknowledges Nurliza Ginting, Head of North Sumatra Provincial Office of Tourism. More funds should be made available to this purpose including a Province contest to tide up villages and cities.

But also, tourism actors should look at the range of products offered around the Lake area. “We lack creativity by defining new tourist products for a more discerning category of travelers,” says Robert Lam, CEO of Horas Tours, one of Medan’s large incoming travel agencies. Beside its stunning landscapes and unique culture around its shores, Lake Toba has indeed very little to offer to travelers. Activities are limited to some trekking in surrounding mountains, fishing activities and possibility to cross the lake in a speed boat. Guest houses, inns and small hotels represent most of the accommodation facilities , beside one or two first class properties.

However, the area could easily have one or two deluxe resorts, offering a more distinctive experience, especially with spa treatments. Lake Toba has until today not a single contemporary spa, excepted at the foothill of Mount Sibayak, where a natural hot spa is opened to the public.

Restaurants offer all the same kind of food: traditional fried rice, pizzas, Padang-style food with some outlets proposing regional Batak specialties. They are for example no cosy coffee shops proposing to try local coffee beans such as Sumatra Mandaling or even cocoa. Both are cultivated in the region as well as many other fruits such as Avocados, mangos, kakis or rambutan, which would make agro-tourism tours an interesting activity. And what about historical tours, especially a circuit around the emblematic figure of President Soekarno, who was imprisoned in the area prior to the independence?

Even shopping is not up to travelers’ expectation: Tomok Village is the busiest place for tourists with tens of shops. However, they all sell the same stuff, from t-shirts to wooden sculptures or jewels. The village is invaded by hordes of tourists from Malaysia attracted by cheap prices. “Malaysian tourists are not high-spenders and we should diversify our source of tourism,” tells Lam.

Fostering tourism diversification should also be a priority for North Sumatra Governor’s office and the rather dynamic Nurliza Ginting, Head of tourism. Lake Toba looks indeed like a sleeping beauty. It is definitely part of its charm but it cannot remain for ever like this with North Sumatra being keen to gain recognition as a world-class destination.