By Jon Kohl
Komodo could be a little like Jurassic Park,’ muses Rili Djohani, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Bali office in Indonesia, which works closely with Komodo National Park. She knows that live dinosaurs are hard to come by these days, but dragons are another matter. Nevertheless, Komodo Island and its dragons bear little resemblance to Jurassic Park Island and its dinosaurs but that’s okay, since Rili is referring to the visitor experience.
Even in Jurassic Park, part of the visitor experience – aside from being eaten – does not require actually seeing dinosaurs, only anticipating them. And that is something Komodo National Park could share with its distant Hollywood cousin. People travel from all over the world to see Komodo dragons, nature’s largest lizards, measuring up to 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 lbs. And their attitude resembles the small Velociraptor mare than a multi-ton wallowing herbivores. Komodo dragons eat meat, and their bacteria-infested, saliva-slimy bite can take down an adult buffalo, killing it with a blood-poisoning infection within days.
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. Freeman Tilden 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.
Currently, the Jurassic-Komodo experience is lack-luster at best. Within minutes of arriving on the island, you can gulp your soda with a dragon in the background plunging its head into kitchen scraps behind the cafeteria. The first sighting comes all too soon and with even less fanfare than cheering on a skilled raccoon in a trash can.
Author Douglas Adams, best known for writing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also wrote 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 wooden board which welcomed us to Komodo, and therefore served slightly to diminish our sense of intrepidnessÔÇª
The next blow to our sense of intrepidness was 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’ villageÔÇªThis was a group of fairly ramshackle wooden buildings: an administration center from which the island center is run, a cafeteria terrace, and a small museum.
Adams describes the cafeteria, then asks one American tourist, “Have you been here long?” “Oh, hours,” she says. “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 Mid-western accentsÔÇª. 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 mold 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, the park should consider the following:
- Describe the experience. In Komodo, the experience could involve suspense, excitement and anticipation of a little danger (the dragons are, after all, killers) that compels tourists to recount the adventure for the rest of their lives. It should be a waterborne and terrestrial safari that makes them feel as though they have been transported to another age (albeit not necessarily that of the dinosaurs).
- 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 out 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 (seven of 15 species). There are lots of toxic animals underwater as well: scorpions, stonefish, sea snakes, corals, fireworms. With this kind of muscle, key messages are not hard to craft:
- Caught between the Indian and Pacific oceans, Komodo National Park’s waters churn with an unfathomable marine diversity.
- Both terrestrial and marine animals of Komodo use the language of toxicity to discourse, to defend and to strike death.
- The massive Komodo dragons prowl a land as unique as their own flame.
- The Chinese concept of dragon has always been rooted in reality, and the Komodo dragons prove it.
- Promotion. The visitor experience should begin long before intrepid travelers ever arrive at Komodo. As soon as visitors read a brochure or visit the web site (www.komodonationalpark.org), 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.”
- Access. Access to the island should not be so easy. The four-hour boat ride gives time for suspense to build an also incorporates small obstacles into the experience. Boats should make an interpretive stop at a dragon-less island first to set the stage. Direct speedboat jumps should be avoided. Let’s not even talk about the giant cruise ships that pull right up alongside the island
- Interpretation. The park should exploit early maritime accounts of encounters with dragons to build mystique and cast a historical context. Objects such as dragon teeth can pique interest, and the dragon’s size, velocity, and lethality can intimidate and build suspense 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 eight people are thought to have been attacked by dragons, and one tourist is thought to have been eaten by dragons in the 1970s.”
- Guides and Guards. Train them to build the experience; arm them with suspenseful stories; show 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 time for the visitor as well as the guide.
- Architecture. The opening archway should not be en 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 screen “wilderness.” The cafeteria should be low to the ground, use primitive utensils, and play sounds of animal voices. It should definitely not use disposable plates or cups. And absolutely no feeding the dragons.
- 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. It should separate visitor pick-up and drop-off spots, make trails one-way, and stagger groups by 20 minutes. Guides should minimize encounters and group noise, and the park should recalculate the costs and benefits to the visitor experience of cruise-ship-based amphibious attacks.
- Management of dragons. The park should eliminate unnatural sources of food – except for the visitors, of course – keeping dragons away from human areas. 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. “It 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 the “been-there-done-that” syndrome, we plan for the entire experience. In his May/June 2000 Legacy article, “Interpretive Planning for the New Millennium,” interpretive planner John Veverka wrote, “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.”
If visitors must have an experience, plan it. If you must have architecture, select a style that contributes to the experience. If you must have guides, train them to contribute. If you must have marketing, use it to contribute. And if you must have visitors, make them contribute to the experience and the park. But that’s a topic for another day.