Nglanggeran: Indonesia’s hidden gem where sustainability meets hospitality

The view from the top of Gunung Api Purba (ancient volcano) in the Nglanggeran village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

Village recognized by UNWTO mesmerizes tourists with natural landscape, traditional culture

By Dong Sun-hwa

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia — Waking up to the thunderous crowing of roosters, most residents of the rural area of Nglanggeran in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, begin their day as early as 5 to 6 a.m. to perform the Muslim morning prayer. After having a healthy breakfast packed with cabbages, carrots, bean sprouts and eggs, they either head to work or equip themselves to welcome tourists before the temperature soars to as high as 30 degrees Celsius.

Nestled in the serene hills of Yogyakarta, more than 5,300 kilometers away from Seoul, Nglanggeran is a tiny yet picturesque village where some 700 people live in harmony. Most of them are farmers and ranchers, but beyond their agricultural life, these villagers share a collective mission: fostering community-based tourism.

“We have approximately 80 local homestays and many different community groups that work for tourists,” Lilik Suharyanto, a treasurer of Nglanggeran’s tourism working group, told The Korea Times during a recent interview at the village. “For instance, our cacao and durian community each have 80 people.”

Cacao farmers in Nglanggeran, Indonesia, explain how they grow cacao beans during a press trip organized by the UNWTO on Dec. 13-15. Courtesy of Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy

In Nglanggeran, cacao farmers grow cacao beans and send them to the village’s chocolate factory, Griya Coklat — its Indonesian name means “House of Chocolate” — where local cacao beans transform into variety of items such as chocolate cookies and chocolate spa powder. This village isn’t just about agriculture — it’s an experience where tourists learn about and partake in the journey from bean to bar. Visitors can also have spa time with the help of the village’s spa community group, which consists of massage experts who can revive their body and spirit.

Durian farmers offers a similar authentic experience. After listening to how they grow this unique tropical fruit — notorious for its pungent smell — tourists can get a taste of it.

“We have had approximately 58,000 visitors this year,” Suharyanto noted. “In 2022, the total number of tourists was 68,000 and about 3,000 of them were foreigners.”

Thanks to the unique experience it provides, Nglanggeran was named one of the Best Tourism Villages by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in 2021, becoming the only Indonesian site to be recognized by the U.N. agency that year.

Chocolate powder is being made at a chocolate factory in Nglanggeran, Indonesia. Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

The UNWTO launched the list in 2021 to recognize the villages that foster rural areas and preserve landscapes. Once the villages across the globe make submissions to join the list, the UNWTO evaluate them based on nine criteria including: cultural and natural resources; economic sustainability; environmental sustainability; governance and prioritization of tourism; and health, safety and security.

According to the UNWTO, Nglanggeran’s rise to prominence is the fruit of collective efforts made by various parties.

“The development of the Nglanggeran tourism village is an example of a bottom-up and top-down program approach, that is a strong desire from the community to further develop and progress and a solid support from the government and non-government parties to work together in the development process,” the UNWTO said as it introduced the site, adding that it integrates tourism development in an independent strategy of economic sustainability.

“The village recognizes youth as a driving force for change in the community,” it noted. “Involving young residents in tourism activities encourages positive change in their households and makes families more engaged and supportive of new initiatives.”

Indonesia pits its local villages against one another before making a submission to the UNWTO. By having a national competition in advance, the Southeast Asian country can showcase its most eligible tourist site to the U.N. agency and boost its chance of winning.

Indonesia’s approach has turned out to be a success, with Penglipuran, another traditional village in Bali Province, making it onto the much-coveted list in 2023. In the case of Korea, three tourist sites — the villages of Dongbaek and Sehwa on Jeju Island and Mosan in South Jeolla Province — were included in this year’s list.

“Indonesia holds its own national competition every year prior to applying for our list,” a UNWTO spokesperson told The Korea Times. “This is not the case for most other countries like Korea and Japan.”

Gunung Api Purba, an ancient volcano, in the Nglanggeran village in Yogyakarta, Indonesia / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

Tourism, economy and environment

The crown jewel of Nglanggeran is Gunung Api Purba, an ancient volcano which was active about 60-70 million years ago. At 700 meters above sea level, the volcano, characterized by enormous chunks of rocks and mystic atmosphere, is also part of the UNESCO Global Geopark of Mount Sewu. It takes about an hour and a half to hike to its peak.

According to legend, the volcano was once a site of punishment for villagers who damaged the “wayang,” or Javanese shadow puppets made by a puppeteer invited to the village to celebrate the harvest.

For the people of Nglanggeran, promoting their iconoic vocalno is one of their biggest missions. Over the past few years, they have been striving to give as much information as possible about its awe-inspiring natural landscape to attract more tourists, hoping that this can dissuade other residents from leaving their home to hunt for jobs in bigger cities.

Spurring tourism is not only crucial to the economy of the village, but also to the local people who need stable jobs to make ends meet. To help its people find a fair share of the economic benefits of tourism, the tour management group of Nglanggeran believes they should develop and promote their village on their own without resorting to involving “outsiders.”

“If we let outsiders develop our village, they are likely to make profits for themselves,” Mursidi, the head of Pokdarwis (tourism manager) of Nglanggeran, said. “But that’s not what we pursue, so we want to stick to our unique concept and principles.”

A Javanese-style homestay in Nglanggeran, Indonesia / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

This is why Nglanggeran only offers local homestays, resisting the urge to build high-end accommodation.

“We have no plan to establish a hotel … We want to remain as an individual village run by native villagers.” Mursidi said, emphasizing the importance of keeping development within the community.

Furthermore, Nglanggeran people are strongly against the view that they should trade off economic growth and environmental sustainability. Believing that the two needs to coexist, the local people have drawn up a set of regulations for tourists, prohibiting them from throwing garbage anywhere and making graffiti in the area of nature tourism.

“Preservation of forest is a gift,” reads a signboard at the entrance of Gunung Api Purba.

Since 2015, Nglanggeran has been adopting the e-ticketing system to reduce paper use as well.

The villagers in Nglanggeran prepare food for a local dinner party called, “kendurian.” / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

Hub of Javanese culture

Nglanggeran in Yogyakarta is also a place where tourists can enjoy the Javanese culture to the fullest. Yogyakarta, the capital city of the Special Region of Yogyakarta in the south part of Java island, gives a flavor of the traditional culture of Javanese, the largest ethnic group in Indonesia with more than 100 million people.

By joining a traditional dinner party called, “kendurian,” tourists can savor the culinary delights of Javanese cuisine while mingling with the villagers donning traditional clothes such as “batik.” The meal includes chicken, rice, eggs and fresh vegetables, and is served on banana leaves. Tourists can ask for spoons if they want. But if they want to eat like local people, they can use their hands.

A local meal provided by the villagers in Nglanggeran, Indonesia / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

A cooking class is a solid option for those who are itching to take a deep dive into Yogyakarta’s food culture. They can make three different types of traditional desserts made with cassava, a staple food in Indonesia, which can easily captivate the taste buds of those who try it.

Music is an inseparable part of Javanese culture too. In Nglanggeran, visitors can enjoy “karawitan,” the traditional musical artform performed by local musicians, who play traditional instruments like metallophones and gongs. After appreciating their riveting performance, tourists are given the chance to play the instruments on their own. They can perform the song, “Ricik-Ricik” in collaboration with their family and friends.

Taking part in the “janur” leaf craft is another gem of the tour. Although it is not a walk in the park to make a grasshopper from coconut leaves, it becomes a unique memento once it is done.

Local musicians in Nglanggeran, Indonesia, who play the traditional “karawitan” performance/ Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

Challenges ahead

Despite its local fame, Nglanggeran faces challenges in becoming a global name. One of the village’s main goals is to raise its international profile, so that more people from abroad can explore this iconic spot marked by natural landscape. This is why Mursidi believes the villagers should have a good command of English and foster effective communication.

“Knowledge is a bridge to open a new door,” Mursidi said. “Speaking English and communicating with foreigners are the key to nurturing our tourism industry, so we need to provide good education to our local people. In particular, we will support our teenagers to get into universities.”

A sunset view in Nglanggeran, Indonesia / Korea Times photo by Dong Sun-hwa

As he pointed out, although the villagers are friendly and approachable, it is not easy for non-Indonesians to talk to them or ask any questions if there is no interpreter. Most signboards in Nglanggeran are also written in Indonesian only, which means overseas tourists can have a tough time looking around the village or even get lost if they do not speak the local language.

Nonetheless, the future of this scenic village is bright. Knowing the significance of shattering language barriers, the villagers and the related parties plan to pour much time and effort into learning and mark a major turning point.

Indonesia is also enthusiastic about promoting the village. It is considering organizing more international events and bringing participants to the region to present its beauty.

“We hope Nglanggeran can share its knowledge and successful story behind its development to other villages,” a government official said.

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