Tourists flock to Indonesia's protected Komodo National Park to see one of the world's most exotic and endangered reptiles in its natural habitat, a rare and fascinating example of what scientists call "island giganticism".
But while the Komodo dragon may exist in the popular imagination somewhere between myth and a hangover from the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, villagers and fishermen say they are struggling to survive themselves and are not benefiting from the influx of tourist dollars.
"It pains my heart that our government allows foreign tourists to freely enjoy our natural beauty while we suffer," said Abdul Hamid, a fisherman who lives in West Manggarai district of western Flores near the famous island.
Known for its rich marine biodiversity, the national park was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991 but little of the income from a recent tourist boom seems to have cascaded down to those who need it the most.
Selected in 2012 as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the park sees cruise ships ply its waters on a daily basis as travelers rush to glimpse the world's largest living lizard that can grow up to 3 meters in length.
Abdul says he watches the boats cruise by every day from his home on Papagarang Island, now part of the 173,300-hectare national park, and winces at a law barring him and others from fishing in the area.
"If we want to catch fish, we must go to a place far outside the forbidden zone or we will be arrested," the 50-year-old told ucanews.com.
While they appreciate the need to protect the local marine ecosystem, villagers say that putting food in their bellies and those of their children takes priority.
The islanders believe laws like this are keeping them mired in poverty, which exacerbates other problems such as their lack of access to high-quality education or healthcare services.
Students at a state school on Komodo Island study under the shade of trees due to a shortage of classrooms. Infrastructure is still massively lacking on the island despite a rapidly developing tourism industry. (Photo by Gregorius Afioma/ucanews.com)
Mohammand Arok, a 37-year-old resident of nearby Rinca Island, said very few people in his community can afford to send their children to school.
Testament to this, only one person has earned a bachelor's degree in the last few years among all those who were born in Rinca, one of the three largest islands that make up the national park along with Komodo and Flores.
Money maker for government
The picture this paints contrasts sharply with the growing popularity of the region, which in the last two decades has become a top tourist destination for both Indonesians and people from around the world.
Last year, 122,000 tourists visited the region, up from 107,771 in 2016.
The park is also known for its underwater beauty, making it a popular spot for snorkeling, diving, and even wedding photos.
Moreover, the government keeps pouring money into the area to promote tourism there.
Notable events in recent times include Sail Komodo in 2013, an international sailing event that cost the government US$213 million, lasted for two weeks and culminated with a huge international yacht regatta.
Another event in 2016, Tour de Flores, took its name from the famous French cycling race and also helped put the spot on the map.
Sandwiched between these two tourism milestones was a spate of large-scale infrastructure development that saw President Joko Widodo cut the ribbon on Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo of East Nusa Tenggara in 2015.
Now 24 investment companies operate in the region, including 18 foreign firms that have poured US$24 million into developing the area and six domestic companies that have invested $15 million, government data shows.
In Labuan Bajo town, the entrance to the national park, there are now more than 30 diving tour operators and around 80 hotels and restaurants served by over 400 cruise ships full of hungry and excited tourists.
On the outside looking in
Some of the more educated locals are seeking to capitalize on this development boon by becoming guides and artisans to sell handicrafts to tourists who want to leave with more than just photos and memories.
But according to Gregorius Afioma, director of Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, a non-governmental organization that advocates for local community rights in Labuan Bajo, only a few dozen have benefited so far.
"In Rinca and Komodo, only about 20 people work as guides, and fewer than 10 people are working with tourism operators such as in the capacity of dive masters," he said.
"The main actors in our tourism industry are not local people," he added.
Yet one in five residents of this regency still live on or below the bread line.
Meanwhile, land prices have exploded in recent years, triggering a series of conflicts. In January 2017, two local people were killed in Labuan Bajo due to a dispute over land rights.
Cypri Jehan Paju Dale, a researcher at the Institute of Social Anthropology at Bern University in Switzerland has been researching the tourism industry in West Manggarai. He said the grabbing of public and the practice of selling land and small islands has become rampant in recent years.
"Local people are marginalized in the name of conservation and tourism," he said.
"As a result, the tourism business is growing but local societies are being systematically overlooked. Fishing boats are being driven out by diving ships," he added.
Church stepping in
This situation has prompted the church in Ruteng Diocese to take a stand.
In 2015 it published a pastoral letter urging the local government and parliament to "create a regulation that guarantees the sovereignty of life, the preservation of cultural values, assets and the participation of local communities in the tourism industry."
The diocese recently established a Culture and Tourism Commission to help local people.
Father Inosensius Sutam, who heads the commission, said its main task is to cooperate with the government in creating policies that make local people masters of their land and culture.
"Now the tourism economy is being controlled by outsiders. Locals are viewed as strangers. The loss of their land threatens their identity," he said.
As such, the government's goal of attracting half a million tourists in 2019 has not been met with much enthusiasm from local people.
"We are experiencing enough difficulties with the current developments, including a lack of basic infrastructure such as clean water and electricity," said Arok.
"Unless our problems are addressed, such tourism targets have no value for us," he said.
Hamid said his native Papagarang Island should be excluded from the national park zone.
"We don't profit from being included. Instead we're just constantly disappointed," he said.