Last few hidden treasures of Indonesia head towards a tourism transformation

30 July 2016
Millions of Australians holiday in Bali, but across Indonesia there are thousands of breathtakingly beautiful islands the world remains almost entirely unaware of.
Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago, a nation of more than 17,000 islands and 250 million people.
Travel away from the well-trodden areas of Java, Sumatra and Bali, and Indonesia shows itself to be a nation of diversity and great beauty.
But the Indonesian Government knows what it is in possession of and has revealed plans to develop the islands into a tourist destination.
Look at a map of Indonesia and its surroundings and, at the very top of the archipelago, nestled below Vietnam and east of Borneo, there are a few small dots. These unassuming marks are the Natuna Islands.
I was lucky enough to travel with an ABC crew see the islands for ourselves.
We quickly realised there was much more to the Natuna Islands than just a few marks on a map.
After landing at the primitive Natuna airport and collecting our baggage off a trolley in a car park, we began to drive though the main Natuna Island, and what we saw we could not believe.
To say it is a picturesque vision is an understatement.
White sandy beaches, palm trees, crystal blue water... and all of it untouched. There is not a resort to be seen here — a one- or two-star hotel is as good as you get.
In the ocean near the land's edge sit amazing, sea-moulded stones, scattered across the 272 islands that make up Natuna.
In the past the stones were often traded by local residents, but now they are protected by the local government and used as a tourist attraction.
We sit at sunset and watch the changing colours, captivated by the beauty.
We are given the chance to island hop to visit fishing villages in all their vibrant colour.
Of course we are there for work, covering the tensions with China over the South China Sea — these waters China wants and claims as its own.
The fishermen tell us they know their workplace is in the Natuna sea and always has been.
Indonesian Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan says Indonesia is willing to share, but only if they are asked.
"On Natuna we welcome anyone who wants to go there," he says.
"But they need our permission, because that's our exclusive economic zone, no one can take anything or conduct economic activities there without the permission of the Indonesian Government."
The Indonesian Government's plans are to develop the islands into major tourist destinations.
And when millions of Australian discover it and it is turned into another giant tourist destination full of hotels, malls and people — I will always remember our visit to the untouched paradise where the ocean stones provided a sunset backdrop like no other.