Meaningful holidays in Batam and Bintan

Tips and ways to give back nearby
By Fang Shihan for

Holidays need not always be a hedonistic affair. These days, socially conscious travellers seek vacations that are both enjoyable and meaningful. Some may choose to participate in tour packages that incorporate tree planting in a rural village in Africa, while others volunteer to teach English at a Nepalese monastery for a week.

For flight-phobic vacationers, there are options in Batam and Bintan, located an hour’s ferry ride away from Singapore.

The need for volunteering in those islands there may not be immediately obvious. Batam is the largest, most industrialised city in the entire Riau Islands province while the glitzy Bintan is characterised by its high-end tourism activity in the north. Yet beneath those exteriors are development issues not uncommon to the rest of Indonesia.

As one of the fastest growing municipalities in Indonesia, Batam’s population growth rate is approximately 10% yearly, fuelled by immigration from other parts of Indonesia, especially Java. The housing infrastructure has not kept up with this growth, leaving many residents lacking access to drinking water and sanitation. Those living near the coast are also exposed to the vagaries of the monsoon.

In Bintan, rapid tourism development in the north has led Indonesian critics to voice concerns about environmental degradation. There is also worry that the local population lacks the relevant skills to participate in the tourism boom. Critics add that a relentless catering to “international” tastes could also lead to a “sterile deculturalisation” of Bintan’s rich heritage.

Thankfully many organisations have addressed these issues through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts, or by working with volunteers to provide long term solutions.
These are some of the volunteer opportunities available in Batam and Bintan for your next meaningful getaway!

If you have a few hours…

Most of the larger resorts in Bintan’s Lagoi area have their in-house environmental programmes that are sometimes open to guest participation. The most well-known and popular is the sea turtle conservation project, which aims to save the endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles from poaching and eventual extinction.

Run by a loose consortium of conservation-minded resort staff in Bintan, sea turtle eggs are retrieved from their nests on the beach, then hatched and fostered for three months before being released back into the sea. This helps to protect the hatchlings from being eaten by predators or sold to the local market as a delicacy.

Besides turtles, the resorts also organise beach clean-ups and coral planting activities periodically. Do look out for the notice boards, usually placed near the reception area, for announcements on the resort’s latest conservation efforts!

If you have a day…

Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit enterprise which organises housing construction projects for the needy, runs the Batam Build project in Kabil village in Nongsa. Compared to the usual volunteer trips it organises, which lasts 3-7 days and typically requires extensive travel, the Batam Build trips can be as short as a day.

According to Habitat, 40% of the 20,451 Kabil residents live in substandard housing which are vulnerable to structural collapse during the monsoon. More than 80% of the project has been completed and nearly half of all these houses constructed were built by volunteer teams from Singapore.

Tasks assigned to the volunteers range from laying the foundations of the houses, to brick laying or adding finishing touches to a constructed house. As the volunteers are typically unskilled, they are not allowed to undertake more complex work, such as roofing. They are also guided by experienced local construction supervisors onsite. Volunteers are expected to be medically fit and at least 15 years old.

If you have a few days or more…

The Island Foundation (TIF), an international charity established by the owners of Nikoi Island and Cempedak Island, has been running volunteer programmes in the Riau Islands for more than eight years. It operates seven “learning centres” in total – six in Bintan and one in Teluk Dalam – which provides supplementary education for primary school-aged children. It also runs a children’s football academy, and the “kura kura” project, which supports the development of artisanal products for the local and international market.

It does not actively advertise volunteering programmes on its website, preferring instead to tailor programmes based on the skillsets of the volunteer or volunteering group, and the needs of the community. These programmes could range from painting a learning centre for a day, to working with students alongside TIF teachers for half a year.

The curriculum at TIF’s learning centres for example, was designed by teachers from the United World College of Southeast Asia (UWCE), many of whom, together with UWCE students, participate in TIF’s volunteer programs regularly.

Besides TIF, Telunas Resort and Banyan Tree Bintan also take a similar approach to their own long term CSR programmes which can be open to guest participation upon request.