What can be done to strengthen the tourism industry in Bukit Lawang?

by Jeffrey Fraser, Global MBA Ambassador 2018-2019 | Digital Business & Innovation major

Being face to face with orangutans in the middle of the Sumatran jungle may seem like an unusual place for a cohort of MBA participants to be coming up with real-world business solutions, but ESSEC Business School’s Global MBA isn’t your average program. In August 2018, our class of Global MBA participants who began the program at ESSEC Asia-Pacific traveled from Singapore to Bukit Lawang in Indonesia for an intensive Design Thinking workshop at Hotel Orangutan. While there, they developed ideas on how to strengthen the tourism industry while preserving the UNESCO World Heritage site. The trip to Bukit Lawang is one of three trips that participants beginning the Strategy & Management and Digital Business & Innovation majors in Singapore will take throughout the course of their program; the other trips will take the group to ESSEC’s campus in France as well as a field trip to Morocco.

Joined by Neal Cross, Managing Director and Chief Innovation Officer of DBS Bank and Founder of Hotel Orangutan, we slipped, climbed, and trekked (some of us even swung) our way through Sumatra’s jungles with the hope of catching a glimpse of the wild orangutans who resided in this UNESCO World Heritage site. They didn’t disappoint. Both shy and curious, orangutans could be spotted gliding through the jungle canopy throughout the day, gradually coming closer to inspect our sweaty group. It was hard to tell who was more interested in whom - we in them, or they in us.


After several hours of trekking, it was time to go back to Hotel Orangutan. We waded our way across the river’s chilly thigh-high waters with families of monkeys in audience above us. Along the way, three smiling Indonesian tour guides were waiting with rows of tires roped together. The river’s rapids and this makeshift raft would be our mode of transportation back to Hotel Orangutan -- and we were eager to jump onboard. The ride back to Hotel Orangutan may have marked the end of our trek, but we still had a lot of work to do.

As incredible as the experience was, we hadn’t traveled from Singapore just to take photos of orangutans. We made the trip to Bukit Lawang to engage in an in-depth design thinking workshop led by Alvin Chia, DBS Bank’s Innovation Program Lead and author of “Hackathons Unboxed”, and to help address a critical question: “What can be done to strengthen the tourism industry in Bukit Lawang?” 

This simple question embodies the divisive way forward for Bukit Lawang’s local community. The World Heritage’s Conservation Outlook for Sumatra’s rainforests has pointed ominously at “Critical” for the past 14 years, identifying illegal logging and deforestation as two major culprits. To make matters worse, the tourism industry’s environmental footprint is a source of mounting concern as more and more world travelers are seizing the opportunity to see orangutans in their natural habitat every year. The residents of Bukit Lawang are torn by the economic opportunity provided by capitalizing on its burgeoning tourism industry and the impact it may have on the rainforest and its inhabitants.

This is where design thinking came in.

Our work began well before we even set foot in the jungle. In groups and with Alvin’s guidance, we took the time to identify who the stakeholders were and conducted interviews with representative populations to understand their wants, needs, and perceptions. We refined our definitions, segmented them accordingly, and reassessed our approach to the problem. From there, we started to identify possible solutions and opportunities, then set back out to test these ideas with the people.

“How do your customers find you?”

“What brought you here? How many of your friends travel like you?”

“What’s unique in your offerings compared to other businesses in the area?”

“How important is eco-friendly tourism to you?”

“How much more would you pay for eco-friendly accommodation or tour services?”

Two days after we were set to the task, our groups came up with three entirely different solutions. One was a community center meant to galvanize and empower the local community to unite their efforts in building sustainable tourism. Another group pitched a customizable online platform to connect eco-friendly travelers with likeminded accommodation and activity providers. The third group designed a certification and brand solution that leveraged customers’ willingness to pay more for officially accredited eco-friendly businesses. 

All of these ideas were presented as part of a friendly competition to Neal Cross and Prof. Aarti Ramaswami, Deputy Dean of ESSEC Asia-Pacific and Academic Director of the Global MBA. I’ll leave it to your imagination who won the competition and instead share some interesting insight from our judges: these ideas are not distinct from one another, but rather different phases of the same solution.

It’s been a few months since our trip to Hotel Orangutan, but the learnings from the trip continue to resonate as we pass the halfway point for the first term. We’ve freshened up our fundamentals in Term 0, and in Term 1 we’re tackling Financial Accounting, Marketing Management, Strategic Management, Statistical Analysis, Financial Management and more. The focus on leadership is no mistake - we don’t just learn how to navigate the technical aspects of these subjects, we learn how to consolidate and apply this knowledge to high-level decision making. Like the design thinking workshop at Hotel Orangutan, we’ve had to rely on our own tact, grit and savvy, as well as trust in our teammates to achieve as a whole what we could not do individually.

Just as how the end of the trek didn’t mean the end of our work, the end of the first term is nigh but we look forward to even more learning opportunities and experiences. Stay tuned for more ESSEC Global MBA adventures in Singapore, France, Morocco, and beyond!


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