The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Sun, 11/23/2008 1:29 PM |
Visit Indonesia Year 2008 was supposed to be when the country showcased its tourism offerings for a waiting world. Despite positive talk from officials, tourism industry insiders and travelers say it will take a more focused, strategic approach to achieve the desired results. And it is the adventure of Indonesia that may be its biggest selling point, writes Maggie Tiojakin.
The campaign is a bold one, expecting to bring in 7 million international visitors and no less than US$6.4 billion in foreign exchange revenue by year’s end. But with one month left on the calendar, the campaign does not seem to have lived up to expectations in spreading the word about Indonesian tourism, even to those at home.
Bold campaigns don’t always make the targets. Before launching Visit Indonesia Year (VIY) 2008, we looked to our neighbors for guidelines and strategies. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore were all successful with their 2007 campaigns, attracting a total of 46 million visitors and raising their GDP by 7 percent – just in one year. So when the time came for us to compete with those numbers, we took the highway. We went big.
“We almost had it right,” says Lukmanwati H. Pandu, a communications expert whose résumé includes three years at the Culture and Tourism Ministry in Jakarta. “And, by almost, I meant we should have been clearer about what we wanted out of the campaign. The biggest mishap in the campaign, I think, is that we’re relying too much on advertising.”
Indeed, since the campaign kicked off early last January, the estimated promotional budget has hit US$15 million, most of which went to secure TV and radio spots as well as advertorial spreads to run internationally. Popular entertainers such as Agnes Monica, Ruth Sahanaya and Rossa were hired to appeal to the domestic market. The organizers also threw in a yearlong plan to stage 100 public events between January and December to commemorate the 100th anniversary of National Awakening and celebrate the World Culture Forum 2008.
Yet, even after all the slick advertising and big-name attractions, many have turned a skeptical eye on the campaign, claiming it needs to do more to reach out to the actual visitors who will come to Indonesia. Unveiling a grand slogan (notoriously grammatically incorrect when it first appeared) is simply not enough.
“One of the problems is, I believe, that instead of focusing on one specific point, we have the tendency to be sporadic in our aims,” Lukmanwati says. “We have to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses, because when we do, we’ll know what needs to be done.”
Consider Singapore, for example.
“Singapore is not a place you want to go to when you need to get away from a city life,” she says. “City life is all it can offer: It doesn’t have great beaches, mountains or resorts. By acknowledging their weakness, they are able to turn it into an advantage. What do they have? Malls. What can they do with malls? A great sale.”
In 2007, Singapore held a major sale in every department store across the city-state and drew in some 9 million visitors from around the world. It promised a unique shopping experience and, in so doing, branded itself as the number one destination for global shoppers or, in some cases, mall-hoppers.
By contrast, Indonesia has chosen to do what everyone else is doing. Much of the advertising seems to resemble the usual slickly packaged “come visit us” entreaties, without laying out what makes it different from its neighbors.
Indonesia’s great selling points are its stunningly diverse landscapes, a rich culture and friendly, hospitable people living in a sprawling archipelago that is every adventurous traveler’s dream. Anthropologist and filmmaker Lawrence Blair, a 30-year resident of Bali, admiringly calls it the world’s “last great wilderness”.
Every year, the country hosts an average of 5 million visitors, with a record 5.5 million last year.
Many of them are independent travelers, otherwise known as backpackers, who come to discover the adventure of Indonesia and are willing to take the difficulties on their journey in stride.
Why not reach out to them?
“We should have, absolutely,” says Andru Tobing, a researcher at the Culture and Tourism Ministry who is responsible for monitoring the arrivals and departures of foreign visitors and calculating their expenditure while staying in the country. “But that’s not to say we’ve excluded them in the campaign, it just means we could have given them more attention.”
Traveling light on a budget is a popular way for many young adults to see the world. In the past, backpacking across foreign countries might have been considered impractical and sometimes dangerous, but today it is accepted as a challenge that needs to be met with courage and tolerance (thus transforming the object of traveling from a physical journey to a psychological, if not philosophical, roundabout). Most are not the stereotypical backpackers counting their pennies to make it to the end of their trips. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his acclaimed book Bobos in Paradise, calls this new generation the Bourgeois Bohemians.
Recent studies identify independent travelers as an important contributor to a country’s tourism revenue. Compared with luxury tourists who generally fly in for short stays at luxury resorts, independent travelers spread their expenses across a wider circle and over a longer period of time, generating a significant profit for the country in question. According to Travel Wire, more than 60 percent the world’s tourism officials consider these young travelers as an “important or very important” segment in the travel industry.
As a result, airlines are offering special packages; youth hostels are shaping up and competing to attract international visitors; guidebooks are selling like hotcakes and obtaining an entry visa has become a lot easier – in some places. Indonesia is not one of them.
In 2004, stricter regulations were imposed for tourist visas on arrival. Formerly free, now visitors have to pay for their visa application, which limits their stay to 30 days. Once that time is up, applicants have to leave the country and reapply upon their second entry – not the most convenient way to travel an archipelago.
“Thirty days is nothing,” says Björn Hastzkensen, a Norwegian visitor who plans to backpack through Java and Sumatra. He paid US$25 for his entry visa. “What am I going to do with 30 days?”
Not much, according to Topaz Alamsyah, a local backpacker and member of a backpacking group called Trek Indonesia, who travel together around the country each year.
“Even for a local, 30 days is cutting it short,” says Topaz. “For a foreign tourist, I imagine it’s rather frustrating – especially if they choose to go by land. That’s extremely time-consuming. A day here, a day there, and before you know it in 30 days you’ll have seen nothing more than the interior of a bus or a train.”
Indonesia only need look to its neighbor Australia for lessons on being a good host to this valuable group. According to Tourism Australia, in the financial year ending June 2008, Australia hosted 564,000 independent travelers who each stayed an average of 70 nights and spent A$5,485, compared with the overall average of 31 nights and A$3,080. During those 12 months, Australia raked in a total of US$3 billion from independent travelers, much of which is thanks to the country’s new visa policy that allows international backpackers to stay longer and work legally to support their travels.
“Tourists who come to Indonesia don’t have that privilege or flexibility,” Topaz says. “We have all these beautiful things waiting to be discovered, but those who are willing to make the effort and pay their way through are not given the time to do it. So how is that going to work?”
But it is not that simple. There are several aspects to be considered, Andru says.
“First, our international policy: The relationship we have with each foreign country inevitably lays the groundwork for such policy. Second, national security. Third, cultural preservation. Of course, we want foreign visitors to come see the beauty of this country and spend as much as they can, but there ought to be a limit, as there is in the U.S., Europe, China, India, Singapore and everywhere else.”
Adi Kencana Tours & Travel, a small but conspicuous travel agency on Jakarta’s backpacker enclave of Jalan Jaksa, offers bountiful packages for backpackers who wish to make the most of their brief stay in the country. They include a guided hike through Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra, also known as the parish of the orangutan; a trek through the highlands of Gunung Rinjani in Lombok; and a diving experience at Bunaken National Park in North Sulawesi. But the big-bucks tourist campaign hasn’t had much effect on their business.
“On average, we sign up four to five clients every day between Monday and Saturday, discounting the holiday seasons,” says one of the agents, Heru. “We hoped the campaign would bring about double that number, because operational costs are now much higher than they used to be, but it hasn’t happened – yet.”
Still, there is reason to be hopeful. Recently, Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik said the VIY campaign may be extended through 2009. In October, Indonesia participated in a Diving Equipment and Marketing Association Show in Las Vegas to promote its marine tourism and a new strategy is currently in the works for the second chapter of the campaign.
“The next time around,” says Lukmanwati, “we need to involve everybody in the process. More than just advertising the cause, we have to communicate it to the public. A courteous smile won’t do it, and neither will a lot of talking. We need to act and be a better host.”
Topaz says VIY 2008 is a learning period to prepare for VIY 2009.
“Hopefully, next year we’ll see more backpackers coming in,” he says. “Adventurous types are everywhere and they’re always looking forward to new challenges. And, you know, we’ve got them. So come on over!”
Illustration by Staven Andersen