The first wheel: A tourist inspects an 1895 Spiker, one of the first cars in Indonesia, displayed at the Bali International Classic Cars Show at Discovery Shopping Mall on Nov. 12, 2009. Tourism promoters are looking for new ideas to attract foreigners to Indonesia where the industry remains under-developed. JP/Zul Trio Anggono
Every Indonesian child has been told the story of their beloved country being the emerald of the equator, with its breathtaking scenery and vast cultural diversity, and how others, from their lack of such grandeur, envy it.
The corollary, then, is that people from all around the world should be racing for a glimpse of the rich beauty here. But experience has told us otherwise.
There is no doubt that the archipelago is home to some of the world’s best diving sites, with beautiful beaches and a balmy tropical climate. It also hosts a great number of cultural heritage sites.
But even these are not enough to attract a large enough number of foreign visitors. At least not when compared to other countries in the region.
Data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) shows the number of foreign visitors arriving here from January to October this year was 5.16 million, a slight increase from the 5.09 million recorded in the same period in 2008.
While it represents an increase, the number is paltry compared to what neighboring Malaysia recorded during the same period this year at around 19.4 million, a 7 percent increase from around 18 million a year earlier.
The Indonesian figure is also lower than those of Thailand and Singapore.
There are several reasons why Indonesia’s tourism has again recorded mediocre performance. Despite the fact the country has many tourism spots, only a handful of them receive decent attention from the government.
Many lack the needed basic infrastructure for the tourism industry to thrive locally. There is also the same old story of the low quality of services that tourists often encounter when visiting the country.
The visa-on-arrival service at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta and Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali is still raising concerns over its long lines.
Some tourists have also complained about corrupt, money-grubbing immigration officials, while others lament the long wait for their bags at the luggage carousels.
A regular visitor to Bali once called her experience at the arrival area of Ngurah Rai “a very unpleasant start to a holiday”.
And to make things even worse, there were several other incidents in 2008 that the government has added to its list of reasons for the second-rate achievement.
July’s twin hotel bombings in Jakarta were a major factor; in addition, potential tourists the world over are putting their holiday plans on hold as the global financial downturn takes its toll.
The Culture and Tourism Ministry previously targeted drawing around 7 million foreign visitors this year, until the bombings hit two upscale hotels in the heart of the capital.
That and the global recession prompted the government to revise down its target to around 6.5 million visitors, just slightly up from last year’s total of 6.23 million.
Planned visits to the country were canceled in the immediate wake of the attacks, with one of the earliest cancellations being that of top soccer club Manchester United, which had been scheduled to stay at one of the stricken hotels just days later.
After the attacks, Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik also lowered his previous target of generating US$7.4 billon in related revenue to $5.5 billion. Last year, the tourism industry generated income of $7.5 billion, much higher than the $6 billion originally targeted by the ministry.
The minister previously predicted that average tourist spending per visit would decline from $1,170 last year to around $1,000 in 2009. He also said the limited funding allocated to tourism marketing had hampered efforts to boost tourism amid the financial crisis.
The marketing budget earmarked for 2009 increased slightly from last year’s Rp 250 billion ($26 million) to Rp 300 billion, a number, he said, that was far from ideal to reach the tourist arrival target.
He added the ministry needed around Rp 700 billion to market the country’s tourism highlights.
Marketing remains one of the top challenges for the tourism industry in Indonesia. The country seems to have lost steam in coming up with slogans for its regular Visit Indonesia campaign, such that the 2009 one has been left without even a mediocre one.
The branding of Indonesia as a tourism hot spot has become confusing to some, with the government changing the theme several times.
“Indonesia, just a smile away” was the call back in 2001 and 2002. It then changed to “Indonesia, endless beauty of diversity” during the administration of Megawati Soekarnoputri.
The list of changes includes “Indonesia, the color of life”, “Indonesia, ultimate in diversity” and the ill-advised “Celebrating 100 years of National Awakening” for the 2008 campaign.
The government’s seeming lacking of basic marketing savvy had to be countered by the tourism industry’s private sector.
S.B. Wiranti Sukamdani, chairman of the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI), said the country could see an increase in foreign tourist arrivals if hospitality industry operators offered new services and products.
The country has benefited from international events held here, including the Asian Development Bank summit in Bali and the World Ocean Conference in Manado, North Sulawesi, both in May.
With a 2010 target of attracting 7 million foreign visitors, Jero Wacik is working on a new agenda in his second tenure as the culture and tourism minister. The program will focus on improving immigration and flight services, he promises, and refurbishing tourism hot spots.
“We’ll facilitate efficient administration procedures for foreign tourists,” he told The Jakarta Post in October.
The ministry expects a Rp 1.3 trillion in culture and tourism budget for 2010. (adh)