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“Indonesia is not only Bali. Other than the island of Bali, Indonesia has many more attractive places with great diversity and cultural abundance that do not compare less favorably to Bali,” said President Susilo Bambang Yudho-
yono as he promoted Indonesia’s tourism at the opening of the world’s largest tourist exchange, the Internationale Tourismus Borse (ITB) in Berlin.
The President’s statement is true, yet it is also untrue. It is true because Indonesia has an abundance of stunningly beautiful natural and cultural spots. However, all these places have not been put to good use as tourism assets because the government has almost done nothing to develop the infrastructure of these places as well as their promotion.
It is as if the word “diversification” when we speak of tourist destinations does not exist in the government’s vocabulary. The only thing known to the authorities is that Bali is already famous and no longer needs investment to be promoted.
The proof of this mentality can be seen in the fact that the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry spent only 17.8 percent of its annual budget last year. That is why the gems of Indonesia’s tourism like Borobudur were only visited by 158,000 foreign tourists in 2012, while Angkor Wat in Cambodia, relatively unknown until recently, welcomed 1.5 million visitors.
The same applies to Bunaken, North Sulawesi, with its multi-colored coral formations found only in a very few places worldwide. Last year it was only able to muster 11,000 foreign visitors, while Pattaya in Thailand, with no special attractions, was able to bring in 4.5 million tourists. The same story goes for Toraja, a rich center of ethnic attraction with its extraordinary traditions in South Sulawesi. It attracted only 30,000 visitors in the same period.
On the contrary, Bali was inundated by tourists. Last year it was visited by no less than 5.75 million travelers. This is almost twice its population. With such an explosion of tourists beyond the island’s capacity, Bali has suffered serious excesses that have eroded its culture and natural environment.
A shocking 42 percent of all its shores have undergone heavy erosion. HIV has spread and narcotics have penetrated deep into the villages, so that Bali is now not just a transit point but a major consuming and supplying center of such drugs. Furthermore, as result of the increasing number of vehicles, which is not matched by the expansion or widening of roads, traffic jams are occurring everywhere, some even almost as bad as in Jakarta. Also, in localities where the concentration of hotels and villas are dense, especially in the south, water is pumped from wells in large quantities, resulting in sea water seeping inland and seriously disrupting the local population’s daily supply of clean water.
The most devastating impact from the overflow of tourists is on the culture and identity of the Balinese. One of the sources of tragedy in this instance comes from the alienation of agricultural land for tourist infrastructure, which has been going on at an average rate of 1,500 hectares per year for the past 30 years.
Essentially, land for the Balinese is sacred. It is used to build temples and house ceremonies and rituals as well as daily communal activities that mark Balinese life. The moment land changes hands, the uniqueness of the Balinese way of life is exchanged for a hotel or mall that brings with it an alien culture.
With the government not doing anything in terms of diversifying tourist destinations, an abundance of tourism in Bali is taking place while other promising tourist areas remain undeveloped. The result is that Indonesia, with all its enormous potential, was only able to bring in 7.6 million foreign visitors last year, while Malaysia, with all its limitations, was able to attract 25 million, Thailand 19 million and Singapore 15 million.
This does not make sense, but it is the sad fact. As confessed by many tourism experts, this can only be caused by monumental mismanagement.
The President can hope that tourists do not see Indonesia as only Bali. He was speaking at the world’s largest tourism exchange, where Indonesia has attended for 45 years to promote its tourism industry. However, if the President and other incoming authorities do not make drastic changes to current policies in tourism, we can expect this sad situation to continue for another 45 years and beyond.
Stakeholders in the tourist industry need to be aware of the importance of several paradigms in this field. First, in order that optimal synergy is achieved, tourists who come to a certain destination must be those who appreciate the uniqueness of that destination.
Second, the number of tourists coming to a location needs to be balanced against the holding capacity of that location. This matter is increasingly heeded in various tourist places such as Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Galapagos.
Third, in developing a certain tourist destination, specific promotions with the right positioning need to be taken forward so that the right types of tourists are attracted.
In this era of globalization, with its fast and intense competition, tourist management cannot be a frivolous affair. It needs to be sophisticated, dedicated and at the same time aesthetic, while minding basic prevailing paradigms to achieve the desired results. If these are not heeded, however great the potential of a certain destination, it will surely be buried by other destinations that are more cleverly managed.
The writer is a graduate of Harvard and Leiden universities and was a social affairs minister in the Cabinet of president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid.