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Why American tourists should come to Indonesia

Barbara Russell
Barbara Russell

Professor of Humanities at the University of Maryland in the United States, currently lives in Paiton, East Java

Paiton, East Java  /  Mon, September 19, 2016  /  01:14 pm
Why American tourists should come to Indonesia

Awarded a national geopark since 2013, Mount Rinjani has attracted many tourists since 1990s thanks to its breathtaking view of caldera, a crater lake that shaped like crescent moon, known as Segara Anak. (Shutterstock/-)

The Indonesian government recently set an ambitious program to promote international tourism with a target of 20 million foreign visitors a year by 2019 and a doubling of this sector’s contribution to the nation’s GDP. The country has lagged well behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in attracting tourists in general, and American tourists in particular. 

The US represents the second largest market of foreign visitor spending worldwide, exceeded only by China. In 2015, Americans spent US$112 billion traveling abroad. Yet, Americans make up less than 1 percent of the foreign visitors who come to Indonesia and most of them limit their trips to Bali.

There is so much more to Indonesia – so many intriguing, fascinating aspects of this wildly diversified nation to be savored and enjoyed. There is also much of value to be learned by Americans from the Indonesian people. 

(Read also: Aceh: a guide for visitors)

One reason more Americans should come here is the new political reality of life in the US over the last 15 years. Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country on earth. Only 1 percent of Americans are Muslim, even though the word comes up constantly in newscasts, debates and dialogues in that country today. Most Americans do not know anyone who practices Islam and their vision is colored by rhetoric and images from the Middle East.

Virtually no one would think of Indonesia in this regard and, as a result, they are missing a huge part of the Muslim world – people who do not wage jihad or practice terrorism, who are not divided into warring Suni and Shite sectors and who live pretty normal, peaceful, productive and fulfilling lives with their Christian and Hindu neighbors. A “sandals-on-the-ground” experience could prove a powerful antidote to the current epidemic of Islamophobia permeating some sectors of American society today.   

Another invaluable thing that Americans could learn from Indonesians is that the American way of life is not the only way or necessarily the best way. I recently took my regular Sunday morning hike through a series of villages among the rice fields near my town in coastal East Java.

If I walked through my neighborhood in America at sunrise, or at any other time for that matter, I would see very few human beings. Folks are inside their air-conditioned houses or their cars, living their private, sheltered and separate lives. But here, the villages, back roads, mountain trails and river banks are alive with people. They are all outside; sweeping the yard, making breakfast, going to the stream for water, sitting with neighbors, opening their roadside stands, cutting firewood, washing the goats and, at the call for prayers, gathering at the village mosque. The predominant sounds are laughter, chatter, music, welcoming shouts of “Hey, mister” (apparently the favorite way to address white people of both sexes), and the inevitable “Photo, photo” if I have brought my camera.

The cheerful exuberance permeating these scenes is so striking that you have to remind yourself constantly that this is a very poor country with a minimum wage of around $130 a month. While relatively few Indonesians in these rural areas have actual “jobs,” most of them work hard every day in order to put food on the table, but that work is often intermittent and, most importantly, it is under their own control and within their own time frame (jam karet, of course).  

(Read also: A letter from culturally rich Jambi)

So what should North Americans learn from this Indonesian lifestyle? Perhaps that having more money, or education, or toys or even full-time jobs has little or nothing to do with contentment.

There is a certain easy-going far niente here, a phrase the Italians use to describe “the art of pleasantly doing nothing,” which offers a strong contrast to the American mania for multitasking, efficiency and productivity.

One does sense a peaceful and mellow contentment here, at least in the rural areas, as people while away the day with families and friends on their bamboo benches and front stoops. 

I’m not sure how much of this incredibly colorful, often improbable yet always interesting activity the average western tourist in Bali sees, but I do know that there is a growing fascination in America for a new kind of tourism – for the world as a “living classroom.” And that’s what Indonesia’s back roads offer in spades.

Bali-type compounds meet the needs of many travelers and will always be an important part of the tourism package, especially for wealthy visitors like the Chinese and for the adventure tourists who value diving, surfing and beach life. But this new and growing market from Europe, Australia and North America wants to experience foreign countries more directly – beyond the tourist facilities, luxury amenities and staged attractions.

(Read also: Here’s why Banyuwangi is perfect for nature and culture lovers)

Many of America’s well-educated baby boomers have done plenty of traveling during their lives. They have walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain and the Great Wall of China, done the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu.

Now they are interested in longer and deeper “learning” experiences that will teach them things they do not know and that will connect and move them in different and more profound ways. They are seeking the intellectual seduction that comes with discovering ideas that are entirely different and new – eureka moments that rarely occur in the confines of a luxury hotel or at a beach bar.

In this regard, the “real” Indonesia has, in my experience, more to offer Americans and other foreign visitors than most places on the planet. Just considering Java on its own, some 80 million people now live in areas that the government classifies as “urban,” but that still leaves roughly 57 million in real, old-fashioned villages – villages that could provide a low-impact but long-term boost to Indonesia’s tourism sector.

Hopefully the value of these hidden gems won’t be lost in the rush to high-profile “hot spots” and targeted tourism destinations. 



Barbara Russell is a Canadian and a professor of Humanities at the University of Maryland in the United States. She currently lives in Paiton, East Java, Indonesia, where she teaches online and works as a writer and editor.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.