For centuries, art lovers and academics have debated over the smile on the face of the Mona Lisa, one of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpieces, which is now housed in the Louvre in Paris.
Nowadays, at any rate, the smiles of Indonesian people leave foreigners, be they first-time tourists or expatriates, guessing.
The problems start for foreign tourists as soon as they arrive at the airport, just because they misinterpret the smiles of tip-hungry airport officers or mischievous taxi drivers. The tourists easily fall prey to hoteliers or souvenir hawkers who look friendly but turn out to be little more than extortionists.
More difficulties await foreigners if they want to do business here. The bureaucratic labyrinth they have to go through is full of people with broad, smiling faces, but the hospitality can quickly turn to hostility if the prospective investors refuse to provide "grease" money.
Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik is right in asking ordinary people to flash their smiles in support of the government's effort to boost tourism with Visit Indonesia Year 2008, which will be inaugurated by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Jan. 1.
The minister has also called on local administrations to facilitate investors by simplifying licensing procedures for the establishment of tourist facilities, such as hotels and resorts.
The challenges facing Visit Indonesia Year 2008 may be much more onerous than Minister Jero has imagined. As an official dealing with culture, we assume that he knows it's quite easy to smile without necessarily being friendly, let alone helpful.
Long proclaiming itself to be a friendly nation, Indonesia raised many eyebrows across the world when thousands of people went on a rampage and looted shops during the May 1998 riots, or killed each other in the ethnic conflict between the indigenous Dayak and migrant Madurans, and in the sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians in Ambon and Poso.
The recent attacks on followers of Islamic sects provides further evidence that Indonesian people are prone to violence and the use of force to eliminate differences.
Scholar Azyumardi Azra has warned that the country's self-image of kindness, tolerance and hospitality must be questioned as local cultures have always been very partial to violence. Although there has been increasing unrest since the demise of authoritarian rule in 1998, there have been numerous ethnic conflicts since the 1950s.
Just ask expatriates and the foreign business community about the unfriendly environment they have to deal with when doing business here. An international political and economic risk consultancy has always ranked Indonesia at the bottom due to the rampant red tape in government offices, both in Jakarta and the regions. It also takes foreigners longer here to process business licenses and other documents than in other countries.
In many cases, nationalism has been hijacked to justify hostility to foreign investors, ironically at a time when Indonesia badly needs them to help the country overcome unemployment and eventually poverty.
The government may claim that foreign investment is still flowing in, but much of this is short term in nature, which means the investors can withdraw their money at any time.
This hostile reality will be the biggest hurdle facing Indonesia if it wants more foreigners to visit and spend their money here.
Smiles alone will not be enough to boost the tourism industry and other revenue-generating sectors. Foreign tourists and investors need Indonesian people who are eager and willing to help them, as quickly as possible, if necessary. They will stay longer if they feel secure, surrounded by people who are ready to lend a hand at any time it is needed. Smiles in the absence of proper service are worthless.
Foreign investors will commit to long-term involvement if both the Indonesian people and regulations are inviting and generous in terms of incentives.
Neighboring countries offer many facilities to foreigners, particularly those who want to invest, while Indonesia deliberately restricts, if not actually deters, them. This contradicts the claims that Indonesia is tolerant and open to the world.
It will require more than a tourism minister to respond to these challenges.