Government officials at all levels claim that Indonesiaâ€™s tourism is doing well, with each year seeing robust advancements. On the contrary, however, all the data indicate how dismally Indonesiaâ€™s tourism has done this past decade.
In the last 12 years to 2007, tourist numbers fluctuated between 4 million and 5 million visitors. The average length of stay has declined, from 10 days in 1997 to barely 8.5 days in 2008. Worst yet is how Indonesia compares with neighboring Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, which last year attracted 10 million, 15 million and 22 million visitors respectively.
How can such a huge discrepancy occur? How is it that Indonesia, brimming with such wealth in culture and natural beauty, attracts only a quarter of the tourists that basically barren Malaysia does?
This tragedy seems to have its source in the early 1980s, when Indonesia, strapped for funds, pointed to already world-famous Bali as its tourist cash cow. Since then, little has changed. As a result, Indonesiaâ€™s tourist attraction has been practically limited to Bali, with devastating consequences.
Tourists overflow in quantum leaps to Bali, creating an explosion of infrastructure requirements that visibly erode the natural environment.
The overconcentration of tourists in Bali has not only brought an unmanageable overflow of visitors to the island - often the wrong types who cannot appreciate the unique local culture and natural environment - but has also led to an utter neglect of the other many equally attractive tourist spots throughout the archipelago.
Fabulous sites such as Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Toraja, Bunaken and Ujung Kulon, for instance, have been practically left unheeded. Such complacency has a high price, as can been seen from the destructive erosion that the overcrowding of tourists has brought to Baliâ€™s culture and environment, and how it has stagnated Indonesiaâ€™s other richly diverse tourist destinations.
How bad have these other destinations stagnated? Here are a few horrifying statistics:
Borobudur, that World Cultural Heritage icon, was only able to muster about 85,000 foreign tourists last year, compared to more than 1 million by the more recently discovered Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Toraja these last few years has only attracted an average of about 5,000 overseas tourists a year.
Bunaken averaged only about 10,000 foreign visitors a year for as long as one can remember, versus more than 4 million for the similar Pattaya in Thailand.
Ujung Kulon, with its rare one-horned rhino, can only claim an average of 6,000 combined domestic and foreign tourists a year.
A fast recovery is imperative here and the condition for this is a complete change in mind-set. The first order of the day is for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to declare tourism a national priority and for central and regional authorities as well as the government and the private sector to work hand in hand in this effort. This needs to be followed by a preliminary phase of quick-win activities rejuvenating tourist destinations that have so far languished but need only small improvements to boost them back.
Borobudur, for instance, can be brought back to full splendor by relocating the street vendors who have been encroaching on the temple grounds and harassed visitors from fully enjoying this beautiful temple/monastery. Toraja can also attract far more tourists by repairing its forsaken airfield so that visitors can arrive there within 45 minutes from Makassar and avoid the perilous 10-hour journey through steep mountains.
As for Ujung Kulon, tourist numbers can easily rise to more than a million there within a very short time if regular and safe sea transportation is made available from Jakarta. There are other fabulous places besides those mentioned above currently suffering from lack of attention, such as Mount Bromo, Yogyakarta and Komodo Island, which only need small touches to turn them quickly into major tourist destinations while easing the pressure on overcrowded Bali.
The quick-win phase should be followed by a longer-term buildup of other tourist sites nationwide, which will require more infrastructure investment to put them on the travel map. These sites are currently still relatively unfamiliar places, but have the potential to offer inherently unique attractions and help sustain the long-term development of Indonesiaâ€™s tourist industry.
Such places include Trowulan and Kota Gede for historical interests, Banda Naira and Raja Ampat for spectacular surfing, and the Baliem Valley and Waikabubak for unparalleled ethnic experiences. There are many other such tourist sites and they can be offered in clusters of similar attractions to make the trip for tourists richer and more diverse.
Both during the quick-win and long-term phases, the tourism recovery effort has to be supported by appropriately directed promotional campaigns with a common national branding. Malaysia has its â€śTruly Asiaâ€ť, India its â€śIncredibleâ€ť claim while Singapore and Thailand have respectively dubbed themselves â€śUniquely Singaporeâ€ť and â€śAmazing Thailandâ€ť. Branding is important to position the country concerned at the top of mind of would - be tourists while also filtering the right tourists who can appreciate what that country offers.
Increased arrivals of tourists, who show their appreciation of the local specialties, will make the local people proud of their heritage and motivate them to strengthen it further, which in turn will bring even more like-minded tourists. This will result in an upward spiral of tourists and local people hand in hand strengthening the traditional inheritance of the land.
A successful tourism program can have many priceless benefits for Indonesia, including making it the most diverse tourist destination in the world, providing it with a sustainable and environmentally clean source of revenue larger than any of its current ones, and bringing overall prosperity to the people throughout the archipelago (and not just Bali) through grassroots empowerment and self-sustenance.
These are huge potentials that Indonesia should strive its best to realize, as the rewards for their successes are just too great to forego.The writer is a graduate of Harvard (in the United States) and Leiden (in the Netherlands) universities
and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (US). He was the social services minister under president Abdurrahman Wahid.