The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy, has been cashing in from increasing foreign tourist arrivals, thanks to better security, more money on promotion and mushrooming leisure events.
Between January and June this year, the country recorded a 11.6 percent jump in tourist arrivals to 2.9 million from 2.59 in the same period last year, says a recent report from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS).
The decision by the United States to remove its eight-year travel warning on Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, is likely to boost international arrivals.
The perception of Indonesia as a haven for terrorists and Islamic extremists, after deadly bomb attacks on the Bali resort island in 2002 and 2005, has given way to more positive image.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism's director general of marketing, Sapta Nirwandar, told The Jakarta Post recently that things had improved, especially security, with more tourists arriving.
Although the first semester results failed to reach half of the 2008 target, Sapta believed the country could do better in the second semester due to cultural and sporting events in Bali, Lampung and Solok, West Sumatra.
"We expect many tourists during the peak season in July and August."
"This month, for instance, we plan to hold the Sanur Village Festival in Bali and the Solok Regency Festival in West Sumatra," he said.
Several sports events, including the Asian Beach Games and the Bali international 10 kilometers marathon for unity, would hopefully lure more visitors in September.
Sapta also believed more visitors, mostly from South Korea and Russia, would arrive during Christmas and the New Year, since they had already booked their hotels.
Despite the first half-year increase, the country still needs to do more to achieve the tourist arrival target of seven million by the end of 2008, largely through the government's Visit Indonesia Year 2008 program.
According to Sapta, pressure on limited flight capacity into Indonesia has become so severe that it might restrict the rate of increase in tourist arrivals, with airline operators not adapting enough to accomodate these new markets.
"We have asked local carriers to increase seat capacity to anticipate high demand during peak season," he said.
The ministry has allocated around Rp 1 trillion (US$108 million) to help attract foreign tourists this year, hoping to rake in some $6.7 billion in foreign exchange revenue, up by 28 percent from $5.2 billion last year.
Intense promotion has brought success for some destinations, especially in West Sumatra.
BPS figures show that Minangkabau International airport in West Sumatra province recorded a 276 percent jump in foreign arrivals to 13,469 between January and June this year, compared to 3,586 in the same period last year.
Despite such examples of soaring growth rates, analysts have urged the government to improve infrastructure in areas which can be potentially developed into tourist hot spots, as well as other facilities needed by tourists, such as internet connections, payment systems and information centers.
Chairwoman of the Indonesian Hotel Association Yanti Sukamdani said around 700,000 foreign visitors spent time in the capital's hotels during the first half of the year.
"Unfortunately, only 10 to 20 percent of them came here for recreation, while the rest were for businesses, she said.
Yanti cited awful traffic jams, lack of adequate public transportation and poor cleanliness as the main factors discouraging tourists from visiting Jakarta.
"We expect to attract 1.4 million visitors (tourists and businessmen) this year to Jakarta, up from 1.2 million last year," she said.
Known as a haven for nightlife entertainment in Southeast Asia, especially for its underground raunchy nightspots and gambling, Jakarta's potential in attracting foreign tourists, especially the young, remains largely untapped.
Bali-centric promotional campaigns by the government have also been the subject of criticism by local administrations.
Numerous potential tourist destinations, including North Sulawesi, have been left off the radar of Indonesian alternative leisure-spots, due primarily to poor marketing strategy by the Culture and Tourism Ministry. (ewd)