Vincent Lingga, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Although tourist arrivals in Indonesia increased by a respectable rate of almost 12 percent in the first half of the year to 2.9 million, that record is still far from the target of 7 million visitors set for the Visit Indonesia 2008 campaign.
The performance is even poorer compared with our neighbors: Singapore last year welcomed 10.3 million tourists, Thailand 14.5 million and Malaysia nearly 21 million.
Even Vietnam, a relatively new player in the international travel and tourism industry, has already received more than 4 million arrivals, compared with Indonesia's 5.5 million last year.
Our record is even more miserable if it is set against the fact that our country, the world's largest archipelago, is richer in terms of culture, natural attractions and historical heritage than most other ASEAN countries.
Richly endowed with a vast variety of natural resources, several World Heritage listed natural sites and varied fauna, and supplemented with strong price competitiveness, Indonesia should be a major destination for tourists from around the world, offering a lot of incentives for repeat visits.
Travelers can visit Indonesia every year without having to return to the same destination because there are dozens of accessible tourist attractions in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, the Maluku Islands and Papua, in addition to the world-famous Bali.
But these strengths, although considered the main pillars of the travel and tourism industry, are not enough to woo tourists.
In fact, as our tourist arrival records have testified, those advantages have been held back by major weaknesses in other pillars -- regulatory and basic infrastructure, including air and ground transport.
Our regulatory infrastructure worsened after the government, displaying tragic ignorance of the vital role the tourism industry has for our economy, sharply cut the number of countries entitled to visa-free entry for the sake of national interest and national pride.
But it is hard to understand how our national pride is served by restricting foreign tourists from spending their money in our country. This measure has instead hindered inbound visitors.
What a loss to our economic development.
As a nature and culture-based industry, tourism is one of the most suitable businesses for Indonesia to develop because of the multiplier effect and labor-intensive nature of its operations. Travel-related businesses such as hotels, restaurants, transportation, and handicraft and cultural shows are all labor-intensive, exactly the kind of businesses needed to absorb the huge pool of job seekers.
And as for the risk of the visa-free privilege being abused for -- drug trafficking and illegal employment here-- are not so big yet that it hardly warranted that drastic, sweeping measure to abolish the privilege for citizens of so many countries.
We should magnanimously acknowledge that our immigration officials, like most other civil servants in the country, are not known for providing swift services such as the processing of visa-on-arrival.
We also perform poorly with regard to the other pillar of the tourism industry -- basic infrastructure. Our airplanes are still banned from European skies and our road safety standards are infamously low.
Even though our security has significantly improved, the other components of our infrastructure -- health and hygiene -- are in a poorer condition than in neighboring countries because of the inadequate supply of hospital beds and physicians in most cities and poor access to good sanitation and drinking water.
The Culture and Tourism Ministry said it had allocated US$108 million for tourism promotion during the Visit Indonesia 2008 program. That is good. Promotion is one of the most effective tools to market our tourist attractions.
However, as the experiences of most popular tourist destinations have shown, tourism promotion should be supported by a conducive business and regulatory framework as well as international-standard transport infrastructure and bureaucratic services related to foreign visitors.
Just a simple example. Smooth, expedient visa processing and customs inspection services at the airport are more effective in wooing tourists than the distribution of tourist booklets. But these services are not under the jurisdiction of the tourism ministry.
In fact, the Culture and Tourism Ministry handles only one aspect of tourist development and marketing and, unfortunately, not the most important one.
The more important pillars of the travel and tourism industry such as transport infrastructure, health and hygiene, security and regulatory requirements are completely beyond its control as they lie under the jurisdiction of other ministries.