Fri, 22 Dec 2000

Can Bandung be a trip down memory lane?

BANDUNG (JP): Far removed from the crowded tourist haunts of Bali and Jakarta, the provincial capital of West Java attracts its own unique type of tourists.

It's not what is sparkling and new about Indonesia that draws them to the city cradled in a ring of mountains, but rather the historical legacy which lives on along Bandung's streets.

For Dutch visitors, whose forefathers once ran tea plantations in the fertile hills of West Java and made Bandung a military stronghold to crush insurrections in the rest of the island, it's a chance to take a trip down memory lane.

"I often meet people whose grandparents once lived here and they've come here because of that," said operations manager of the Bandung Society for Heritage Conservation Andi Abubakar.

"Only recently there was a Dutchman who stopped by whose grandfather had been a postman here. He asked me to accompany him to see where the old post office used to be."

Tourists take in the sights, from the jaded elegance of the Savoy Homann on Jl. Asia-Afrika, itself occupying a prominent place in history as the site of the 1955 Asia-Africa conference of developing nations, to the nearby boulevard Jl. Braga, once the bustling hub of Dutch social and commercial activities.

Many remnants of "tropical art deco" architecture, unique to Bandung and Miami in Florida, have escaped the wrecker's ball, thanks in large part to the efforts of the historical society. Other cultural influences also exist in the city's architecture, said Bandung Institute of Technology professor Dibyo Hartono.

"It's not only western, but also the Chinese, Hindu and Islamic aspects which preceded the Dutch," said Dibyo, one of the founders of the historical society.

"The architecture is part of our identity and that is why we need to preserve it. If it's gone, what is there to show that we were once colonized?"

Andi said the potential was "very high" to exploit Bandung's historical value to bring in more tourists -- and it was also one of the ways to win over the public to the need to preserve old buildings.

"One of the things we are doing is increasing public awareness about the culture and architecture," he said. "When people and the local government realize the economic potential for them, then they will act to save them."

"A few years ago there were a lot of tourists, especially Europeans, who came to Bandung, but not anymore," said Anjar, former marketing manager at the Savoy Homann and now the director of personnel.

"We still have some tourists, mostly from the Netherlands and England, who come here just to see the architecture, or are staying at another hotel but stop by to have a meal."

She said the hotel, whose famous guests included Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in the 1920s and 1930s, was not focusing as much on "nostalgia tourism" and looking instead to the market of domestic business travelers.

"We have many Indonesian businessmen staying with us today. The problem is that Bandung has never had any riots, but it doesn't stand alone. It's always connected to what is happening in Jakarta and other cities."

Andi hoped the local government would recognize the potential to be gained from the promotion of historical sites to international and domestic tourists.

He recognized that the bid to preserve historical legacies often put proponents at odds with those advocating rapid development. It then becomes a matter of finding a middle ground, where the concerns of both preservationists and businesses are accommodated.

He added that the society often played the business card in its dealing with the local administration on preserving old buildings.

"We cannot separate our activities from business and tourism. We need to educate them about the huge potential there is for this sector."

Up to now the historical society has found that the most effective way to save a building set to be condemned was to send a letter to the editor of the local paper. "It leaves the local administration frantic when they read them," Andi said.

In the future, however, if the plans to make nostalgia tourism big business are realized, then the public itself may become aware of the economic cost of demolishing one of the gems of yesteryear. The value of a site is that much greater when people recognize that it is one of the attractions which draws visitors to their area, supporting a whole range of businesses, from hotels to restaurants and transportation.

The historical society, founded in 1987 by a group of concerned local citizens such as Dibyo and astronomer Bambang Hidayat, plans exhibitions and other cultural events on preservation issues. It also produces a newsletter detailing its activities, which are funded by donations.

Nostalgia tours

The historical society has also worked with corporate sponsors such as American Express to promote nostalgia tours of the city.

The efforts include producing a booklet on city tours, exploring such areas as the central business and garden districts. There is also a walking tour brochure for "Bandung Lautan Api", identifying major sites around the city which were spared when the city's residents set fire to their homes and belongings in 1946 in an attempt to stop the return of the Dutch.

Andi said much more was needed to be done.

"We are nowhere near the point of optimally maximizing our historical sites for tourism. Our infrastructure, such as guides, is still very poor."

He added that local travel agencies had yet to put together tourist packages focusing on the historical treasures of the city.

"Actually, there is the potential for more walking tours, but there are problems. We have good weather, but some of the sidewalks are in a bad state. And the buildings are either in private or government hands, which often means that people have to get permission before they can take a look inside."

A local travel agent said nostalgia tours would not be successful if packaged alone.

"The way I see it is that the number (of nostalgia tourists) get smaller every day ... but, yes, a tour of architectural would probably work if packaged with attractive dances, music and cultural aspects in one," said Golden Rama Bandung branch manager Anton Handoyo, whose office is located on the famed Jl. Braga.

He planned to visit Bali in late November to try to sell such cultural packages directly to tourists upon their arrival at the airport.

Andi said it was up to all parties -- the local government, the public, non-governmental organizations and the business community -- to work together in promoting the sector.

"Obviously, we cannot go it alone in this. Our tactic is to work on the economic potential first, and then translate it to the building. And we cannot attack the local government, but must work alongside it for our goals."

He also expected that historic sites would one day be a holiday attraction for a new generation of local tourists.

"For my generation, there is not the bitter feelings about some of the colonial buildings. They might have been planned by the Dutch, but the buildings were built by my ancestors." (brc)