Sun, 28 May 2000

Government must change tourism policy

Tourism is vital for generating foreign exchange revenues, but facts show that the industry is in turmoil. While earnest work to lure tourists back remains unfruitful, fresh violence hit the capital city of Jakarta on Friday. How can we paint a better picture to attract visitors? The Jakarta Post's Rita A. Widiadana attempts to find some answers.

JAKARTA (JP): The natural beauty of the sea, sand or sun can no longer tempt tourists to the paradise island of Bali or neighboring Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara.

Neither cultural attractions nor impeccable works or art and handicrafts can entice foreigners to visit Indonesia.

Indonesia's top tourist destinations, from the famous Lake Toba in North Sumatra and the tourist favorite of Kuta beach in Bali, to the Bunaken diving area in North Sulawesi and natural Banda island in Maluku, are bereft of visitors.

Each passing month sees thousands of foreigners canceling trips to Indonesia, jittered by fresh scenes of riots in Aceh, Maluku province and the capital city of Jakarta. Large blankets of haze in Sumatra and Kalimantan as well as the tropical diseases of cholera and malaria also discourage visitors from developed countries.

The number of tourists visiting Bali in the first quarter of 2000 dropped 12.7 percent from 112,768 in l999 to 98,496.

In Jakarta, the high crime rate, frequent student brawls and riots are the main reasons for the decrease in the number of tourist arrivals.

The City Tourism Agency recorded 1,057,104 tourists visiting Jakarta in l998, but this number dropped to 981,183 last year.

Indonesia's key tourist industry has been feeling the backlash of its tarnished images in the international community.

Tourism is vital to Indonesia. It absorbs more than two million from the workforce and generates billions of American dollars in revenue for the state.

Chairwoman of Indonesia's chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Elly Hutabarat comments, "Indonesia is not very 'in' at the moment."

The current social, economic and political conditions have hit Indonesia's tourism industry hard since l997 when the economic crisis began and the industry further worsened with haze and drought problems, she said.

"There are so many valuable lessons we can draw from this particular situation," added Elly.

The enduring images of Indonesia as a country rich in nature and culture are no longer vendible.

"Tourists need security and good tourist facilities, including a high standard of health care and a pleasant and healthy environment, while visiting Indonesia, something we can't offer them at present," she added.

In a seminar on Healthy and Secure Tourism held on Tuesday at Atmajaya University's School of Medicine, Dr. Charles Suryadi, professor of public health at the university, agreed that Indonesia's tourism policy barely touched on the basic requirements of the industry.

Tourists visiting Indonesia often experience disturbing disappointments, starting from the streamlining of the bureaucratic process at local airports, inadequate transport and international standard accommodations, to the lack of health facilities.

All tourism drives and campaigns were rhetoric and superficial. The government and tourism boards are promoting Indonesia outside but in the country barely does anything to improve necessary tourism facilities, said Charles.

Roads are potholed, trains and buses are in dilapidated conditions, not to mention their reckless drivers. Tourist Information Centers are often empty.

Health care

In health sector, for instance, only big hospitals in Jakarta and Bali are able to cater foreign visitors who become ill, he said.

"If they are sick or have an accident during their visit to Indonesia, we can't treat them properly unless we have good quality health care services, which are still rare in the country."

Dr. Kisjanto, professor of cardiology at Cipto Mangukusumo General Hospital (RSCM) and chairman of the Indonesian Travel Medicine Society, said that many tourists suffer from minor to serious injuries or sickness during their holidays in Indonesia.

Numerous visitors, the elderly in particular, suffer from heart-related diseases, respiratory problems, stomachs upsets, traffic accidents, malaria and diarrhea. Drowning is also another serious problem.

"We promote Indonesia's beaches and marine resources but we don't have enough trained lifeguards. This is a simple and pathetic example," the professor said.

In remote forested areas, where the government promotes ecotourism, the nearest public health center is a four-hour walk away.

"Some of the existing health centers are not even equipped with first aid kits to treat wounded visitors," he explained.

Dr. Richard Tomlins from the Australian Embassy Clinic in Jakarta, said that in l999, about 280,000 Australians traveled to Indonesia.

He said that for every 100,000 people traveling to a developing area, including Indonesia, and staying for one month, 50,000 would have health problems, 8,000 would consult a doctor, 5,000 would need to stay in bed sick while on holiday, 400 would be hospitalized, 50 would require air evacuation and one would die.

This represents a large demand for medical resources, especially in Bali, the most favorite destination among Australians, said Tomlins.

"Australian travelers are very demanding," he said.

Dr. Kisjanto added that in order to lure back foreigners, Indonesia should provide better health care and supporting infrastructure facilities for visitors. "But, we have to be mindful, visitors may also bring in various diseases, from influenza to the dangerous HIV virus," the doctor said.

He said that the government must dramatically change the current "top-down" tourism policy.

"The government should involve not only tourist-related industries but also medical people, public works, immigration and, more importantly, the public to prepare a comprehensive policy," he said.

Deputy Minister for Tourism Product Development I Gede Ardhika admitted that in the past, the policy was too bureaucratic and economic oriented.

Good program

"We are now launching community-based tourism forums to absorb ideas from community members and officials on how to create good tourism programs in eight tourist spots, including in Lake Toba, Bali, Bunaken and Lombok," he said.

At each of the designated areas, the forum will monitor tourism facilities and programs. "They will provide input to the hotel and restaurant sector, travel agents, hospitals and other related institutions about how to provide better services for visitors."

Despite the downturn and ongoing crisis, he was optimistic that Indonesia could still be considered a potential tourist destination in Southeast Asia.

He expects 5 percent growth in visitor arrivals this year, from 4.8 million in l999. "We predict the number will reach 5.1 million this year," Ardhika said.

Charles said that any efforts to attract foreign tourists to Jakarta would be futile without a solution to the country's multidimensional crisis.

"We can not work alone to improve the decaying image of Indonesia abroad. Politicians, the Army, the students and all Indonesians are responsible for bringing peace and security back to the country," said Charles.

Only when Indonesia is secure will visitors return and, more importantly, bring hard currency to this debt-laden country.