Wed, 16 Apr 2003

Govt shooting itself in foot with new visa policy

Stefan Reisner, Puri Asri Hotel, Ubud, Bali

Anger, confusion and disbelief -- that is the reaction of the tourist industry and the expatriate community following the drastic change in immigration regulations.

The government recently revoked the visa-free-entry for tourists from 48 countries. The decree means new fees and new red tape -- who would believe that an ailing tourism industry that employs and feeds hundreds of thousands of people could be supported by making it more difficult and unpleasant to visit the country? In Thailand, arriving guests are offered candy at the airport immigration counter, which they pass through within three minutes.

These new regulations would deeply affect tourism and related businesses -- especially small-scale tourism, which serves regions beyond the main destinations of Bali and Java. These regions also attract younger guests -- budget travelers who tend to stay longer (and they have to, due to traffic conditions).

These visitors have traveled from far away, interested in discovering the riches of Indonesia's culture and nature.

In explaining the new visa policy the government cites national security, national pride and equality between nations.

Well, it seems that what endangers peace and justice in this country is entirely of the making of its own people: Extremism, communalism, lawlessness and insecurity are all homemade.

No foreign power nor foreign individual is threatening Indonesia's integrity. Drug dealing and illegal businesses such as smuggling and logging are police matters and should be handled by law enforcement.

No drug smuggler would care about higher visa fees, but the family of four who plans a holiday in Indonesia will reconsider: US$50 per head for a visa, an amount which in other countries can be spent for additional days of accommodation and fun.

It is said that Indonesian nationals are discriminated against by high visa fees and bureaucratic screening. Well, so far it has been understood that it is also in the nation's best interest to regulate its labor export and to avoid the embarrassment of a large economic migration.

When it comes to reciprocity, the government has to decide what is more important: Mere theoretical principle or the economic, cultural and political interests of the whole country. There is no doubt that Indonesia benefits more from foreign visitors than is burdened by them.

Thousands of illegal Indonesian immigrants to the United States have been treated leniently, and given grace periods and possibilities to legalize their status -- and this occurred after Indonesia's diplomatic intervention. So what do U.S. tourists get in return from Indonesia -- if they still care to come?

Malaysia, however, has expelled thousands of Indonesian migrant workers in a very inhumane manner -- but has not lost its immigration privilege.

Indonesia is also trying to limit the travel of its own population by raising exit taxes, which hurt the middle class and the young.

Developed countries are greatly contributing their taxpayers' money to support the Indonesian economy. Chauvinists here tend to forget easily that the money the country receives and spends from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other agencies and governments, is money collected from taxpayers. My own country, Germany, has granted not only debt relief, but also supports various projects throughout Indonesia. Most countries of the European Union are doing the same.

So it seems the foreign money is welcome, but the foreigners are not.

It has not gone unnoticed that Indonesia would need much less foreign aid if only it would be willing to reclaim the stolen state funds from its fraudulent bankers.

We all know how terribly the hotel industry has been hurt by political and criminal incidents in the last two years. There were many promises, not much money and no compassion at all from the government to help it to recover.

In Bali, most hotels are empty and many families have found themselves out of work. Small entrepreneurs cannot afford to maintain and repair their hotels and restaurants anymore.

As a result, there has been a drastic drop in quality -- more and more of the very few guests who stay at such establishments have complaints. There has been no improvement in service, beaches are not cleaned properly and even in the holiest of temples, there are more and more hawkers and crooks to harass visitors.

Ironically, the government has no better idea than to propose an entrance fee of $50 for tourists. There is also talk of making health certificates mandatory, which are not issued for free and which costs are not covered by insurance policies. Expatriates from neighboring countries who loved to come to Bali for extended weekends will surely look for other destinations now.

In Bali, we see visitors who stay for an extended period, such as buyers from Europe and the U.S. They come to buy containers of handicraft and furniture in the winter months when business in their countries is low, and they stay for longer than 30 days. With the new visa restriction, they will most likely complete their purchases faster and shorten their leisure time, and thus spend less.

And what about conventions and conferences? These days every dollar counts nowadays for event organizers. Interestingly, participants of the Pacific Asia Travel Association conference in Bali have been reassured that they might be exempted from the new regulation.

Will this make the tour operators and travel agents turn a blind eye to the effects of the new visa policy?

There is a lot the government could do: Zoning hotel developments, for instance, as there are far too many hotels already. Instead, even more hotels are being constructed. Also crucial are quality control by independent surveyors, and educational and training programs. Environmental programs are needed to help protect and save historic sites and the natural environment.

But now, whenever a new effort is announced and money granted (mostly via donations from foreign countries) the enthusiasm fades when the TV crews have packed up -- and the money disappears like salt in the ocean.

The immigration officials are reportedly still working on the fine print for the new regulations. I hope there will be enough public interest to enforce a reasonable procedure.

Don't stop at issuing visas on arrival, make them extendible (for a moderate fee). Offer special arrangements for visitors who want to stay long time, arrangements which are not as ridiculously complicated as the existing retirement visas.

Simplify the business visa regulations by ending the use of sponsors and middlemen. The existing practice only supports corruption and forces businesspeople to act against the moral principles and the laws of their home countries, such as in the U.S. and the EU, which forbids active corruption.

Indonesia needs to open up their doors to lure more visitors, who should be treated as welcome guests.

And if there is a problem of abuse or crime, than it should be a problem for the police, not for immigration.

And government officials should study the example of Thailand: This country manages its tourism with excellence.

The writer is the former foreign editor of the German magazine Stern.