Surakarta hotels pick up the pieces after the 'sweep'
By Sulistyo Budi N.
SURAKARTA, Central Java (JP): It took the actions of one night to wipe out all that had been achieved by years of costly promotions.
Groups of people went to several four and five star hotels in Surakarta on Oct. 29, reportedly searching for American citizens.
Although no foreigners were hurt in an incident the media termed a "sweep", the reverberations were felt almost immediately.
The next day several hotels in the city received cancellations of reservations.
Many travel agencies in Jakarta, Bali and Yogyakarta were alarmed by the situation in Surakarta and feared such actions would spread to other cities. Embassies of foreign countries requested their citizens to be careful in Surakarta, which is known locally as Solo.
In the wake of the incident the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association documented the following cancellations: 40 rooms and an unnamed number of people for 40 groups for foreign tourists at Hotel Sahid Raya, 12 rooms for three nights for American tourists at the Hotel Sahid Kusuma, 53 rooms at the Quality Hotel and three rooms for two nights at the Hotel Indah Permai.
The Hayuningrat tourist agency, one of the few agencies which wanted to disclose their losses, suffered the cancellation of travel plans of 148 visitors.
These short-term financial losses could be recouped in a year. But the damage to Surakarta's image, and the perception that it is unfriendly to foreigners, may take much longer to remove.
The chairman of Surakarta's chapter of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies (ASITA), Satrio Hadinagoro, said he was devastated by what he viewed as the potential domino effect of the brief incident.
"We had just done our best to improve Solo's image following the monetary, political and security crisis since 1998," said Satrio, who is a local councilor from the faction of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.
It is not the only recent incident of violence in the town.
Devastating riots in May 1998, as the Soeharto government fell from power, caused the mass destruction of malls and government offices; only Jakarta was harder hit.
Surakarta's image as a peaceful town and a cultural hub of Central Java was suddenly tarnished.
In the wake of October's incident, various parties in the tourism business sent a joint letter to the minister of tourism, regretting the incident and appealing for friendly countries not to issue travel bans to Indonesia.
They said the reports of the sweeping were due to a "misunderstanding".
The letter, signed by PHRI's Surakarta chairman Soebandono, stated that Surakarta and Central Java were safe destinations for both tourism and business activities.
They also requested a guarantee from security authorities that the October incident would not happen again.
Now PHRI is working with the police to ensure security for all foreign visitors to the city.
A day after the incident ASITA approached a number of tour operators in Solo, Yogyakarta, Bali and Jakarta to clarify that the incident did not involve the majority of city residents.
ASITA then invited the tour operators to check Surakarta for themselves.
Thankfully, the number of visitors, including Americans, to the local Novotel hotel have returned to the normal level, says Dewi Romlah, the hotel's executive assistant manager.
"Thank God, I think the situation now is getting safer. In November 62 percent of 142 rooms were occupied. Compared to October, the increase is 68 percent to 70 percent," Dewi said.
She added the figure was high for Novotel.
Surakarta has another problem to deal with in living in the tourism shadow of its renowned neighboring area Yogyakarta.
Dewi said Surakarta held equal potential with Yogyakarta, given its palaces, tourist attractions and unique souvenirs.
The public relations manager of Hotel Lor In, Ina Amalia, said the fallout from the incident was still being felt, especially the impression that Surakarta was not a safe place for Americans.
She became aware of the extent of the problem a few days after the sweeping.
"I heard about it from a foreign group which is a partner of Lor In. I asked them where they were going for Christmas, and they said many of them were going home.
"When I asked them the reason, they said their was a circular from the embassy urging caution if they visited Solo."
Tourist attractions, whether due to the sweep or not, seemed unusually deserted in recent weeks.
Mankunegaran Palace, which the local tourism office lists as the number one draw for foreign tourists, has had few visitors. On the four consecutive days The Jakarta Post visited the palace, there were hardly any tourist groups at the site. The same lack of visitors was evident at Kasunanan Palace.
Fortunately, the latter palace is adjacent to Klewer Market, famed for its variety of textiles, and visitors to the market occasionally stopped by at the palace after their shopping was done.
"It's been like this for a month, I don't know the reason," said a pedicab driver outside the palace.
Also feeling the pinch is Triwindu Market, a favorite stop for antique shopping for foreign tourists. Or so it was in the past; over four successive days, the Post encountered only one foreign tourist visiting the market.
"It's not only the foreign tourists, domestic tourists rarely come here now. The point is that it's been deserted. I don't know if it was because of what happened (the sweep). Most probably, yes," said 60-year-old antique vendor Wahyu, who has been operating at the market for more than 20 years.
It's the same sad case at other tourist sites, such as the Laweyan batik center, Taman Sriwedari, Museum Radya Pustaka and Taman Jurug. Most of their visitors are domestic tourists, and they are not coming in the numbers of the months before October's incident.
The problem is a particular concern because tourism has been a mainstay of Surakarta's revenue. The sweeping incident is likely to cause a drop in revenue, and may lead to greater questions in connection with the issue of regional autonomy.