Sat, 12 Apr 2003

The award, war and SARS: Enduring Indonesia's tourism JP/6/CHRIS

Weathering the war and SARS: Indonesian tourism endures

I. Christianto Journalist Jakarta

Violence and disease are most undesirable in tourism. But anything can happen anywhere, any time, such as with the war in Iraq and the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

The most feared scenario was a prolonged war in Iraq, which could cost the global travel industry about US$30 billion in losses and three million jobs, according to the New York-based World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

The recent and sudden abolishment of the visa-free entry to nationals of several countries was not a particularly bad thing. Tourism players should not fear that the new policy would reduce arrivals, because tourists usually come here for the destinations, not the visa-free facility.

Many experts compare the SARS issue to the effect of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the mid-1980s, which caused global tourism arrivals to fall by as much as 20 percent to 25 percent, cutting at least $85 billion from the global travel income and $15 billion from corporate incomes.

SARS fears have also led to the cancellation of various conferences and performances in the world's major cities.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has declared SARS an infectious and dangerous disease; anyone who avoids being tested for a possible SARS infection or interferes with investigations could face up to a year in jail. The 52nd annual conference of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) in Bali, however, is still set to start Monday and will end on April 17.

It is good to know that Minister for Culture and Tourism I Gede Ardika is to receive the PATA Honorary Life Member award during the annual conference, amid the domestic and global fears of the impact of the Iraq war and the SARS outbreak on tourism.

David Gillbanks, communications editor of PATA headquarters, says the PATA Honorary Life Membership is always bestowed upon the chairman of the PATA annual conference host committee, and no one has done more than Ardika to earn the honor this year.

"It's been particularly difficult to organize a conference this year. There have been perceived uncertainties centered around Bali, a perception which is not shared by PATA, doubts about the war in the Gulf and its affects on travel, and the fear of a SARS epidemic. Minister Ardika has shown strong leadership and sensitivity in all this to forge ahead with plans to not only stage a PATA annual conference, but to stage that event in Bali," Gillbanks said.

The PATA Honorary Life Membership has been awarded since 1985.

Ardika joins the late Soesilo Soedarman as a PATA Honorary Life Member. The latter was the minister of tourism, post and telecommunications when he was awarded in 1991 at the 40th PATA Annual Conference in Bali.

PATA also gives the Life Membership, its highest honor, to any member who has been active for at least 15 years, and who has shown leadership and commitment to PATA's mission and ideals.

The Life Membership has been bestowed to exemplary members since 1952. Indonesian members include then-directorate general for tourism Joop Ave in 1991 in Bali, and the late Sri Budoyo, who was then-chairman of the Association of Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies, in 1984 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Many hope that the honor given to Ardika will encourage all to help the Indonesian tourism sector, which is recovering from the Oct. 12 terrorist attacks on Bali.

The sector is the second largest non-oil-and-gas foreign exchange earner for Indonesia, after the textile and garment industry. The tourist industry contributed $5.7 billion in 2000 and $5.4 billion in 2001 to the government's coffers. Tourism also provides employment for about 12 million people.

After the Bali bombings, the industry was expected to crumble.

Yet Bali has now shown signs of slight recovery since the attacks, which killed over 200 people. The number of foreign tourist arrivals fell significantly, but began to rise again late last year during the year-end holidays. Foreign tourist arrivals reached about 60,000 in January and were up to 68,000 last month.

These are good signs, as a continuous plunge in tourist visits would have devastated the resort island, where almost the entire population of 3.2 million relies on tourism or related activities for their livelihood. Most importantly, the island contributes a significant part of the country's tourism revenues. Indonesia received 5.15 million tourists in 2001, of which 26.3 percent entered the country through Bali.

Following the bombing, the government outlined a four-step strategy to revive Bali and the national tourism industry: Rescue, rehabilitation, normalization and expansion. Its goal is to regain international and domestic confidence in Indonesia, particularly in Bali, as a safe, attractive and convenient tourist destination.

Full recovery was projected for 2004, but conditions may have changed now due to the war and SARS. Many believe the war and SARS will have an extreme negative effect on the national tourism industry.

However, the battlefield of the U.S.-led war in Iraq is in the Middle East, not in Southeast Asia. As for SARS, since the disease is mainly in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, domestic tourism could increase if Indonesian travelers who regularly go to those destinations stay home.

The industry should continue to attract domestic travelers, and although their expenditure is not as high as that of foreign tourists, its will still partly cover the potential loss of foreign tourist arrivals caused by the war and SARS.

With a good tour package, domestic airlines and hotels can still enjoy relatively steady business, unlike international airlines, which have suffered severely from the drop in passenger numbers.

The Madrid-based World Tourism Organization has said tourism was likely to be one of the industries hardest hit in the short term, but its revival should be rather quick.

Similar signs of consumer confidence were demonstrated following the conflicts in the Balkans and the 1991 Gulf War. In 1991, the industry still achieved 1.2 percent growth, followed by a spectacular 8.3 percent jump in 1992.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have been experiencing the most serious crisis in the history of world tourism," said Francesco Frangialli, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization. But despite attacks in Djerba, Bali and Mombasa against foreign visitors, "tourism has not collapsed, as some were quick to predict."

In 2001, international tourist arrivals fell by just 0.5 percent, and in 2002 they grew 3 percent to 715 million, at a time when travel was also affected by an adverse world economy.

For the PATA conference, only a few have canceled their trips, and 714 delegates from 41 nations are registered to attend.

The government has maintained its tourism target to welcome between 4.5 million and 4.8 million travelers to the archipelago this year. With a growth rate of 5 percent to 7 percent in arrivals, the government expects to gain between $4.3 billion and $4.6 billion in tourism-related revenue this year. In 2002, only about 4 million tourists arrived in Indonesia against 5.15 million the previous year, with the sharp plunge recorded for the weeks following the Bali blasts.

There is always some optimism for the industry, perhaps given people's need to travel to unknown shores. As Frangialli says, "Tourism has always bounced back and has always done so quickly ... tourism has always come out of turbulent times in much better shape than it has gone into them."