Mon, 02 Jun 2003

Tourists drawn by pristine beaches of Bintan island

Fadli Contributor Batam

"Have you ever visited Bintan island?" If this question was asked to Indonesians living outside Riau province, few would nod their heads.

Many perhaps, are unfamiliar with this island which, together with the nearby Batam island, has become a major tourist destination after Bali.

Located right in Singapore's backyard, this island has become an important destination for the city state's residents. At least, 1.2 million foreign tourists, mostly Singaporeans, visited Bintan and Batam last year.

The worldwide travel fears resulting from the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have unfortunately halted the flow of foreign tourists. But for many tourists, the island known to be the safest place in the country remains the best place to visit.

Bintan is part of the "growth triangle" development program initiated by the Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian governments in the early 1990s which, in addition to Batam and Bintan also links Singapore and the Malaysian state of Johor.

As part of the program, Batam is being developed as an industrial center and Bintan as a location for light industry and tourist resorts.

About 23,000 hectares of the island have been allocated for tourist resorts. At present, at least seven world-class tourist resorts have opened their doors to tourists wanting to enjoy the natural beauty of Bintan in particular the renowned pristine beaches.

Modern resort hotels include Angsana Resort & Spa, Banyan Tree Bintan, Bintan Lagoon Resort, Bintan Lodge, Club Med Riau Bintan, Mana Mana Beach Club and Nirwana Gardens.

Bintan is quite different from other resorts in the country. Here, tourists can also enjoy the beauty of the dense tropical

"The existing tourist resorts occupy only a part of the 23,000-hectare resort site. It is no wonder that many roads here are still sandwiched by forests," said Angsana Resort and Spa's manager Trizno Tarmoezi.

Unlike Bintan, Batam which only had some 7,000 residents during the early stage of its development program in the early 1970s, has grown into a busy city.

Although Batam has become one of the largest industrial centers in Indonesia, the island remains an attractive place for tourists. The tourist facilities on the island are centered around the Nongsa area where a number of world-class hotels have been built. Resort hotels such as Turi Beach Resort, Batam View Resort, Pura Jaya Resort and Tering Bay Resort are quite popular among travelers who visit the island either for business or leisure activities.

Besides Nongsa, Marina City has also become a popular tourist site on the island.

The chairman of the Batam Industrial Development Agency (BIDA), Ismeth Abdullah, said that the development of the tourist industry remained a priority for the island.

"We want to develop Batam not only as an investment site but also an important tourist destination in the country," Ismeth said, adding that a number of historical sites such as Rempang island where Japanese prisoners of war were held during World War II had been restored in a bid to diversify tourist attractions on the island.

Besides Rempang island, the local government is also undertaking a Rp 3 billion-restoration program on Galang island, where a refugee center for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees was in existence for more than two decades.

The substantial growth in the island's tourism, however, has not really satisfied the agency because most foreign tourists visiting the island are only there for a day trip.

"What we want to do right now is to draw such tourists to stay for a few days," Ismeth said. "This is important to ensure that the increase in tourist arrivals will also be able to have a positive impact on other related businesses such as hotels, restaurants and taxis," he added.

The other step, according to Ismeth, is to attract foreign tourists visiting Singapore to also visit Batam or Bintan.

Its strategic location, which is only 45 minutes by ferry from Singapore, one of Asia's most popular tourist destination, makes Batam one of Indonesia's most promising tourist sites. But the local authority is still unable to optimize such an opportunity.

"Compared to Singapore, Batam has more to see. Besides its beautiful beaches and historical sites, it also offers modern facilities," said Urmy Sungkar, the chairman of the Association of Indonesian Hotels and Restaurants (PHRI).

For Singapore, Batam and Bintan have become part of its tourism campaign. Many local travel agents, for example, have included the two islands in their travel packages offered to foreign tourists.