Thu, 20 Mar 2003

War, pneumonia scare a double blow to tourism

Adianto P. Simamora, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

A new pneumonia scare affecting the region and a war in Iraq will deal a severe blow to the country's already fragile tourism sector, which has just started to recover from the impact of last year's Bali bombings, a senior government official said.

"The impact of the mystery illness will actually be much greater than the Iraq war," Indonesian Culture and Tourism Board (ICTB) chairman Setyanto P. Santosa said late on Tuesday.

"But it's too early to estimate the potential losses to the tourism industry," he added.

The ICTB is a unit of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture whose main job is to promote the country's tourism sector.

Tourism experts worldwide have warned that the mystery respiratory disease -- called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) by the World Health Organization (WHO) -- which has caused at least nine deaths, would become a new threat to the region's tourism sector.

"This is a new challenge for us just as we're starting to attract more tourists," Minister of Culture and Tourism I Gede Ardike said.

Indonesia's tourist industry, which is the country's second largest non-oil and gas foreign exchange earner, was badly hit by deadly bomb blasts on the popular resort island of Bali on Oct. 12, which killed more than 200 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Last year, the number of foreign tourists fell to around 4 million from 5.15 million in 2001.

Since the Bali bombings, the government has taken a number of measures to revive the tourist industry.

The ICTB, for instance, has allocated some US$15 million to finance promotional programs this year to lure more tourists to Indonesia.

The imminent war in Iraq (some predict that the U.S. and its allies will attack Iraq later this week) is another serious threat to the tourist industry as it could potentially create anti-Western sentiment here.

Citizens from countries whose governments support the U.S. over Iraq, such as Australia, Britain, Japan and Spain, would avoid coming to Indonesia due to security fears. Australia and Japan are the main source of foreign tourists visiting Indonesia.

Ardike said that so as to anticipate the war, the government had launched promotions to attract more tourists from the Asian region.

Setyanto said that even if the war was over quickly, the pneumonia scare would still haunt the industry particularly if progress in seeking a cure for the disease was not rapid.

The disease's symptoms include coughing, a high fever and shortness of breath.