As Indonesia’s minister for tourism and creative economy, Mari Elka Pangestu has explored some of the most pristine spots in the country. She, perhaps, more than anyone else, knows just how beautiful Indonesia is and how diverse is its landscape and culture.
On visits to places such as Labuan Bajo on Flores island or Komodo island in eastern Indonesia or Tanjung Puting National Park in central Kalimantan, Mari understands, first hand, the potential and challenges of promoting the country’s tourism sector.
“My greatest satisfaction as tourism minister is seeing such beauty, but the challenge is promoting these destinations to tourists in a way that benefits local communities and preserves the environment,” she said. “I would not want to develop mass tourism in many of these places as that would harm the natural environment.”
Balancing the need to promote tourism while preserving Indonesia’s natural beauty is perhaps the greatest challenge facing not just the minister but the country as a whole. No other country on Earth, except maybe Brazil, has the diversity of landscapes and cultural experiences that Indonesia offers. No other country is least understood.
The country often finds itself on travel warnings imposed by developed countries such as the United States, Australia and some European nations. Thankfully it is off the watch list of the United States and Europe, although Australia continues to have Indonesia on its travel watch list.
“The international perception of the country is improving,” notes Mari. “Our efforts to improve safety and security have yielded results.”
Those results are demonstrated in the record number of international tourist arrivals as well as an explosion in domestic tourism. The sector has been growing an average 5 percent a year, and in 2012 had $18 billion in revenue.
With new routes in the country being opened by low-cost carriers such as Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia’s Citilink, the domestic tourism sector is growing at double the rate of foreign arrivals, said Mari. “Unlike Singapore, for us we are more excited about the growth in the domestic tourism market. In terms of foreign tourists, it’s not just numbers we are after, but quality, as we want longer stays and higher spending.”
A numbers game
Every tourism minister in the past 30 years has struggled with one major question: How to move beyond Bali in promoting the country to international tourists as well as domestic visitors? Mari has a plan that might finally answer that question.
She has come with up a strategy that she calls the 16-7-16 formula. The plan calls for focusing on 16 key markets to attract international tourists; develop seven thematic and special tourism sectors, such as nature-based eco tourism, sports, cruises, culture and heritage; and promote 16 destinations within the country, including Bali.
“Our inbound tourist numbers have been growing by an average of 6 percent per annum with most of the tourists coming from the Asia region,” she notes. “We have to make sure that we can give them a richer experience by promoting new levels of service as well as having new destinations for them.”
Her ministry is promoting more cruise ship ports of call, especially in eastern Indonesia where it is relatively unspoiled and offers stunning vistas. Last year, some 120,000 tourists visited Indonesia on cruise ships. Mari hopes to boost this number to 600,000 by 2016.
To achieve these numbers, she is working with other ministries and departments to develop 10 ports that can receive large cruise ships, as well as private yachts. Some of the areas earmarked include Bali, Lombok, Flores, Semarang and Probolinggo in Java, South Kalimantan, Belawan, Pare Pare and Tanjung Priok.
To get around legal hurdles, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a presidential decree that yacht owners do not need to pay a bond to finance construction of new marinas.
Another major focus is golf tourism where average spending per person is almost double that of the normal tourist. Golfers are happy to spend an average of $3,000 for five days, while other tourists spend an average of $1,700 in the same period.
The third part of the strategy is to develop and promote new destinations that offer a glimpse of Indonesia’s outstanding natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. Many of these destinations dovetail with those where cruise ships will also call.
“We are trying to coordinate the preparation of these destinations in a sustainable way,” says Mari. “We need to develop both soft infrastructure as well as hard infrastructure, such as air and sea connectivity.” The plan also includes getting the private sector to build more hotels and other facilities to accommodate tourists, while areas such as health and cleanliness also require serious attention.
The good news is that tourism is now seen as a national priority within the cabinet and the larger government, which means greater attention is being paid to the industry. This may be because the sector directly contributes 4 percent to gross domestic product and indirectly adds 9 percent to GDP.
Moreover, the sector is a major job creator, accounting for 8.3 percet of the labor force. “You don’t need a lot of training to work in the tourism industry,” Mari notes. “We are looking at starting tourism classes in vocational high schools so graduates can work straightaway in the hospitality and retail sectors.”
Mari is also looking to boost tourism by promoting large creative festivals such as Java Jazz, movie shoots and the Miss World pageant, despite the recent controversy surrounding it. Investments are also pouring into theme parks and convention centers, as Indonesia becomes more popular for such events. Shoeb K. Zainuddin