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8 Sep, 2003

As Visa Crisis Looms, Indonesia Seek Arrivals from ASEAN Countries

JAKARTA — Facing yet another crisis in the wake of a government plan to impose visas, the Indonesian tourism industry will next month dispatch a 30-member promotion delegation to Thailand, one of the few countries that might be excluded from the visa-requirement list.

The delegation is due in Bangkok on October 8 for a four-day visit. Though this will be the second visit to Thailand in as many years, it is taking on added importance as Indonesia looks increasingly to ASEAN and Asian markets in the wake of security concerns, travel advisories and the potential visa curbs.

The tourism delegation also will visit Singapore and Malaysia, which generate the largest number of arrivals to Indonesia, largely due to visa- free accessibility, good airline connections and several border-crossing points.

The promotions in each of the three ASEAN countries will involve the usual round of meetings with local national tourism organisation and sales contacts with the local travel trade and media.

Although visitors from ASEAN countries comprise the largest number of visitors to Indonesia, tourism officials admit these have been taken for granted over the years as Indonesia, like many other regional countries, only pursued visitors from the traditional markets of Australia, Japan, Europe and North America.

Now, the country that was once emerging as Thailand’s strongest tourism competitor, is struggling with year after year of fire-fighting and crises that have put it on the verge of reinstating a visa policy, 20 years after it was scrapped for 43 countries, opening the floodgates of tourism.

The visa restrictions were announced in March 2003 and given six months to be implemented, which would be October 1. However, the Indonesian tourism industry is vigorously fighting for an indefinite postponement, noting that October would be the start of the traditional high season traffic from Europe.

If it does go into effect, citizens of all countries will need visas, except for a handful which will be eligible for visas on arrival and those with whom Indonesia ahs a reciprocal visa-waiver agreement.

Most of the traffic from Thailand to Indonesia comprises of visitors to Bali on holiday. THAI has daily flights to both Bali and, along with Garuda Indonesia, a daily flight to Jakarta via Singapore. The airline seat capacity is overwhelmingly in favour of THAI which is using wide body jets on both the Jakarta and Bali sectors while Garuda is using the much smaller Boeing 737.

These flights have generated huge numbers of Indonesian visitors to Thailand, attracted by shopping and nightlife — from 69,474 in 1998 to 164,994 in 2002. However, the reverse flow has been inadequate, limping from 47,335 in 1998 to 50,489 in 2001, the last year for which figures are available.

Indonesian tourism officials admit they have not paid enough attention to the Thai market. At last week’s Tourism Indonesia Mart and Exposition (TIME), there was only one buyer from Thailand but even that turned out to be a no-show.

More Thai tourists to Indonesia would be a welcome bit of help as the Indonesian tourism industry is clearly in tatters.

Ever since the protests began against former President Suharto in 1997, the industry has lurched from crisis to crisis, most of which have been occurring at around the same dates as the TIME show.

These have included the May 1998 resignation of Suharto himself, the violent demonstrations that followed when new elections were held, the stock exchange bombing and more recently, the Bali crisis and the JW Marriott. The disturbances have led to a string of travel advisories and warnings. External factors like SARS, the Iraq war and the 9/11 have only made it worse.

Today, Jakarta hotels look like garrisons. Barbed wire barricades are obvious at all entrances, along with machine gun-toting guards. Metal detectors, costing US$ 60,000 each, are stationed at all entrances. Hotels say their security costs have doubled at a time when income is down across the board, including a drop of at least 20 % in food and beverage revenue.

Using identical language, Mr I.Gede Ardika, the minister of tourism and culture, and Pontjo Sotowo, head of the Indonesian Tourism Council, survey the mess and rue: “We thought travel & tourism would help ‘soften’ (ease) our problems (of nation-building), but we seem to have become a victim of these problems.” It has come to the point where executives are beginning to contradict themselves. On the one hand, Mr Ardika says the Indonesian culture is to look on the positive side and realise that there is “growing awareness” of the importance of tourism in view of the joblessness and sea of red ink flooding the industry.

On the other, the plan to impose visas proves Mr Ardika’s claim wrong.

Indeed, Bali hotelier Feisol Hashim says he cannot figure out what good visas will do in the first place. “The guys who are creating all this trouble don’t need visas. They are right here in our country.”

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