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14 Oct, 2011

Gateway to Krakatau – A New ASEAN Destination Takes Flight

Imtiaz Muqbil in Bandar Lampung, Indonesia

Bandar Lampung, Indonesia’s gateway city to the famous Krakatau volcano, hosted its first international tourism event during October 12-14. Inaugurated with a colourful, pulsating ceremony of spectacular music and dance that even surprised the country’s tourism marketing director, the Tourism Indonesia Mart & Expo (TIME) has helped the city of just under one million people join the growing league of secondary cities in ASEAN and Asia that are turning to tourism as an economic mainstay, in addition to such long-standing sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining.

Lampung Province is located at the extreme southern tip of Sumatra Island, just across the Sunda strait from the neighbouring island of Java. Java and Sumatra are Indonesia’s most populous islands. The flight to the provincial capital, Bandar Lampung, from Jakarta is a short 40-minute hop away. There are no flights from abroad. However, domestic flights total 17 a day, mostly from Jakarta, with national airline Garuda Indonesia alone operating five a day. In 2010, the province got 2.17 million visitors, of which only 35,000 were from abroad. This is expected to surge when the airport gains international gateway status about three years down the road.

The province’s primary claim to fame is that it is the gateway to Krakatau, the volcanic island that erupted in August 1883. The force of the eruption literally blew apart the mountain, leaving only a small cone that has become known as Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau). Today, it is the focus of boat tours which allow visitors to see it from a distance. The 287-metre peak is climbable but requires an early morning departure to scale it and then climb down before the rocks become too hot even to stand on as the sun comes up.

Spectacular opening

Krakatau today lends its name to an annual cultural festival, a one-week event popular both with local and foreign visitors to Lampung. Many other provinces send delegations of musicians and artists to participate. This year, TIME’s main organiser, the Indonesian Tourism Promotion Board, suggested that TIME be organised alongside the festival so that it can get additional exposure.

That strategic objective was met right at the TIME opening ceremony, an absolutely spectacular two hours of fusion music that married the best of local instrumental traditions with a quasi-rock concert beat that would have had the audience swaying and gyrating had there been no formality of an opening ceremony. The world-class performance took even Dr Sapta Niwandar, Director General, Tourism Marketing, Ministry of Culture and Tourism by surprise. “I never expected it to be so good,” he gushed.

Organisers later explained that the performers are the best of the best in Lampung. Every year, the Krakatau festival is preceded by music competitions at each of the province’s 14 districts, with the winners earning a shot at performing at the main festival. Conferences and conventions organised in Bandar Lampung in future will find that these groups will certainly leave delegates with a high wow-factor.

The opening up of Lampung is part of the Indonesian government’s strategy to diversify visitor arrivals away from Bali, the primary international gateway, and Jakarta, the commercial capital, which get the lion’s share of visitors, leaving the remaining cities and 31 provinces to fight for the scraps. For Lampung, like many other parts of Indonesia, tourism is a late-starter. Its main economy is based on agricultural products such as rubber, palm oil, bananas and durian.

Mrs Meity Robot, chairperson of the TIME organising committee, said this year marks the 17th TIME. It was first held in Jakarta and remained there for 10 years. Since then it has been held in Jogjakarta, Makassar and Lombok. The ITPB has insisted on keeping TIME going regardless of what else is going on in the country. Although it came dangerously close to being called off at the height of the anti-Suharto riots in Jakarta in 1998, the think-long-term strategy of this decision has paid off. As Indonesia’s only business-to-business travel event, it continues to have a small but significant impact on visitor arrivals.

Further up the Ladder

Why was Lampung chosen? Procedure requires that the would-be hosts express interest first. However, Dr Sapta also proudly pointed out that in addition to its strategic location and huge tourism potential, Bandar Lampung is his birthplace. His father was the city’s mayor from 1969-73, and he did some of his schooling there. He returns home every year to celebrate the annual Hari Raya (Eid Ul Fitr festival) that follows the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Indeed, this son of Lampung on his way further up the ladder; soon after the TIME 2011 opening ceremony, Dr Sapta was summoned back to Jakarta to be told by President Yudhyono that he was to be appointed Vice Minister of Culture and Tourism in an upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

This year’s TIME had a budget of four billion Indonesian rupiah (about US$420,000), split IR 1.5 billion between the local government and the rest coming from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This year’s show was smaller than in 2010 when 104 sellers from 80 companies participated. Mrs Robot said some organisational hiccups emerged as the event was only confirmed four months ago. TIME 2010 booked an estimated transaction of USD18.9 million, an increase of 8% over 2009. This year, an increase of 10% to 15% was projected.

The changing mix of buyers indicates that that objective, too, will be met. This year’s buyers came from 27 countries, led by the Netherlands followed by India, Poland, Singapore and Korea. New buyers were invited from Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Greece and Mexico. In a clear sign of the changing times, the once dominant markets of Germany, Italy, and the UK had barely a small handful of buyers.

The most promising potential is seen from India, which had eight buyers. Most of the Indian buyers noted that Bali is their clients’ primary choice, particularly for weddings and honeymoons. The rest of the Indian leisure traffic is not interested in other places, except the very niche markets. Being largely first-time travellers, Indians just want to do the traditional things and enjoy themselves, said Ashish Indulkar, director of a Mumbai-based Indonesia specialist operator U And I Holidays.

He said visiting cultural spots such as Jogjakarta is low priority, except for the niche-market, special-interest travellers. Visa on arrival facilities at the key gateways upon payment of US$25 adds to the ease of access. In addition, Mr Indulkar said, Indonesian missions in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai provide 24-hour visa issuance.

No direct flights

The most astonishing element of the India-Indonesia axis is that there is no direct air-access between the second and third most populous countries of Asia. This forces Indian visitors to either transit through Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Dr Sapta said he is aware of one private Indian airline looking into a tie-up with Garuda Indonesia to start a Delhi-Jakarta flight in November 2012. He has also approached the Travel Agents Association of India to hold its annual convention in Bali in 2012.

TIME 2011 was held in the ballroom of the Novotel Lampung, which mercifully is the city’s only high-rise building, perched on a hillock with a grand view of the sea and the city. Journalists were accommodated by the Sheraton Lampung, a quaint, three-storey structure located downtown in lush park-like surroundings. Its Director of Sales & Marketing Sugeng Purnomo extended us the additional courtesy of providing a complimentary Internet link (for which many thanks).

These two hotels are the prominent ones in an overall limited capacity of a little more than 1,000 hotel rooms. Three hotels with another 420 rooms are due to open in 2012. Even with the huge volume of domestic visitors, the city hotels run an average annual occupancy of only about 50%.

The city itself has all the charms of a little Indonesian backwater township, with the usual abundance of foodcart vendors, roadside stalls, low-rise buildings and hordes of motorcycles. The streets are remarkably clean and litter-free. Muslim travellers will find no shortage of elegant little mosques from where the call to prayer is sounded five times a day. At one of the major intersections, in line with the strong Islamic tradition, God’s 99 names have been prominently inscribed into what appears to be an alabaster cast framed into the hillside.

The real tourism action lies in the hinterland. In addition to the Krakatau tours, the Way Kambas National Park, where visitors can go on an elephant safari or watch an elephant show. The Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a veritable birdwatchers paradise. Both are homes to the indigenous Sumatran elephants, tigers and rhinos. For surfers, the Tanjung Setia Beach is claimed to have 5 m high and 200 m long waves, and Karangimbur beach, which features waves that follow two opposite wind directions. At Kiluan Bay, tourists can enjoy the breathtaking sight of the dancing dolphins.

Transport boost

The province will become more accessible when transport links grow. Governor of Lampung Drs Sjachroedin said that major infrastructure development is under way to better link the province to both Singapore to the north and Jakarta to the east. Ferries operate around the clock from Java’s Merak Port, about 1.5 hours from Jakarta, to Bakauheni on Sumatra. Each carrying up to 20 vehicles and 200 passengers, the ferries take about 1.5 to 2 hours to cross the Sunda strait. From the port to Bandar Lampung takes about 90 min by car, or longer by bus.

The airport itself has been slowly expanded to take jet aircraft. Its first claim to higher status came this year when the first direct international flights were operated to fly Muslim pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for this year’s Haj pilgrimage, due to start next month. Although the airport’s upgrade to international status is still some years away, the real travel surge will come when Java and Sumatra are linked by the long awaited Sunda Strait Bridge. The bridge is expected to cost US$17.57 billion and has been subjected to planning delays. Preliminary designs call for it to be 29 km in length and 2.5 km wide and will shorten the travelling distance between Jakarta and Lampung to only 2 hours.

This bridge is one of several major projects planned in Indonesia over the next few years. According to a lead story in the local newspaper, the President Post, the Indonesian economic expansion and acceleration master plan, unveiled last May, will focus on attracting investment in energy, infrastructure and oil. It aims to boost the country’s GDP to USD 4.5 trillion by 2025 and raise the per capita income from USD 3,000 now to USD 15,000.  Six economic corridors will be set up. Sumatra has been pegged as a centre for agriculture and energy; Kalimantan, for mining and energy; Sulawesi and North Maluku for agriculture and fisheries; Bali and Nusa Tenggara for tourism and food production; Papua and Maluku for natural and human resources; and Java for industry and services.

The plan calls for 17 infrastructure projects valued at IR190 trillion to start this year, with the government having earmarked IR 135.8 trillion for capital spending on hydroelectric and solar power plants, oil palm developments, steel mills, roads and tollways, expansion of broadband Internet, and mining projects, plus nickel, cobalt and aluminum factories. Senior private sector executives have been quoted as saying that their sector is also ready to invest USD150 billion.

As these projects take off, the deputy provincial governor Joko Umar Said acknowledged that much will have to be done to plug the “major weakness” – lack of human resources. The province has no dedicated hotel school. Economic development will also added to environmental pressures. As my flight was approaching Bandar Lampung airport, from the left side I could see a huge area of heavily forested cover. Whether that still exists a few years down the road remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Indonesia has set a target of 7.7 million arrivals in 2011 and is well on the way to meet it. Dr Sapta said next year’s tourism budgetary request is for USD100 million, about double that of this year. Of that, about 60% is spent on marketing. Euro 2.1 million has already been allocated for Indonesia to be the sponsoring partner country of the ITB Berlin 2012.