Reflections on two decades of tourism development

The history of Planet Earth is the history of mankind’s migrations and as a reader of this article you are most likely a recent migrant yourself. I am sure that everyone who eventually turned into a migrant and is now living here, came once before as a tourist.

What remains rather odd is that people who try to make a permanent move from a poor country to a wealthy nation are called refugees. There was a time when someone who left one country to settle in another was called an emigree. Nowadays, in case such a person is allowed to enter a country, he is called an immigrant.

As we all know attitudes towards immigrants do differ. In civilized countries with leaders like Trudeau or Merkel, immigrants are not by definition evil people but welcomed. In the country that has telephone code number one and a leader who is married to a recent immigrant, all newcomers from countries where people are killing each other are by definition criminals and therefore unwelcome.

Yet when someone from a wealthy country makes a move to a lesser developed nation, we now refer to him as an expat. The implication is that the move is not permanent. Someone living -ex patria-outside of his native country may one day return to his ‘homeland’.

You may have met expats on this island who continuously go back and forth on tourist visa and this routine does indeed offer them the opportunity to regularly go shopping for books unavailable locally.In case you are an expat boomer who moved to Bali relatively recently you may be unaware there used to be a time that visa on arrival meant that one could stay sixty days in Indonesia.

Those were the days that the North of Bali was thriving with a constant stream of backpackers. Many of these foreign visitors had already been to Pangandaran on the South coast of Java and to Yogyakarta and were probably planning to continue to go to Lombok and Flores. Most objected if you would call them tourists. They preferred to use the term ‘travelers’ and most carried Bill Dalton’s “the Indonesian Handbook”. When you could spend sixty days in the country it was perfectly possible to go on a five or six island ‘tour’ through the country.

All that was brought to an end in February 2004 by Yusril Mahendra, at the time Minister of Justice and Human Rights. He was the one who engineered that the sixty days were reduced to thirty. In the years that followed there was a lot of handwringing about the fact that that there was a decrease in foreign arrivals to Indonesia and the number of tourists was so much lower than in Thailand and Malaysia.

This brings me to a few of particular aspects of Indonesian governance. Once a problem has been identified, the answer is usually to organize a conference with delegates from several different Government Ministries participating. Long introductions and many repetitions will be recorded as ‘brainstorming’ and after many lunches and dinners later the final outcome will be a “Joint Action Plan”.

After these meetings everyone goes home with feelings of satisfaction, because something has been achieved. At the same time there are feelings of relief, because the time has come to forget about the problem for a while.

The name and the scope of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Tourism have changed several times. At one point it was Tourism, Post and Telecommunications. Then for quite a while it became the department of Tourism Art and Culture. Currently it is the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy.

What never changes is the fact that when it comes to foreign arrivals the Department sets targets. If at the end of the year the actual arrivals turn out to be higher, we slap each other on the back because the targets were achieved. If at the end of the year the reverse is the case, and the predictions of the Department turned out to be wrong,we commiserate because it means we did not meet the target. Yet that still is no reason to worry. We will organize new brainstorming sessions and see if we should perhaps change the slogan or the tagline.

Incidentally, another Indonesian idiosyncrasy is that official results never come in a rounded figure. It is not good governance to tell the world that we reached 78 percent of the target. It is more correct to report that the figure was 77.68 percent.

As far as I know the most recent action plan for the development of tourism is now four years old so it is not polite to start asking about its implementation. It was hatched in February 2016 under the name TEN NEW BALIS. The plan foresaw the creation of ten new tourist destinations across the country.

The ten destinations earmarked were Lake Toba (North Sumatra), Belitung (Bangka Belitung), Tanjung Lesung (Banten), Seribu Islands (Jakarta), Borobudur Temple (Central Java), Mount Bromo (East Java), Mandalika Lombok (West Nusa Tenggara), Komodo Island (East Nusa Tenggara), Wakatobi National Park (Southeast Sulawesi), and Morotai (North Maluku).

When I worked as a tour leader in the late eighties taking groups of Dutch tourists through Indonesia, we already had Lake Toba, Borobudur and Mount Bromo included on the itinerary and usually these guided tours ended with stays on Bali and Lombok.

It used to take about four hours to drive from Medan airport to Toba. Since 2017 there is an international airport on Samosir, the island in the lake, and five times a week Air Asia operates a direct flight from Kuala Lumpur. Similarly, Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara, the main entryway to a fast-growing hotspot, will become an international airport in June.

Whether these new flight destinations have the capacity to handle a major influx of tourists, is anybody’s guess.

When Indonesia shows progress, it is more often a fruit that was grown in the garden of its vibrant private sector than something that was planted in a Government Park.A case in point is Go-Jek, the local start-up company that dared to challenge rivals like Uber and in the course of the past year has made a greater contribution to changes in the life of ordinary Indonesians than their Government.

In early December the company made the front page of the International New York Times as follows : “The company’s main app lets you summon a car or motorbike driver who could just give you a lift, sure — but who could also bring you takeout, shop for groceries or deliver a present to someone across town. With another Go-Jek app, Go-Life, you can hail someone to come cut your hair, give you a massage, clean your bathroom or change your car’s oil. And with the money you keep in Go-Jek’s digital wallet, you can pay your electricity bill, buy mobile data and book movie tickets — all within the app.”

Go-Jek’s founder and chief executive, Nadiem Makarim, who turned his start-up into a company valued at three billion dollars was recently commandeered into the Government and appointed as Minister of Education and Culture of the Republic.

As a climate refugee to this wonderful country I harbor absolutely no desire to ever return to my homeland. With my retirement visa I feel like a local.


By Willem Loots 

The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.

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