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Indonesia's efforts to boost tourism

Yuko Fukushima

Sep. 21, 2017

Indonesia has long depended on exports of oil and other resources to expand its economy. But now, the government is looking for other sources of growth. One area getting much attention is tourism.

Indonesia is made up of 17,000 islands -- many harboring pristine beaches and lush rainforests. Officials across the country hope to take advantage of these natural assets. They're also working on other creative projects aimed at luring visitors from overseas.

Lombok Island is considered to have some of Indonesia's most beautiful beaches. It's only an hour's boat ride from Bali, but has far fewer tourists than the famous resorts across the water. "The water is very clear, Nice and sunny. Absolutely beautiful," says a tourist.

Foreign visitors are spoilt for choice in Indonesia -- from temples to markets, rainforests to coral reefs. But the vast majority travel no further than Bali, Jakarta, or Batam Island near Singapore. The government wants to change that. It's designated 10 regions to be developed as new tourist destinations. Top priority is a district on Lombok Island called Mandalika.

Apart from a beautiful beach, there is hardly any tourist entertainment in Mandalika. But now, the government is massively investing in the area to make it into an enormous resort area like the one in Bali. The Mandalika development project has been designated a special economic zone. The resort will aim to pull in 3 million tourists a year by 2019. Facilities will include a hotel complex, auto race circuit, and water theme park.

Construction workers are already on the job. Officials say the resort will be ready by 2019. Taufan Rahmadi is the government's man in charge of the project. As appealing as they are, Taufan says white sandy beaches, mountain backdrop and exotic wildlife are not enough. He wants attractions that really stand out.

Taufan says they're currently building a mosque. The new mosque will be big enough to accommodate 2,000 worshipers. But size is not the main draw. It has a round roof. "The design takes from Bayan mosque, traditional mosque in Lombok," explains Taufan.

95 percent of the residents on Lombok Island are Muslims. The ethnic Sasaks follow an unorthodox version of Islam – and their buildings have a distinct architecture. The new mosque reflects that local style, creating a religious landmark that Taufan hopes will intrigue Muslims from other countries.

"The Indonesian government believes developing the tourism industry is one of the best ways to promote national growth. I hope to make Mandalika a place that will attract Muslim tourists from around the world," says Taufan.

The tourism drive is not restricted to the government's priority regions. An area in Semarang city, about an hour's plane ride from Jakarta, is attracting attention for its colorful buildings and houses. The vivid colors cry out for social media attention. And it seems to have worked. People now come here to take pictures.

"The village is quite unique and colorful. I wanted to come see it." "It's very pretty and clean now, but it used to be a slum before it was painted," say the tourists. That's not an exaggeration. Before its technicolor makeover, the village was a shade of grey.

Village officials wanted to change the environment. Making use of a 25,000-dollar donation from local businesses, officials and residents rolled up their sleeves and got to work. By the time the paint ran out, some 240 houses, roads and bridges were ready for the cameras.

"I never imagined our village would become a tourist destination. But once we finished painting, people started coming from outside the village. Nowadays, we're getting visitors from abroad," says Erwin Sumarah, Deputy Head of the Wonsari tourism village board.

The mega paint job has boosted incomes, created jobs and made the village safer. Most importantly, the benefits are trickling down to those who need them most.

A woman who operates a shop in the village used to sell soap and cigarettes, but barely made enough to get by. Now, she makes smoothies for tourists -- and the profits are sweet. "They say they're going to make the painted area twice as large as it is now. If more people come to the village, I can make more money," she says.

Indonesia has given its neighbors a big head-start in tourism, and the industry still has a lot of ground to cover. Public and private sectors are responding with creative ideas – and that's another resource Indonesia seems to have in abundant supply.


NHK's Jakarta Bureau Chief Shinnosuke Kawashima and NHK World's Yuko Fukushima join Newsroom Tokyo anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya.

Shibuya: Yuko, the tourists you spoke to seem to be having a good time. How does Indonesia compare to other destinations in Southeast Asia in terms of the number of visitors?

Fukushima: Last year, about 11 million foreign tourists visited the country. That number has been tracking up since the Joko administration took office. But Indonesia still lags far behind Malaysia's 26 million and Thailand's 32 million. The Jakarta government says it wants to double the number of overseas tourists to 20 million by 2019. If it can reach this target, officials estimate foreign currency revenues will be worth 20 billion dollars.

Shibuya: Shinnosuke, why has Indonesia taken so long to develop its tourism industry -- especially when you consider all the natural attractions in that country?

Kawashima: The main reason, quite simply, is the government never really gave the tourism industry much attention. But that's changed since President Joko Widodo's government took office. His administration has been looking for ways to end the country's dependence on oil exports.

Tourism is an obvious candidate for boosting revenue, creating jobs and growing the economy. The government also sees tourism as a means to increase incomes in regional areas, where development is falling behind the big cities.

Nakayama: I assume the obvious target market for Indonesia is Muslim tourists.

Kawashima: Yes, the video showed the new mosque under construction on Lombok Island. Muslims make up about a quarter of the world's population. Indonesia certainly has an advantage over Thailand, for example, in attracting these people. Culture, food, places to pray -- it's all so much easier for Muslims to relax in this country. That's why tourism officials are joining trade expos in the Middle East to get the message out.

Nakayama: We've talked about the priority zones. What else is the government doing?

Kawashima: The first thing it did was make entry procedures easier for tourists. Back in 2015, officials granted a visa exemption to short-term visitors from 45 countries. More recently, President Joko himself has been promoting his country as a tourist destination whenever he goes abroad.

The government has also been focusing on building airports and other infrastructure. But some of the construction projects are falling behind schedule. There are also safety concerns. Tourists have been involved in a number of accidents, including sinking ships. The fear of a possible terrorist attack has also scared away some visitors. So the government will need to make safety and security issues a priority if it hopes to make the tourism industry a pillar of the economy.

Shibuya: Yuko, your reports this week have shown us 3 different aspects of the economy. What's your overall impression of the country?

Fukushima: I met people from various walks of life, from government officials to IT gurus, middle class consumers to those living in the slums. I found Indonesians to be very easy-going, vibrant and full of energy -- that's on a personal level and in business.

20 years after the Asian Financial crisis, Indonesia has done well, growing its economy by exporting natural resources. But now the country really needs to think about how to restructure its economy and find alternative sources of revenue. Tourism and IT are showing a lot of promise.

Whatever direction it goes in, the demographics are positive -- this is a young country with plenty of potential. What's needed most from the government are inclusive policies that ensure all 250 million people will benefit in the years ahead.