Indonesia contains great potential in the tourism sector; both in the travel industry and the tourism services industry. Late last year, Indonesia's Tourism and Creative Economy minister Marie Elka Pangestu said that tourism contributed about four percent to Indonesia's GDP growth, up half a percentage point from 2011. However, considering the beauty and variety of Indonesia's natural scenery, its diverse cultures, tropical climate and a metropolitan capital city, this figure should resemble the situation in Thailand where the tourism sector contributes about 6.5 percent to the country's GDP. Moreover, a rise in importance of the tourism sector towards the economy will have a positive impact on much-needed job creation in Indonesia as tourism boosts demand for local goods and services.

Indonesian Tourism in Regional Perspective

Compared to its regional peers, Indonesia attracts relatively few foreign visitors. In 2012, Indonesia managed to attract a little over eight million foreign visitors, a number which is in stark contrast with its neighbouring countries Singapore (about 14 million), Malaysia (about 25 million) or Thailand (about 22 million). As each foreign tourist is estimated to spend over US $1000 on average per visit (for food, shelter, travel expenses, souvenirs, tourist attractions), it is a lucrative foreign exchange earner that can stimulate Indonesia's local economies.

Through its Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, Indonesia promotes itself as a tourist destination in foreign countries. With its "Wonderful Indonesia" campaign it targets for nine million visitors in 2013 and desires an annual growth rate of nine percent in terms of foreign arrivals. The table below shows a steady increase in foreign visitor arrivals in Indonesia in recent years. By far most of these visitors entered Indonesia through the ports in Bali (Ngurah Rai Airport), Jakarta (Soekarno-Hatta Airport) and Batam (Sekupang Seaport and Hang Nadim Airport).

Table 1

       2007      2008      2009      2010      2011      2012
Total Number of
Foreign Visitors
 5,505,759  6,234,497  6,323,730  7,002,944  7,649,731  8,044,462

Source: Statistics Indonesia

When we take a look at the last decade and calculate the percentage increase of foreign arrivals in Indonesia up to 2012, it shows an increase of 60.0 percent. This figure is much lower compared to increases in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia during the same period (see table 2 below).

Table 2

   2012¹    Growth
Indonesia     5.0     8.0     60.0%
Malaysia    13.3    25.0     88.0%
Singapore     7.6    14.4     89.5%
Thailand    10.8    22.3    106.5%

¹ numbers are in millions

What can explain this lower performance of Indonesia? Obviously, terrorist bombings such as the 2002/2005 Bali bombings and the 2009 Ritz-Carlton/Marriott bombings in Jakarta made a negative impact as tourists tended to ignore Indonesia in following months (the increase in number of tourists from 2008 to 2009 was therefore limited as can be seen in table 1). Indonesia rarely makes news headlines in western media, but when it does, it is usually Islamic radicalism or natural disasters (such as the 2004 tsunami) that people learn about, and which bring an undue negative image of the country. Although Thailand also had its share of floods, political turmoil and terrorism over the years, it was still able to post significantly increased numbers of foreign tourists in the last decade.

When we analyze the contents of the government-sponsored 'Wonderful Indonesia' videos, it is therefore no coincidence nor surprise that it contains few Islamic symbols, and instead stresses the country's Hindu-Buddhist past as well as its exquisite countryside (after all, that is what tourists are looking for), despite the omnipresence of Islam in everyday life in - particularly the more populous western half of - Indonesia. As an illustration, the Wonderful Indonesia 2013 video is included at the bottom of this column.

If we do not take 2002 as our starting point, we see that Indonesia still somewhat trails behind its regional peers in terms of attracting foreign tourists (but has taken over Malaysia's position).

Table 3

   % Growth
 % Growth
Indonesia      46.1%          5.2%
Malaysia      19.4%       1.3%
Singapore      39.8%       9.1%
Thailand      53.8%      16.0%

Indonesia's Untapped Tourism Potential

Indonesia is not only Southeast Asia's largest economy, but it is also one of Asia's largest countries in terms of physical size. But when we take a look at table 2 above it seems to be a paradox that the country attracted few tourists in 2012 compared to its regional peers. Do these numbers imply that Indonesia contains less interesting cultures, a less beautiful countryside, a less vibrant society, and less interesting historic sites than its neighbours? No, and in fact I dare to say the opposite.  The country has more than plenty to offer to most segments of international tourism. Indonesia's eastern half contains ample untapped places for snorkeling and surfing, the country - as a whole - contains hundreds of interesting cultures, exquisite countryside as well as historic sites, and the big cities contain a vibrant night life. Apart from creating more international awareness about Indonesia as a tourist destination (through government sponsored programs), there are of course other matters that need to be streamlined before this potential can be tapped. These matters include supporting infrastructure (airports, roads, hotels) and education. These issues will be discussed in a following column.

This column is the first installment of a three-part series on Indonesia's tourism sector. Next editions will focus on patterns of domestic and foreign tourism in Indonesia, and on issues that are blocking Indonesia's tourism industry from reaching its full potential.

Wonderful Indonesia 2013