Indonesia Can’t Get its Tourism Act Together

Indonesia Can’t Get its Tourism Act Together

They call it ‘Wonderful Indonesia!’ Or Maybe Not

Millions of television viewers in multiple countries often see advertisements encouraging them to come to “Wonderful Indonesia.” The nation does indeed have an amazing number of actual or potential tourist attractions – historic sites, natural wonders, beautiful beaches, interesting buildings, wildlife, arts and local customs. It also now has okay hotels, a web of air links and some comfortable if slow trains, at least in Java.

Yet what seems singularly lacking to this recent visitor is much sense of pride in its history which could be communicated to tourists who want to do more than lie on beaches, climb volcanoes or simply enjoy the scenery.

The 1,200-year-old temples of Borobudur (Buddhist) and Prambanan (Hindu) close to Yogyakarta are World Heritage sites that clearly qualify as wonderful. Yet visiting them again for the first time in more than a decade this tourist was struck by the total lack on information available to explain the stories and the symbolism of the successive tiers of stone carvings which comprise this remarkable building. No guidebooks even in Bahasa, let alone English, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

Visitors interested in more than taking photos of the temple and themselves need to either have acquired a guide book before they arrive – which is difficult – or pay for the services of a local guide who can explain some of the basics and point out a few of the most noteworthy features. Ones speaking various languages are available but this is not cheap, the guides’ knowledge appears limited and does not provide visitors with a record of the building which they can keep as mementoes and study at their leisure. Nor is there much sense that this is a religious monument which requires as much respect as a mosque or church. Much the same situation prevails at Prambanan.

At Borobudur, exhibits in the nearby museum are poorly displayed. Lack of information also means few visit the nearby museum housing the Samudraraksa, the replica of a ship illustrated by Borobudur reliefs which in 2003 was sailed from Jakarta to the Seychelles, Madagascar, Cape Town and Accra (Ghana). Built with traditional tools and materials, the ship provides the most tangible reminder of the sailing feats of the Indonesians who settled Madagascar and traded to Africa and Arabia in the first millennium, and later.

A book about the expedition exists published by the Lontar Foundation– this writer has one from a previous visit – but is no longer available at the museum. Yet at a time when President Joko Widodo is focusing attention on the contemporary importance of maritime issues, Indonesia should be making as much fuss about its achievements as China does with Zheng He’s voyages nearly a thousand years later.

Perhaps modern Indonesia has become so concerned with being Islamic that it forgets that its most celebrated achievements predate the arrival of Islam. Not that there is much sense of pride in Java’s first mosques. Built in the north Java towns, Demak, Kudus and Jepara, then trading cities, the mixture of local Hindu, Chinese and Persian influences in their (very different) designs provide a fascinating insight into how Islam arrived with trade. Yet do not expect to find much information on site, let alone in multiple languages.

That is again the case for tourists who, starting from Yogya or Semarang, take the slow but stunningly beautiful winding road through precariously terraced hillsides to the mist-enshrouded 7th century Hindu temples, bubbling volcanic rocks and sulphurous lakes 2,000 meters up on Central Java’s Dieng Plateau. This “abode of the gods,” once home to dozens of temples of which a few are left, was the spiritual center of the Sanjaya dynasty. Understandably, foreigners have to pay more than locals to visit. But unless a visitor arrives with a guidebook, there is nothing to explain the history and significance of the site.

Jakarta with its traffic, pollution and shortage of historic buildings cannot be high up on any tourist’s itinerary. Yet, given its collections at the National Museum, situated on the west side of Merdeka square opposite the National Monument, should be a place for showing Indonesia’s history and culture. But the exhibits are bizarrely organized and poorly presented. Some important artefacts lack any description or one only in Bahasa. Part of the museum housing large statuary is currently closed for renovation so maybe eventually the whole museum will emerge rejuvenated. But there is a long way to go – and also a need for the kind of guidebook, in several languages, which is the norm at most significant museums. 

All told, this visitor’s experience of a few days sightseeing was that if the responsible authorities in Indonesia had a greater sense of national pride, the tourist would come away with a much better impression. The apparent official disinterest in showing off the history and achievements of its peoples contrasts with the efforts of a private group, the Lontar Foundation, to preserve legacies such as illuminated Javanese manuscripts, and the Bugis chronicle, La Galigo, and promote modern Indonesian culture and writing, including having success in bringing its authors to international attention.

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