Cirebon, The Capital Of Ancient Javanese Sultanates In Urgent Need Of A Tourism Strategy

Cirebon is a rather small city for Indonesian standards with a population of only 300,000 inhabitants. Located in West Java, some 240 km north of Jakarta along Java coast, Cirebon holds however a special position in Indonesian history. It is considered one of the cradles of islam on Java Island with the first Islam arriving in the midst of the 15th century. Cirebon was then one of the oldest sultanates on the Island with Demak and Banten. For centuries, the city has been a city of islam teaching and knowledge but also an important trading centre, which explains notable Chinese, Arab-Islamic and European influences.

Cirebon Sang Cipta Rasa mosque is one of the oldest – if not the oldest- in Indonesia. It shows an amazing architecture of intricate wood, walls of red bricks and carved stones all covered by a Hindu-influenced roof evocating Mount Neru.

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Nearby Kasepuhan Keraton (traditional Javanese Palace) was built originally at the end of the 15th century. It is today Cirebon most visited attraction with over 90,000 tourists in a year.
Cirebon has certainly all the ingredients to make it an attractive tourist destination for foreign travellers. It is easily accessible by train- three hours only with a dozen of daily services to Jakarta. It has some 40 hotels with 10 being star-rated properties representing some 1,700 rooms.

But above all, it has an extremely rich history. It is probably the only city today in Indonesia with three classical Keraton still inhabited by Sultans; It still has two dozens of colonial style buildings dating back from the Dutch time; it has old mosques, gastronomy specialties – Empal gentong soup is a mild curry beef soup flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon and Nasi Jamblang, some small dishes with a special rice cooked in a wood leaves providing a unique flavour. Cirebon is home to Topeng mask dances and of a well-famed batik motive. Megamendung Batik is characterized by stylized clouds, showing the influence of Chinese arts brought once by merchants to this trading port.

However, Cirebon still does not seem ready to embrace international tourism despite its wealth of attractions. It remains essentially a domestic destination –particularly by welcoming locals from Jakarta and Bandung during the week-end. According to the latest data from 2012 published by the Office for Culture and Tourism of Cirebon, total tourist arrivals to the city reached by then 477,207 with less than five percent being international visitors (20,600 arrivals). It is likely that this number is up now, as international arrivals grew from 2009 to 2012 by 2000%!

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The problem is more about the way to go around, to discover and to enjoy Cirebon. They are little signage in English (little signage generally in town) indicating where to go or where major attractions are located. Many of Cirebon streets lack pavements, red lights to cross over the street safely or city maps…

Although Kasepuhan keraton is partially indicated, they are no mentions in the streets about the two other keratons of Kanoman and Kacirebonan. Inside Kasepuhan Keraton – Cirebon largest palace with its amazing structures dating between the 16th and the late 19th century- foreign visitors will desperately look for a single signage in English. A surprising absence despite the fact that foreigners are charged 3.5 time more for an entrance ticket than locals.

The most foreign-friendly place to visit remains however the far-less exposed Kacirebon Keraton. First because they are chances to meet and speak with the local sultan, a very affable personality. And to get a member of the royal family making a tour of the palace –with the possibility to watch a concert or traditional topeng dances as well as to eat traditional royal food.

It would only take limited steps and little money to improve Cirebon tourism experience: starting for example by the creation of circuits such as Royal Heritage, Islamic Heritage or Dutch Heritage with clear signage to walk individually around the city.

A single visitor’s ticket could also be created for travellers opening the access to all the Sultan’s palaces. This could then help to spread tourism benefits beyond the sole Kasepuhan Keraton. Compared to the 90,000 visitors of the Kasepujan palace, both Keraton Kanoman and Kacireebonan received each less than 4,000 annual visitors in 2012.