SPECIAL ATF: Should Indonesia Tourism Become Vocal Against Radicalism?

Minister of Tourism Arief Yayia wants to lower VAT refund minimum

Indonesia is an amazing mosaic of people, cultures, religions. However, the recent rise of radicalism and fanaticism in a small portion of the population could tarnish deeply the image of the country and harm its booming tourism. Is it time for tourism officials to speak out more loudly against any form of radicalism?

Indonesia has been very successful in recent years to build up democratic institutions, develop its economy and boost its tourism. Just between 2010 and 2017, the total number of foreign travellers to Indonesia almost doubled. In 2010, the country welcomed just over seven million foreign visitors. Last year -according to data for the first 11 months of 2017, total foreign arrivals reached 12.68 million, up by 21.84%. It is likely that the Southeast Asian nation passed the 14-million arrivals cap last year.

Tourists continue to go to Indonesia thanks to Bali strong iconic status (42% of market share during the first 11 months of 2017), far ahead of Jakarta (20.5% market share) or the Riau Archipelago (14.75% market share). In recent years, strong growth has been recorded in direct international tourist arrivals to North Sumatra and East Java due to better international connections. Both Medan and Surabaya airports recorded over 220,000 international visitors during the first 11 months of 2017.

Success for Indonesia tourism cannot be denied and the Ministry is optimistic to reach 20 million international visitors by 2020 -although a target of 18 million foreign arrivals might be more realistic. However, rise of fanaticism in the country in the last three years could put a cast over the bright perspectives of the travel industry.

Last year, massive demonstrations in Jakarta in May against the former city governor, saw the streets of the city centre invaded with protesting crowds wearing black flags with Jawi (Arabic) writing -similar to the flags used by ISIS- while girls in hijab were showing signage calling for the creation of an Indonesian Caliphate. Incidents involved Muslim radicals attacking young mall workers in Surabaya while being dressed with Christmas hats during a promotional event. Although isolated incidents, the images shown abroad would definitely affect the positive image of the country.

Talking in exclusivity with Indonesia Tourism Minister Arief Yahya, the latter acknowledges the issue. “Yes, we do have radical elements but this is a very tiny portion of our population. It does exist also in other countries. I can assure that all travellers are warmly welcomed by Indonesians who will show their sense of welcome to foreigners. This is our tradition. We strongly condemn any radicalism which actually destroy the fundamentals of our society”, said the Minister.

Indonesia traditional image versus radical trend. Left: Javanese dancer at a Puppet festival in Jakarta- right: members of the Islamist Radical Party during a demonstration in Jakarta last year.

But then comes a typical Indonesian behaviour when looking at communication. Most Indonesians generally feel that if they know something, everyone else should normally know it as well. Over that perception, there is the idea that talking about something negative is actually bad in terms of communication.

It could effectively be negative in terms of promotion but how to remain silent once media worldwide start to spread images of fanaticism? The Ministry should better work out a communication strategy if the problem comes out.

Looking again at the rise of Indonesia radicalism, it would certainly be good to explain publicly to the rest of the world that radical movements are actions conducted by minorities and that Indonesia is still a land of beautiful diversity and tolerance. Could the Ministry drop its natural shyness and let international tourism campaigns stress more the message of a multi-cultural, diverse Indonesia? it would not harm for sure!