Water Palace of Tirta Gangga in East Bali, Karangasem
Over 75 million US citizens travel abroad each year. Only about 7 percent of them visit Asia, but that is still roughly 5 million people. But only a tiny percent of that number comes to Indonesia. Most of those who do come focus almost entirely on Bali, which has, of course, been the face of Indonesia for the international jet set for decades.
Most people I know back in Canada, where I’m from, and the US where I lived for 20 years, thought that “Bali” was a country – a picture-perfect tropical isle floating somewhere in the Pacific. The fact that Bali is part of a nation called Indonesia, which has the fourth-largest population on the planet (right behind the US, in fact) would come as quite a shock to most North Americans.
There are some logical reasons for this lack of American interest in Indonesia as a vacation destination. There are easy links between the US and many other Asian countries. Americans fought wars in Vietnam and Cambodia and welcomed large groups of refugees after those wars – families who now go back to their homelands regularly. Our large military presence in the Philippines and Thailand established many natural links there and a significant amount of inter-marriage. Chinese immigrants helped to build the North American railroads and have always had a prominent place in our cultural heritage. And not only is there a large and very successful diaspora of Japanese immigrants in America, there is also a sophisticated taste for all things Japanese including architectural and garden design, Zen Buddhism, sushi (and Japanese food in general), martial arts, cult movies and literature.
Indonesia on the other hand has remained unknown. There are very, very few Indonesian immigrants in America. Apart from the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and the Bali-focused Eat, Pray, Love, (plus, of course, the tsunami of 2004), Indonesia simply doesn’t come up on the American radar.
There are also some serious negatives that have filtered through the global press, including what The Jakarta Post contributor Duncan Graham calls one of the country’s “self-inflicted wounds”: “a cruel and illogical approach to the drug problem by maintaining the death penalty”. Graham is right. It’s not that American tourists would be stashing drugs in their backpacks or Gucci bags. It’s that countries with a law this primitive and archaic seem to demand some kind of conscientious-objector status, even one as simple as picking a different place to holiday. But this issue is probably not a deal breaker. Instead, when Americans do start exploring Indonesia online, or when the word spreads about a friend’s trip here, it is a series of pretty basic lifestyle issues that inevitably comes up to muddy the waters.
There is no doubt that getting around the country outside of the Bali infrastructure is challenging. The government’s proposed new digital tool, Travel X-Change Indonesia (TXI), should be a good start toward addressing this problem. There is also the well-publicized issue of local amenities. The backpackers may be willing to accept hostel accommodation with no air conditioning and Indonesian-style bathroom facilities, but most older American travelers will not. So providing at least some “full-service” accommodation and, just as importantly, making them accessible online, is clearly one key to attracting this market.
Another issue that bothers many actual or potential visitors from North America even more than these inconveniences is: the garbage. America recognized its litter problem back in the 1950s and anyone caught throwing anything on the ground in that country can face a stiff fine and be required to do community service. It should come as no surprise then that American travelers are appalled and often disgusted by the garbage strewn around many Indonesian cities and towns. People here genuinely don’t seem to consider it a problem to toss refuse on the ground or in the rivers, or to wade through piles of garbage at the side of roads. Much of the admiration and interest the Western traveler feels for the customs, the idiosyncrasies, the good humor and the warmth of the people dissipates at the sight and smell of the garbage. It is everywhere, and very few tourists pass through without noting it and spreading the word through online reviews and social media. To put this in a global perspective, Singapore is king in terms of cleanliness, while India and Indonesia are pretty close to the bottom of the list.
The good news is that there has been a dramatic improvement in the sanitation situation in many towns and cities across the nation since 2010 as a result of a host of initiatives at both public and private levels. One of the most significant is the Garbage Banks that originated in Yogyakarta but were developed fully in Surabaya, East Java, with the help of Unilever “do-good” funds – a project which has helped make Indonesia’s second largest city, virtually litter-free. The movement has now spread to 129 cities across the nation. This initiative is a perfect example of volunteerism and business working hand-in-hand. People bring in their garbage, it is weighed and the value is entered into their account and applied (with interest) to critical bills – often electricity bills or property taxes. This movement is gaining momentum and even though these programs still only account for about 14 percent of the overall garbage in the country, they are a promising start.
In an ideal world then, the high tech and big money proposals to build our tourism trade will include this type of grassroots initiatives aimed at educating the people here that garbage isn’t just bad for the environment and for their own and their children’s health, it is also one of the very few blots on Indonesian’s reputation internationally, and will inevitably affect the growth and prosperity of its tourism. Americans will come, but far more of them will come if we can make some improvements in this key area.
Barbara Russell is a Canadian and a professor of Humanities at the University of Maryland in the United States. She currently lives in Paiton, East Java, Indonesia, where she teaches online and works as a writer and editor.