Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Indonesia Is Losing the Race to Cash In on Nature

Indonesia has its own areas of natural beauty, like Mount Bromo in East Java, but hasn't managed to put the kind of management in place that allows it to cash in on nature. (Antara Photo/UmarulOne major difference between Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia is that Singapore has almost no wild nature, Malaysia has some, and Indonesia has plenty. But when we look at who actually goes to visit this nature, the order is reversed. Singapore’s and Malaysia’s nature receive far more visitors than Indonesia’s. And those people also pay much more for the received service.

How did Singapore and Malaysia manage to make business out of something they don’t actually have all that much of?

I was thinking about this conundrum last week when I had to be in Singapore, trying to once again adhere to the continuously changing Indonesian visa and work permit regulations. But this is not a piece complaining about Indonesian bureaucracy, immigration rules, or the country’s attitude to foreign professionals. Rather, I want to look at why Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia manage their nature assets so differently.

Obviously, one thing that Singapore and Malaysia know how to do very well is to cater to general mass tourism. According to World Bank data, Singapore received nearly 12 million visitors in 2013, Malaysia some 26 million, but Indonesia only 9 million.

The differences are obvious in simple things, like the fact that at Changi Airport your bag is waiting on the luggage carousel by the time you’re done with immigration. In contrast, after making it past the immigration queues in Soekarno-Hatta, your arrival in Indonesia starts with a 30 or 45 minutes wait before the bags finally come through at slow intervals. At least the rather humorous sign, “Malaysia Truly Asia” that used to hang in Terminal 2 arrivals has now been removed, so we are all a little less confused.

Singapore and Malaysia excel in providing high quality service. Take a visit to Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, not real nature, but a pretty nice replication of it. Now they make you pay, S$28, to see an indoor garden. But it is actually well worth it if you like seeing a stunning array of flowers. Its success is obvious in the loads of people it attracts. In 2014, the gardens received 6.4 million visitors. Multiply this with the entry price, and it adds up to $125 million dollar of gross income per year. Not bad for a garden.

And people really like it. On Tripadvisor, the Gardens by the Bay, get an average 4.5 stars, with 94 percent of the visitors considering the attraction “very good” or “excellent.” In comparison, Indonesia’s most advanced competitor, the Botanic Gardens in Bogor, receive just over one million visitors per year, of which some 32,000 are foreigners. With a ticket price of about $1, a quick calculation suggests that the gardens generate about $1.3 million in annual revenues, or about 1 percent of those in Singapore.

These are gardens though, so how do things compare for real nature? One of Malaysia’s most visited national parks, Kinabalu in Sabah, receives some 500,000 visitors every year, each paying between $5 and $50 (depending on age and nationality) to climb the mountain, generating some $10 to $25 million of income per year.

On the Indonesian side of Borneo, Tanjung Puting National Park is the most popular with tourists, attracting some 7,000 annual visitors (both local and international), about 1.5 percent the number of people visiting Kinabalu. Tanjung Puting visitors generate some $140,000 in entrance fees. Even Indonesia’s most popular park, Mount Bromo in East Java, which receives nearly 200,000 people per year, probably generates less than $700,000 in annual entrance fees.

Why are so few people visiting Indonesia’s nature? I guess, it does boil down to quality of service and access. With nine out of 10 of the world’s most unsafe airlines operating in Indonesia, it is not always easy to get to an Indonesian park in one piece.

And once you are there, the quality of accommodation, park guides, trails, and ease of seeing wildlife is generally really poor. On Mount Kinabalu you see numerous rare and endangered species close to the park headquarters. In Indonesian parks, many mammals have been poached and birds caught and caged.

The poor management of Indonesian parks needs to change if the government wants to cash in on nature’s bounty. Either the government authorities need to step up their level of professionalism and management accountability, or the government should step aside, and allow the private sector in, as I argued earlier.

Indonesia is able to deliver high-quality services in rural areas. Stay at an AMAN resort hotel, if you need an example. But the country needs to stop striving for mediocrity in park management and involve professionals who know what they are doing.

Indonesia is sitting on an extremely valuable and increasingly rare commodity – wild nature. But Indonesia does such a poor job compared to its neighbors in generating revenues from it.

I wrote about a magical island I visited somewhere in Indonesia a while ago. I would love to get my hands on the management of such an island and am sure that I could turn it into a really well managed protected area with fantastic nature viewing.

But for now, the conservation authorities do not seem likely to give up control of protected area management any time soon. That’s a loss to Indonesia, unless these authorities are forced to improve their act.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative


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