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Bali eruptions fail to shake Indonesia tourism growth

President Widodo's backing for sector spurs 22% jump in foreign arrivals

The Raja Ampat islands, a diver's paradise in West Papua province, is one of the "10 new Balis" that Indonesia is preparing to boost its tourism sector. (Photo by Erwida Maulia)

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's increasingly assertive tourism campaign is finally bearing fruit, with a 22% jump in its foreign tourist arrivals last year -- despite sharp declines in visits to the popular resort island Bali as a result of volcanic eruptions.

The Central Statistics Agency, or BPS, on Thursday said the prolonged volcanic activity in Bali, Indonesia's top tourist destination, had caused the country to miss its target of 15 million foreign tourists in 2017. Authorities have retained their highest alert status on Bali's Mount Agung since September, although the no-entry danger zone has been reduced and airports on the island-province and nearby islands have resumed normal operations following a brief closure last year.

Nevertheless, the 21.88% jump to 14.04 million arrivals last year is double the growth recorded in previous years. Indonesia saw only an 8% and 12% increase in foreign tourist arrivals in 2015 and 2016 respectively. It is aiming for 17 million foreign tourists this year.

Chinese tourists topped the list for the second time in a row, with their numbers surging 36% to 1.95 million in 2017, followed by tourists from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and Japan. BPS chief Suharyanto said the number of Chinese tourists could have been higher if not for Beijing's travel warnings over the Mount Agung eruptions.

However, Chinese tourists contributed to the surge in foreign tourist arrivals in several other destinations, including North Sulawesi, home to the popular underwater park Bunaken.

"The biggest increase happened in Sam Ratulangi airport [in North Sulawesi] because of some direct chartered flights from China, and also because of new routes offered by several airlines," Suharyanto said.

The surges are believed to have been the result of more active marketing efforts, with the Tourism Ministry spending around 2 trillion rupiah ($149 million) on promoting tourist destinations last year, double the figure in 2016. The ministry said it will allocate 2.5 trillion rupiah for promotions this year, with China remaining a main target.

A plume of smoke above Mount Agung is illuminated at sunset in this photo taken from Bali on Nov. 30.   © Reuters

There were reported sightings last year of tourism ads carrying the slogan "Wonderful Indonesia" on public buses in Washington and a number of European cities, such as London, Frankfurt and Rome. In China, the tourism ministry partnered with China's top search engine Baidu.

In January, the ministry partnered with McDonald's to play an Indonesian tourism promotional video across 800 McDonald's outlets in Germany, according to Indonesian daily Kompas.

To further lure foreign tourists, Indonesia in 2016 introduced a visa-free policy for visitors from 169 countries.

Pushing the tourism sector is among President Joko Widodo's top development priorities, as it is expected to create jobs, fuel domestic consumption, bring in more foreign exchange reserves and eventually spur economic growth. According to new data from the World Travel & Tourism Council, travel and tourism currently contributes 6.2% of Indonesia's gross domestic product.

But despite abundant potential, an underdeveloped tourism sector has left Indonesia lagging far behind its regional peers such as Thailand and Malaysia, each of which expects to have received more than 30 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2017.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo sits on a jetty in Raja Ampat, Indonesia during his interview on Dec. 22, 2017. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Apart from marketing moves, Widodo has been pushing for infrastructure developments in areas the government has designated for new tourism destinations. These include the construction of ports, airports and roads to open access and allow the development of hotels and other tourism facilities.

In November last year, Widodo officially inaugurated an international airport near Lake Toba, the world's largest crater lake, in North Sumatra province, to allow direct flights from outside the country. In December, he inspected expansion work at an airport in Raja Ampat, the remote chain of islands in West Papua province popular with international divers.

"I want to create 10 tourist destinations like the island of Bali," Widodo told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview in Raja Ampat in December."This [Raja Ampat] is one of the candidates."

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