Malaysia pits itself as “truly Asia”; we’re told that it’s “more fun in the Philippines”, and Thailand – the Land of Smiles – promises to always amaze us. With Southeast Asia being a top tourism destination for everyone from backpackers to honeymooners, it’s no surprise that these fast-growing nations spread their catchy campaigns far and wide. A World Economic Forum report published last year stated that 10.9 per cent of the ASEAN GDP came from tourism, travel and its related benefits. Indirectly, the sector supports 25 million jobs in the region.
Just over a week ago, politicians, business leaders and journalists from around the world descended on the Nusa Dua resort in Bali to attend this year’s APEC CEO Summit. And the side event this year was the annual International Conference on Sustainable Development, co-hosted by Indonesia’s Ministry for Tourism and Creative Economy. Indeed, much of the two-day event focused on the economic and social benefits of sustainable tourism.
The island of Bali and the government of Indonesia both invested heavily in logistics and infrastructure around the APEC summit, hoping to attract more tourists to the already popular island. But are a new international airport terminal and connecting toll road really enough? While their neighbouring nations’ catchy slogans and well-shot TV campaigns are easy to remember, can anyone recall what Indonesia’s tourism message is? Apparently, the best that the country can come up with is “Wonderful Indonesia” alongside a few dry, PowerPoint-type TV spots advertising the country’s buoyant economy and workforce.
As discussed at the Sustainable Development conference (held on Indonesian soil no less), tourism is the third most important global activity. One in every 11 jobs worldwide depends on it and it’s one of the best tools for economic development. And while Indonesia, of course, doesn’t lack tourists, it lags behind Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand despite being considerably larger than all of them and offering just as much (if not more) geographical, cultural and social diversity.
Indonesia needs to get its tourism message out there. Aside from the nearly over-touristed Bali, travellers should be encouraged to explore some of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands that house over 300 diverse ethnic tribes and 700 languages and dialects. While it’s still got a long way to go in fixing its dire traffic situation, Jakarta is a great Southeast Asian city for a weekend break, full of energetic entrepreneurs opening great restaurants, shops and bars. Other major cities such as Yogyakarta and Bandung are hotbeds of young, creative talent for those in search of some design inspiration. With everything from Java’s rolling hills of rice paddies to Sulawesi’s rainforest and West Papua’s mountains, Indonesia should be capturing a bigger chunk of the millions of tourists that visit Southeast Asia each year.
And after spending some cash on a good global tourism message, it might be time to invest in retraining the pilots of Lion Air in just how to fly.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.