curiosity about the ways of the world

Indonesia: waiting for tourists to come

Welcome to the first Global Gossip of 2008. I’ve been pestering Dougal for this for ages but he had work to do in Brazil. And Glasgow. As if that was any excuse. Anyway well worth the wait to see why Dougal Perman thinks we should choose Indonesia for a holiday (and remember, for some it’s destination of choice for weddings too). Photographs by Andrea McCarthy of My Talking Dog (see more on Flickr)



“Taxi? For tomorrow?”
A line of men sitting on the pavement try to entice us to rent their cab. There are many taxi drivers here in Ubud, a beautiful world heritage village in the centre of Bali, Indonesia. But not many tourists.

Indonesia is one of the most beautiful, interesting and exciting places on earth yet people don’t visit in the same numbers as they do in Thailand, Malaysia, or Vietnam. In two weeks travelling around Bali, Java and Sumatra, I saw incredible places and met wonderful people. I just wish, for the country’s sake, more tourists would come.


Waiting for sunrise on Mount Bromo, not as lonely as it looks

Despite tens of thousands of islands in the archipelago, Indonesia is well set up to accommodate tourists. Hopping islands by plane or boat is inexpensive and on land, buses or taxis can take you wherever you want to go. In cities the becak bicycle taxis are very cheap and good fun. There are so many taxi and becak drivers that competition is high and prices low. You have to haggle but there are so few tourists drivers have very little to do all day and they are happy to wait around to take travellers from one place to the next. In Jogjakarta, three young guys took us from street stall for dinner to a bar then a club, waiting several hours in-between each trip. If you don’t want to take a becak the best response is “jelang jelang, aja” which means “just walking around.” This is a common reply and acceptable pastime.

Private enterprise is everywhere. In towns and cities, hawkers sell almost everything from food to counterfeit goods but they can be surprisingly trusting. On the commercialandrea.jpg stretch of Kuta beach, Andrea decided to get her nails done. Three ladies pounced on her and did nails, eyebrows and feet too, refusing to take “no” for an answer. She didn’t have enough change to pay for this mini makeover so waited patiently for Paddy and I to get back from the DVD store with more money. Meanwhile the ladies moved on to work on someone else, trusting her to find them when she could pay.

I did spot one gap in the market: no one was selling batteries.

On top of Mount Bromo, an active volcano best viewed at sunrise, I was amazed by the climbingbromo.jpgvariety of things to buy. Following a very early morning jeep journey to the summit, we found stalls selling hot drinks, soup and snacks, warm clothes, waterproofs and souvenirs. Up on the viewing hill, which provides a great view of the smoking mouth of the volcano as the sun comes up, people wove between the spectators selling disposable cameras, film, hats and other bits and pieces. I did spot one gap in the market, though: no one was selling batteries, which would have been very useful. An opportunity there.

After we had photographed the sunrise, one man approached me with his camera. He was a teacher and was with his history class. I thought he wanted me to take a photo of him with his students but instead found they wanted to snap Andrea, Paddy and me. Amused, we agreed and then the paparazzi ensued: teacher, students and families all took turns to pose with us. Paddy told us that he’s been in remote tribal villages and seen pictures of random Westeners on the walls. Tourists – a novelty here – are welcomed and appreciated everywhere. And everybody smiles, almost all the time.


Dougal surrounded by new friends

The people are amazing: hospitable, kind and genuinely interested in meeting visitors. “Welcome to Indonesia!” one old man greeted us, bowing slightly, as we passed by in the front seat of a becak in Jogja. On the same journey, another passer by asked our driver where we were going. “The bird market”, he informed the passer by. “Ah,” he replied, “enjoy!”

Internal tourism is relatively healthy as people explore their incredible country onmonkey1.jpg holiday. In Bali we encountered lots of Australians, Italians and Japanese, who all visit fairly often. But hardly any tourists visit Aceh, in North Sumatra, the area worst hit by the 2004 tsunami.

Paddy is working in social development and conflict resolution projects in areas like Aceh, where although peace agreements have been made between rebels and rulers, fighting can break out at any time. Although the area is politically unstable it is a fascinating place. Seeing the lasting effects of the tsunami and efforts to rebuild communities near Banda Aceh was moving and inspiring.

Risks, threats and dangers are responsible for declining tourism to Indonesia over the past ten years. The tsunami, like the Bali bombing, cannot be forgotten. Yet none of these reasons should deter people from visiting an incredible country. Terrorism can occur anywhere – we have all been aware of increasing activity in the West since 2001. Natural disasters can happen anywhere too. (An earthquake shook books of shelves in Rugby last week).

In places such as Vietnam or Thailand, many travellers seek out “unspoilt” areas to feelpaddynewfriends.jpg they are getting “off the beaten track”. While I usually seek the solace of solo sightseeing, I was so impressed by the beauty of the people and their culture and moved by the country waiting for the tourists who don’t come, that I would urge everybody to consider Indonesia as a holiday destination. I am lucky enough to be going back soon for Paddy’s wedding [that’s Paddy on the left]. I can’t wait!


Mount Bromo, Monkey Sanctuary, and sunset over Ubud

Next time you are picking a holiday, check out Indonesia. There’s loads to see and do, people are welcoming, the land is fascinating, travel, accommodation, food and drink are all cheap and until people overcome their reservations and begin to visit again in more significant numbers, you’ll never have to wait long for a taxi!

Dougal is programme director of new media production company Inner Ear Ltd


  1. Andy

    Dougal, I absolutely agree! Indonesia is a wonderful country and somewhere that everyone should visit – there’s something for everyone from the seriously adventurous to the more cautious tourist.

    Having been there a few years ago (shortly after the Bali bombings), I couldn’t believe how empty of tourists some places were which would have had queues stretching for miles anywhere else in the world. While this made for a beautifully undisturbed experience, it also left me wondering about all the empty gift stalls and empty car parks at places such as Borobudur and Prambanan (amazingly ancient temples on Java both listed as World Heritage Sites)…what are all the people doing now who previously gained a living from these places? While tourism can spoil places for some people, it also provides a vital income for others.

    Looking forward to a return visit for Paddy’s wedding…see you there!

  2. Administrator

    It sounds wonderful Dougal but part of me is thinking there’s a paradox here: welcoming people, beautiful country and not many tourists, that really is paradise.

    I wonder if there is a way of establishing a new, more sustainable kind of tourist industry that really benefits local people and doesn’t destroy the environment – making people more vulnerable to natural disasters?

  3. Anny

    Maybe instead of batteries you could bring a supply of recyclable batteries and solar powered chargers? With the rupiah
    proceeds and space in spare my rucksack I could bring back some indonesian clothing and other amazing asian goodies, the start of a low-scale import/export business.

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