REVIVING TOURISM AMID COVID-19, what to do?

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(Photo: Prive. Doc)

IO – The tourism sector has been of the worst-hit by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. According to Statistics Indonesia, the numbers of domestic and foreign tourists have plummeted since the country clamped down with travel restrictions and closed its borders to non-residents, in an effort to contain the coronavirus.

Throughout 2020, foreign tourist arrivals in Indonesia were recorded at mere 4.02 million visits, plunging by well over 75 percent compared to the year before. Top nationalities of foreign travelers to Indonesia during the year were Timor Leste, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and China.

According to Worldometer, as of April 9, 2021, Covid-19 cases in Indonesia are still on the rise. Indonesia is now the 20th worst-hit country in the world, recording 1,558,145 positive cases, mainly due to its people’s lack of discipline in implementing health guidelines.

Thus, to accelerate the recovery of the country’s vital tourism industry, it is imperative that all tourism stakeholders, operators, and the community realize how crucial it is to consistently adhere to health protocols.

Since his appointment as the Tourism and Creative Economy Minister, Sandiaga Uno has come up with what is known as the “Gercep, Geber, Gaspol” (act quick, act together, and all out) policy to spur Indonesia’s tourism industry recovery, through the accelerated development of tangible and intangible infrastructure in the five Super Priority Tourism Destinations (5-DPSP), in line with President Joko Widodo’s directive. The five “premium” destinations are Lake Toba, Borobudur Temple, Labuan Bajo, Mandalika, and Likupang.

Minister Sandi’s prompt visits to those destinations were meant to identify problems there first hand and come up with practical solutions, as well as to provide support for the downcast tourism operators so they can ride out the pandemic and rebuild their businesses and lives.

In fact, the challenges facing the tourism industry in the pandemic era can be condensed into three areas, namely, how to contain Covid-19 transmission, revive the local economy, and create Covid-safe destinations.

The intensive visits by Minister Sandi to the regions will result more effective monitoring and synergy with local governments, along with a joint effort by the “pentahelix” components – academics, businesses, community, government, and media – to spearhead recovery of the tourism industry.

The making of Mandalika and the Revival of Bali

One of the 5-DPSPs that is currently in the global spotlight is the Mandalika Special Economic Zone (SEZ), intended to be developed over the next 30 years. Mandalika SEZ is slated to be the leading tourism destination on Lombok island, West Nusa Tenggara (NTB). Sitting on 1,034 hectares of land, it is managed by PT Indonesia Tourism Development Corporate (ITDC), a state-owned company with successful portfolios that include the Nusa Dua area in Bali.

Currently, Mandalika SEZ is busy completing the construction of MotoGP circuit, claimed to be the most magnificent yet in the world. If the homologation (certification) goes smoothly, it is predicted that in March 2022 one of the biggest sporting events in the world will take place for the first time in Indonesia since 1996.

However, it will not be a smooth ride for Mandalika SEZ, as its development is hampered by many issues, chief among them being the environment. The NTB chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) has demanded the government and related parties review its Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal), following a devastating flood that hit the Kuta village and several other surrounding villages around Mandalika. The environmental advocacy NGO said a review is critical to ensure that the amdal used to justify the development of Mandalika is truly legitimate to avoid future disasters.

Apart from the environment, another issue that currently plagues the mega project is the alleged human rights violations raised by UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier De Schutter. He asserted that the US$3 billion tourism project has involved aggressive land grabs and forced evictions of indigenous people. “Farmers and fisherfolks have been expelled from their land and have endured the destruction of their houses, fields, water sources, cultural and religious sites,” said Olivier. He then urged the Indonesian government to respect human rights and rule of law.

It must be admitted that issues related to the environment and land are sensitive and often draw public attention, whether at the regional, national or even international level. On the other hand, the current dynamics show how strategic Mandalika is in world’s eyes, so that anything that is going on on the ground, especially related to the livelihood and welfare of the local community, is closely monitored. We know that the Mandalika project can’t be abruptly halted. Trillions of Rupiah have already been invested. Furthermore, as the future host of the MotoGP, there is high hope from the public that this prestigious motorsport event can turn into momentum for economic revival in the midst of a pandemic.

The allegation from Walhi and the UN must warrant serious attention from the government and given that tourism is one of the mainstay sectors that concerns the lives of many people, the Government should settle the issues in a fairer and more dignified way, so it can yield huge benefits for the region, the country and the people. It is crucial that the government put the people’s interests first in this matter.

In essence, regardless of the direct or indirect impact, if the concern from Walhi and the UN is not addressed and resolved soon, it is feared that more costly social unrest and security disturbances will emerge, and that will be detrimental to the image of Mandalika as a “super” tourism destination.

So far, we hope that ITDC and related parties will seriously implement the recommendations by the National Commission of Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and Walhi made some time ago. This is important, so that the public in particular can see that the government has good will and the development of Lombok tourism does not deviate from its vision, namely, to generate welfare for the community at large.

Meanwhile, while Bali, as the country’s premiere tourist destination, has been hit the hardest during the pandemic, it is slowly coming back to life.

Data from the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry conirms this. Things have begun to pick up. In December 2020, the island was still in the doldrums, but thanks to stricter compliance to health protocols there have been monthly increases in domestic tourist arrivals. Case in point: the target for March was 3,600 tourists per day, but the actual numbers turned out to be 4,500, signifying 30 percent above the target.

Meanwhile, by the beginning of April, domestic passengers at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport were recorded at 8,000, already half of what it used to be before the pandemic struck.

7 Strategic Steps to Revive Tourism

As the government is battling the Covid-19 pandemic, the first step to spur tourism recovery during the “new normal” era is to focus on local tourists, by reopening nearby destinations that can be reached overland, while waiting for the pandemic to subside in Indonesia. Only then should the market be expanded to attract more domestic or foreign tourists.

Thus, in general, there are seven strategic steps that the government can undertake to expedite the recovery of tourism industry:

1. Support tourism and creative industry stakeholders This can be expressed in the form of exemption from BPJS premium payment, reducing the utility tariff, rent, local tax rate, relaxing access to bank loans, and providing tourism grants. It is important to ensure that they are distributed equitably and able to sustain tourism and creative economy actors and the wider community.

2. Funding/budgetary support Budgetary support from the government in favor of tourism recovery is urgently needed. This is not only limited to infrastructure development but also in the form of incentives for people who earn their livelihood in the sector.

3. Subsidy for tourism academy students Let’s not overlook the importance of subsidizing the education of those students currently studying at public and privately-owned tourism colleges across Indonesia. Many of them are facing the prospect of not able to continue their studies due to the economic difficulty experienced by their parents, as a result of the pandemic.

4. Strengthening the Mitigation SOP

In light of the many recent natural disasters, from earthquakes, volcano eruptions and the ongoing pandemic, there is an urgent need to strengthen the mitigation of standard operating procedure (SOP) for the Indonesian tourism industry, in line with standards of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and WHO. The strategic steps taken by the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry during the recovery phase need to be prepared early on, so that when the pandemic subsides, the Ministry will no longer talk about a recovery strategy, but go ahead with its implementation.

5. Prioritize vaccination and improve destinations With regard to convenience aspect in tourist destinations, Indonesia still has a lot of work to do, such as cleanliness, hygiene, security, health, environmental preservation, regional regulations, halal tourism services, Covid-19 testing and so on. All of these require not only a substantial budget but also intensive assistance to endure, so that the quality of our destinations is on par with global standards of sustainable tourism destination management.

6. Increase the role of Tourism Awareness Group (Pokdarwis) The role of Pokdarwis is often overlooked in tourism development, even though this group consists of creative young people who care about the sustainability of tourism in their villages. It is hoped that by increasing the role of Pokdarwis across the many tourism villages they can become agents of change and the driving force in the community, to facilitate the development of creative industries in those villages, as well as pioneering the movements to protect and preserve tourism destinations in a sustainable manner.

7. Enforce stricter visa restrictions and establish the “travel corridor” arrangement Drawing lesson from coronavirus cases, tourists from countries or regions with high infection rates or vulnerable to outbreaks must go through a very strict visa screening to gain entry into Indonesia. The visa-free policy for these countries must be reviewed to ensure that foreign tourists who plan to vacation in Indonesia do not bring in the virus or more infectious and deadly variants. On the other hand, for countries viewed successful in containing Covid-19,

Indonesia can establish a travel corridor or travel bubble arrangement with them, to facilitate tourist arrivals from those countries.

Strategic steps, breakthroughs, collaboration and speed of implementation are the keys to our victory in this fight against the coronavirus. What the government has done thus far deserves commendation. We can see how serious it is about overcoming the health crisis and helping the tourism industry recover, from provision of grants that may be expanded beyond hotel and restaurant owners, preparation for travel corridor arrangements, vaccinations at tourism destinations, etc. With such positive developments, the hope is that the government will remain inclusive, allow itself to be monitored, hear the aspirations of tourism industry players and the community to work together in finding the right solution and act upon it swiftly.

A new paradigm

It can be stated that Covid-19 has profoundly changed the tourism industry and has given rise to a new paradigm. First, heightened spiritual awareness in enjoying our God-created natural world while traveling. Second, to be a responsible tourist with a sustainable mindset. Third, the need for standards for cleanliness, health and safety that conform with global best practices, both for tourists and tourism operators. And finally, staggered, calculated reopening of tourist destinations in a manner that can normalize the economy and instill public confidence in recovery. (Taufan Rahmadi)

Taufan Rahmadi is a national activist and changemaker for sustainable tourism. He hails from Lombok, NTB and served as head of the province’s tourism promotion agency from 2014-2016. From 2016-2018, he was a member of the team to accelerate the development of 10 Priority Destinations in Indonesia, as well as the person in charge for Mandalika. He is the spokesperson for tourism affairs at the Tourism and Cretive Economy Ministry.