In 1999 a rather enjoyable film called Notting Hill debuted amid the gloom of the Asian financial crisis. Starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, it was, as any movie lover will tell you, about a love affair between a famous actress and a timid bookseller living in the eponymous London district, famous for its grand homes, cafes and shops. The movie was a hit and did much to revive the careers of the two principals. It also led to a massive surge of interest in Notting Hill. Of course, the area, especially its iconic Portobello Road and its market, has always popular with tourists, but Hollywood’s exposure made it all the more famous. The area’s merchants prospered correspondingly as visitors eager to relive the glamour of the Roberts-Grant romance flocked there by the tens of thousands.
One spot of Ubud greenery
Fast forward to the present, and Julia Roberts is again making one of her increasingly rare forays to the silver screen. She is currently in the midst of shooting a cinematic adaptation of the hit chick-lit memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. The autobiography has already sold more than six million copies and has been further canonized with its inclusion in Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Gilbert, a successful American writer, reacted to the breakup of her marriage, a further unsuccessful relationship and general existential angst by taking off on a worldwide tour, spending time in Italy, India and finally Ubud on the island of Bali. “Eat, Pray, Love” is her account of those frenetic days in Bali, leading up to a love interest (a Brazilian gentleman, as it happens) who ends the author’s travels. With the film now soon to follow, you can be sure that the eyes of the world will be on Indonesia again and it’s worth asking: Will Ubud become the new Notting Hill? Will Julia Roberts’ presence set off a boom in the rural Balinese getaway? Will American ladies of a certain age start descending on Ubud in search of love and fulfillment?
All of this has me thinking about the current state of Indonesia’s tourist industry and how it might move forward. No one will deny that it’s an important part of the republic’s economy, and justly so as the country has amazing potential. Now for the downside — Indonesia is losing out to far less exciting destinations. Remember, Julia Roberts did not waste her time in Langkawi or Sentosa.
Clearly there is still a lot of ground to be covered, especially since Indonesia is larger than both those countries in terms of geography and population size. Also worrying is the fact that Indonesia fell 20 places (to 80th out of 130 spots) in the 2008 World Tourism Competitiveness Index. This measures how attractive and viable a country’s travel and tourism industry is, taking into account rules and regulations, safety and infrastructure. More has to be done to bolster the nation’s tourist industry.
Allow me therefore to offer some humble suggestions from a frequent traveler. First, immigration must be cleaned up and stream-lined. Visitors need more time to explore this far-flung archipelago. And they shouldn’t have to waste their time standing in lines at immigration counters, which happens all too often here. Second, airlines should be given incentives to fly to Indonesia’s less well-known but still exciting tourist destination. Cities like Semarang, Amperan (Lombok) and Pontianak need international flights. Third, the country’s infrastructure has to be fixed at all levels. This includes roads, toilets and other facilities. Fourth, local governments need to do their part to stimulate the tourist industry, whether in terms of legislation or otherwise. The autonomy they have won from Jakarta means they now have no excuse not to.
Finally, local governments need to acknowledge the importance of the environment. Take Ubud for instance — its iconic rice fields are fast being cemented over. The resort could soon deteriorate into a parking lot for tourist buses. Indonesia is slowly but surely beating the regional competition on a number of economic fronts. It can do the same in tourism if it has the foresight and the will to support this vital industry. Julia Roberts is a good start.
Quoted from Karim Raslan’s writing
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.
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