Indonesia trims tourist visas, anticipates surge

Apr 07, 2016, 10:42 AM EDT
Bromo volcano, Java, Indonesia.
(Source: Jérémy/flickr)

By Thursday, over 28,500 people had already visited the Indonesia Outdoor Festival 2016, the country's largest outdoor exhibition. The five-day event kicked off on Wednesday, with fortuitous timing -- the government recently made traveling to Indonesia much easier.

March 22 was the starting date of a decree signed by President Joko Widodo which waived visa requirements for 79 countries, bringing the list of visa-free countries to 169. Indonesia always had the attractions – beaches, volcanoes, culture, and so on – but now it can fully unlock its tourism potential.

Case in point: more than 1 million Australians already visit Indonesia every year, contributing about $1.37 billion to the local economy. They had been paying $35 each for a visa on arrival, but by including Australia on the visa-free list, Indonesia is estimated to attract another $257 million annually into the economy.

The government is making tourism a key economic priority. It aims to raise the number of foreign visitors from last year’s 9.73 million to 20 million by 2019. With this goal in mind, the Tourism Ministry has increased its international budget for promoting Indonesia tourism 77% this year to some $227 million.

The number of foreign tourists visiting Indonesia rose 2.2% in January from a year earlier, and 3.31% in February. But the recently expanded visa-free list should turbocharge that, given that Indonesia recorded a 19% increase in tourists from countries that received visa-free access last year.

The country is smart to permit visa-free travel even when those other governments do not reciprocate. Australia, for example, charges Indonesians almost $100 just to apply for a tourist visa and requires that they fill out 15 pages of questions. One could argue the nationalistic point that Indonesia should demand to be treated equally, but Australia’s concerns over unwanted illegal immigration won’t let it allow visa-free travel from developing countries. To its credit though, Jakarta is willing to swallow some political pride in exchange for reaping immediate and sustainable economic benefits. Other developing countries looking to increase tourism would be wise to discard their reciprocity fees and general visa fees too.