Student protests disrupt Indonesia tourism show, delegates forced to move

The Tourism Indonesia Mart and Expo (TIME), held recently in Jakarta, Indonesia, was disrupted by thousands of students protesting a new state security measure. Imtiaz Muqbil, executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, based in Bangkok, Thailand, offers his eyewitness account of the unrest and insights into issues affecting tourism and politics in the region.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- When Feisol Hashim, vice chairman of the Indonesian Tourism Promotion Board, opened the first seminar at the Tourism Indonesia Mart and Expo here on Sept. 21, he told a gathering of global tour operators, travel agents and media, "The board seeks your indulgence to investigate the truth during your visit here and to other destinations.

"When you visit all these destinations, if there is a trouble spot, say it. If it is congested with demonstrations, say it and if it is peaceful, say it too. Don't keep quiet. Let the product speak for itself. For the world of politics is maliciously sensational as we all know."

He got more than he bargained for.

Two days later, on Sept. 23, just hours after the opening ceremony of TIME '99, the conflict in Indonesia turned up right at the doorstep of the Jakarta Convention Centre, the show venue.

In what the Asian Wall Street Journal later called the worst flare-up since November 1998, thousands of university students vented their fury against a state security bill that is said to give too much power to the military in a blossoming democracy.

The centre, built to host the non-aligned summit in 1992, is located just down the road from Parliament House.

Soon enough, out came the water cannons and tear gas canisters. Some injured students were picked up and carried to safety right through the centre's side door, forcing organizers to ask that all delegates move to another assembly hall where they could be better protected in case things got out of hand.

Travel journalists trying to reach the glass side-door through which the rally could be clearly seen were blocked by the centre's general manager Friedrich Kurze, who said he would "not allow" them to go and have a look, purportedly for their own safety.

When he left to inspect security at the backdoor, the journalists ignored him and went up to watch, albeit maintaining a safe distance.

A "barricade" of tables was placed across their path, and the side-door was locked, but not before another injured student had been carried through right before their eyes. The security people eventually had to unlock the door to let in angry students who were carrying yet another of their injured friends, and banging on the door hard enough to risk smashing it down.

Clad in jeans and T-shirts, wearing bandannas to ward off the tear gas, the students harmed no-one at the convention centre. The appointment schedule, however, was disrupted, as were the shuttle buses back to the hotels.

One Italian journalist who had gone out for a closer look, came rushing back to the centre frantically trying to fan away the fumes with his hand.

Order was restored later when the students moved on but the shots and firing could be heard in the distance well into the night. The protests continued over the next two days, casting a pall over the show.

About three hours before the rioting broke out, show organizers had persuaded Tom Mintier, the CNN correspondent, to stop by and see the tourism industry doing business in earnest. He attended, but the story that ran on CNN that night was not about tourism.

I had to return to Bangkok the following morning, on Sept. 24, and do not know what happened at TIME the next day.

Nevertheless, the damage to Indonesia's tourism credibility was substantial. At the opening ceremony, participants had heard rousing speeches about how safe Indonesia is as a tourism in destination and how badly it needed tourism to help rebuild its economy.

In perhaps the most anti-climactic comments of the show, outgoing tourism minister Marzuki Usman said, "For you who come to Indonesia, you have first-hand contact with our people and I hope you will convey to your friends and clients that except for some trouble spots, Indonesia is stable and safe, that the tourism product is still intact, and the people are still hospitable."

Just the previous day, Gerritt Slot, product group manager of Dutch tour operator Oad Reizen, had said in a speech, "Travelers are neither deaf nor blind. They are also intensive media consumers and will draw their own conclusions about safety in and sympathy for a destination."

At press conference after press conference, officials had emphasized how safe Indonesia was and launched into the all-too-familiar attacks on the media.

Indeed, the emphasis was on Indonesia's turn toward democracy and how that will be good both for the country and tourism.

The tourism industry is preparing for the years of change to come. A full-scale industry restructuring is under way, led by the overhaul in the national carrier Garuda and the second designated airline, Merpati.

The process of political decentralization will yield decision-making autonomy to the country's 20 provinces and 300 districts, giving local officials much greater say over licensing of hotels and tourism ventures.

Later this month, Parliament will convene to elect a president and vice president. That, too, could ignite some fires.

Meanwhile, the flames of separatism are being fanned in Aceh, Ambon and Irian Jaya.

In her keynote speech at TIME, former Philippines tourism secretary Narzalina Lim said it took the Philippines six years to recover fully under the Cory Aquino government that replaced Ferdinand Marcos.

The period 1986 to 1992 was marked by six military coups, one major earthquake, the worst volcanic eruption in the 20th century, and the booting out of the Americans from the naval bases.

Thailand's name came up in several instances, mainly in the context of the competitive threat the country poses as it continues to gain diversionary business from Indonesia's problems.

There is much hand-wringing about how difficult and expensive it will be to regain that business if and when the situation stabilizes.

Several delegates cited rising concern about deteriorating Indonesian relations with Australia, the country's fourth- largest source of visitors in 1998, as highly-charged emotions over the Australian role in the East Timor peace-keeping force leads to sabre-rattling on both sides.

Officials of Garuda Indonesia said they had been affected by airport union boycotts in Melbourne and other cities but claimed that the situation had improved of late.

Two Australian specialists in adventure travel, who had been scheduled to speak at accompanying seminars, both canceled, one of them claiming to organizers that external pressure had been applied.

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