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
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
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
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
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
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