On March 31, 2003, President Megawati Soekarnoputri signed Presidential Decision Number 18 of 2003, heralding sweeping changes in the national visa policy.
While the decision raises a number of questions that will only be answered once the implementing regulations, now under review, are announced, the gist of the changes seem likely to include the revocation of the visa-free visit policy now enjoyed by the nationals of 48 countries to be replaced by a visa issued on arrival at the gateway air or sea port, a "visa-fee" to be charged to most visitors to Indonesia, and a shortening of the on-arrival visa validity from 60 to 30 days.
The list of assaults on the nationís tourism fortunes reads like chapter headings of tragic travel novel: five years of economic and political uncertainty; the 9-11 attacks in the U.S.A.; the October 12th bombing of last year in Bali; travel advisories unfavorable to Indonesia issued by virtually every major source market; the U.S. war on Iraq; the SARS crisis; and, now, the revocation of the visa free status for the nationals of most of the 48 countries covered under the existing policy.
To most people in the nation's travel industry, the latest decision on visas smacks of an act of suicide committed by an already ailing patient. Visited by blow after blow of mishaps, each with the potential to cripple an industry yielding the 2nd largest source of much-needed foreign exchange for the Nation, the announcement of the latest policy on visas is almost certain to result in dramatic downturns in tourist numbers and massive economic dislocation for thousands of Indonesians dependent on tourist dollars for their livings.
Exploring the Myths
Although officially being "sold" to the public as a necessary step to enhance national security and enforce a reciprocity of treatment, a closer examination of issues shows arguments in favor of the new visa policy fail to convince.
Myth #1: Security Will be Enhanced by the New Visa Regulation.
We can't recall the exact words of the then Director General of Tourism, Mr. Joop Ave, nearly two decades ago who, when lobbying for a liberalized visa policy, was challenged by a military officer opposed to the liberalization on security grounds. Mr. Ave is reported to have rebuked the General, reminding him that the real security issue facing the government is providing jobs, housing, and food for Indonesian workers. We think this sage advice remains valid 2 decades later.
Moreover, the security argument that an extra layer of visa administration will somehow reduce violations of immigration rules does not stand up to closer examination. If visas will reduce instances of illegal workers and overstays, why is it, we ask, that the group guilty of the greatest number of immigration violations are precisely visitors from the People Republic of China, a group that currently undergoes the most stringent visa issuance regulation?
Rules and guidelines are already in place that allows immigration officials to ensure that every visitor claiming to be a tourist is not misrepresenting his or her situation. What remains essentially a failure of enforcement of the current rules will not be addressed by the proposed change of visa rules.
Myth #2: The New Rules Address Problems of Reciprocity
While we sympathize with the indignation of those Indonesians who are charged visa fees and subjected to humiliating interviews to qualify for a visa from major western Embassies, little is to be gained by entering into a game of "tit for tat" in which Indonesian tourism comes up as the loser. The skills of Indonesia's sophisticated diplomats must certainly be equal to establishing a "linkage" between the visa fee and some other point of international cooperation beneficial to the country.
Perhaps the reciprocity issue could best be addressed by taking a leaf out of the book of most western nations, by requiring people who wish to stay more than 30 days in Indonesia formally apply in their home country in a process that compels them to demonstrate employment, assets and proof that they intend to return to their home country at the end of their extended visit.
If the security lobby is still not satisfied, sterner mandatory punishments could be introduced for people who overstay with their visa or stay permits.
Myth #3: The Visa Fee Will Provide Much Needed Government Revenues
Will the new visa policy, widely supposedly to collect $50 from most visitors to Indonesia, become an important source of revenue for the cash-strapped national coffers? The figures and surveys don't support this view.
www.balidiscovery.com examined that issue last year and found that any revenues generated by a $50 visa fee would be immediately nullified by the loss in foreign exchange earnings caused by a drop of as little as 4.8% in visitor arrivals. You can view that projection through the following link: Editorial: It Just Doesn't Add Up
A survey conducted in 1998 by the Bali Chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) among overseas wholesalers selling Bali suggested a proposed $50 visa fee would likely result in a drop as much as 30% in foreign arrivals. Another, more recent, study conducted by Casa Grande - the association of 4 and 5 star hotels in Bali, suggests that arrivals in major feeder markets could decrease by as much as 60% were the visa fee introduced.
Considering the massive potential losses in foreign exchange and the follow-on shortfalls in payroll, taxes, and income to tourism related enterprises Ė the revenues generated by any visa fee will be miniscule in comparison with the projected foreign exchange losses from overseas visitors who will have taken their holidays somewhere other than Indonesia.
Myth #4: The Visa Fee is Part of a Larger Plan for National Tourism
In fact, the proposed changes in visa policy seem to contradict directly the governments instructions to the travel industry to seek to develop the short and medium-haul markets.
It's almost axiomatic that the closer the holiday the more price-driven the purchasing decision. Clearly, Australian families looking for a brief holiday or expatriates working in Hong Kong and Singapore considering a week-end getaway to Bali will be persuaded to travel elsewhere by the proposed visa fee.
Praying that Wiser Minds Prevail
Hoteliers, travel agents and tourism attraction operators all across Indonesia are currently huddled in urgent discussions, deciding how best to approach the Government to seek a modification or revocation of the Presidential Decree.
The optimistic among them are hopeful that those in power might still be persuaded to preserve the visa-free on arrival for 48 countries, perhaps for a shorter validity period of 30 days. Under this proposal, those staying more than 30 days would have to apply and pay for visas before departing their home countries. In order to address security concerns, those in favor of this approach are suggesting stronger, mandatory penalties be introduced for those found violating the national immigration guidelines.
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