Indonesia's Minister for Justice and Human Rights, Yusril Ihza Mahendra, widely seen as the architect of the Presidential Decision to revoke the visa-free-on-arrival and replace it with a "purchased" visa issued at the port of arrival, has steadfastly maintained that security and reciprocity are the drving principles behind the new policy. Minister Mahendra has, in fact, defended his desire to charge for visas saying "it's a big revenue source." Other countries generate revenue from it, so why don't we?"
Playing the nationalist card, the Minister has pandered to the populist political gallery, positioning himself as a champion of those many Indonesians who have been subjected to an expensive, time consuming and often humiliating visa application process required by many nations. Apparently the Minister's "tit-for-tat" logic is that if Indonesians are compelled by foreign governments to stand in line and pay for tourist visa, then Indonesia should similarly reciprocate in the way they treat visiting tourists.
Beyond the obvious arguments that the change in visa policy will prove disastrous for Indonesia's tourism industry already teetering on the brink of collapse, we contend that the Minister's understanding of reciprocity is somehow sorely lacking in both vision and clarity.
Reciprocity can be view from two different perspectives: human rights and trade.
The human right's viewpoint – on the most basic level adopted by Minister Yusril, seemingly contends that because Indonesians are suffering due to policies that complicate their access to foreign countries, those wishing to visit Indonesia should be similarly inconvenienced by the new visa rulings.
There's something peculiarly provincial in the view that "misery loves company" and the way to respond to insensitivity and racial profiling from foreign nations is to quickly whip up our own local brand of the same.
While we share the Minister's indignation and irritation with the way some nations handle visa applications from traveling Indonesians, we wonder if the interests and comfort of the Indonesian traveling public might not be equally served by the removal of the current Rp. 1 million (approximately US$ 112) exit tax? This substantial amount, charged by the Indonesian government to every Indonesian and foreign resident traveling overseas, represents a substantial inconvenience to those seeking to holiday, study or seek medical attention abroad.
To our knowledge, the Minister has made no call for the revocation of the Rp. 1 million "fiskal" departure tax.
Reciprocity as a Trade Issue
In fact, if reciprocity is viewed from the wider perspective of international trade, the line between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" in the current debate become very blurred.
Imagine the hue and cry if Minister Yusril's counterparts in Singapore, Australia, Japan, the U.K. and the United States decided - in the name of "reciprocity" - to suddenly introduce a tax of $112 on every one of their citizens destined to Indonesia on a holiday and maintained that tax until such a time as Indonesia removed their similar "tariff barrier" to international tourism. Were such a policy introduced, it would further cripple Indonesia's already badly damaged tourism industry and be the death knell for hotels and tourism enterprises in Indonesia's resort islands in close proximity to Singapore.
In short, the arguments in support of the new visa policy, like the policy itself, warrant an urgent critical rethink. And, in the midst of the current international crisis in travel, Indonesia's leaders would best look for ways to cooperate internationally in overcoming our difficulties, abjuring the confrontational style inherent in their current understanding of the principal of reciprocity.
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