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(6/3/2002) A recent well-publicized skirmish between two rival factions of Bali's China Travel Commission (ICTC) over who would win the right to lead the organization charged with controlling the handling of mainland Chinese tourists visiting Bali, serves to underline what seems to be a most confused and fundamentally flawed approach by the Government on how to handle the Chinese traveler destined for Indonesia.
In era where red tape is becoming universally badly out of fashion, Indonesian tourism has ironically managed to fashion a behemoth of bureaucratic bumbling that seems destined to foster poor service and inept handling of the People Republic of China's Visitors to the Country.
The Case Against Special Licensing
The Decision by Indonesia's Tourism Officials to introduce an additional layer of licensing for the Country's tour operators handling the Chinese market, instead of inhibiting bad tourism practice, seems destined to be perverted into achieving the very opposite of its stated goal. While Indonesia has a large number of professional tour operators with long track records of successfully handling guests from every national, linguistic, and cultural grouping, the Government decided that those wishing to handle Chinese clients must first prove their "special" capabilities in that area. That the initial list of "approved" agencies reportedly contained the names of agencies that have been closed or operationally dormant for some time, speaks volumes to the lack of selectivity and professionalism in that selection process.
Moreover, the recent melee between rival ICTC's factions in Bali over who would be allowed to reap the windfall from a cash surcharge to be levied on every visiting Chinese tourist, serves to underline how badly out of synch the entire official approach to the Chinese market has become.
Certain officials have defended the licensing process as necessary to thwart unscrupulous practices, such as the buying and selling of tour groups to Chinese-language guides who recoup their investment through forcing their guests to tour and dine at establishments paying usurpationist commissions. Yet the practical result of the licensing requirements seems to be that the newly licensed agents - now confident in their exclusive franchise - may likely introduce even higher levels of commission and lower levels of servive to their Chinese clients.
The Myth of China Monolith
Perhaps, the root of the current mess is the mistaken perception that sees Chinese tourism as some sort of monolithic commodity, that can be traded with impunity between the two governments.
We wonder: Did misguided Chinese tourism officials wrongly arrogate to themselves the ability to divvy up and distribute the Chinese tourist market and were our national officials duped into believing that the Mainland travelers little more than obedient lambs without choice in purchasing their leisure travel? Did these same officials miscast the Chinese traveler as a form of government to government aide, open to "horse-trading" in smoke filled rooms? If such was the case, they could not have been more wrong: the modern Chinese consumer has a very wide range of choice in how and where to spend his money.
Given these facts, when Chinese officials requested the current licensing scheme from their Indonesian counterparts, wouldn't the most appropriate response have been a polite refusal, pointing to an exisiting licensing procedur and leaving free market forces to set price and service levels?
The Chinese economy, including its tourism sector, is among one of the most vibrant in the world today and is best served by an open and free competition of packages and tours offered by any officially licensed Indonesian tour operator. We contend that free market access offers its own best immunity to "bad practice." Unscrupulous operators find it difficult to survive in a marketplace that offers consumers the widest possible choice.
Indications that the Chinese tourism officials who demanded the current licensing scheme may have overstated their "sway" in the Chinese marketplace is evidenced in the fact that promised "flood" of Chinese tourists to Indonesia still remains very a "trickle." Unwilling to be dictated to, the Chinese consumer may, in fact, be unimpressed with the reputation for service to Chinese visitors offered by the oligarchical grouping of the ICTP agents and, instead, be choosing to take their holiday Yuan and Rinminbi elsewhere.
Although still in the early days, there is growing evidence that the supplemental licensing requirement for the Mainland Chinese market isn't going to help stimulate Chinese tourism or provide the desired safeguards for Chinese visitors during their visit to Indoneisa.
A more workable solution might be to allow the Country's exisiting substantial number of experienced and ethical licensed tour operators to freely compete for the Chinese tourists. Meanwhile, the Government would do better to concentrate its efforts at establishing a formal consumers bureau dealing especially with tourism that handles complaints and roots out unethical companies preying on tourist visitors - from all markets, both domestic and international.
It's never too late to do the right thing: Ditch the supplemental licensing requirement and, instead, create a transparent consumer agency that protects the interest of all travelers in Indonesia.