Australia is so close that passengers just have time for a snack and a snooze on a two-hour-30-minute flight to Darwin. It takes longer to get to Manado in North Sulawesi.
The Northern Territory capital is a delightful, compact, modern city largely rebuilt since it was trashed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. No climatic adjustment needed for those who enjoy the tropics. If heading south to Perth in Western Australia, add a short doco or news update; you’ll be there in well under four hours after lifting off from Denpasar.
There’s no shortage of carriers so fares outside the school holidays can often be lower than flying between centres in the archipelago.
Just one catch: Indonesians need visas, like most foreigners. But there’s a difference which can be more than a hassle and a cost – the application process is arduous. It’s a big deterrent, according to Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor, who lives in Perth.
Along with the local tourist industry, his NGO has been pushing for Indonesians to have the same access to visitor visas as citizens of Singapore and Malaysia. They can apply on line, get speedy responses, and pay only AU$20.
Taylor, who used to be a trade commissioner in Jakarta, tells of a chance encounter with a family of 22 from Bandung, West Java. They were enjoying Perth’s splendid Kings Park, set above the city. Access to this bushy lookout is free, but getting there ripped their wallets.
The group leaders told him they’d paid AU$3,080 for visas and filled in close to 300 pages of questions.
Aussies flying in and out of Indonesia know that those trying to ram overweight backpacks into overhead lockers use English expletives to help the bag fit. Less than one in six passengers in those flights are Indonesians.
In 2016 the Indonesian government surprised tourists when it cancelled the US$30 visa-on-arrival system, a decision which reportedly cost the country US$50million. It seemed like an economic wrist-slash, but it was super smart.
Within a year visitor numbers flew 16 per cent higher, and according to industry calculations, added US$145million to the economy. Now, Australian passport holders queue only to get stamped, not fleeced. That comes later in Kuta’s Jalan Legian.
The other factor is time. Feel like a quick break Down Under this weekend? Forget impulse ticket-buying, you have to have fixed the paperwork well in advance.
Last month this writer helped an Indonesian who wanted to look around Sydney during a return home eight-hour stopover from New Zealand. It took about ten days using an agent in Indonesia to get the transit visa. The middle-aged lady had no criminal record and held a senior position in a state bank.
Jakartans spluttering to get out of the Asia’s second most polluted city and inhale fresh air should forget the Wide Brown land and head for the Himalayas; India now gives Indonesians visas-on-arrival.
Last year more than nine million Indonesians travelled overseas; less than two per cent headed south-east. Their favourite destinations were Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan. Tokyo is seven hours from Denpasar but Indonesians don’t need a visa for a short visit. More than 300,000 made the trip last year while fewer than 200,000 headed Down Under.
The Australian Embassy struggles to deny the facts, arguing that immigration policy is a work in progress. Officials say Indonesians can now apply on line; three-year, multiple-entry visas valid years are available; and most applicants are successful.
The unspoken reason for the discriminatory treatment appears to be the lack of trust in what officials call “document integrity.” This is bureaucrat-speak for believing that passports and supporting travel documents have been forged, and has yet to be tackled seriously.
The other issue that is mooted is overstaying, yet few from the archipelago are guilty. According to Immigration Department figures, Malaysians are the major offenders followed by Chinese, Americans and the British. Around 60,000 overstayers are believed to be in Australia, a nation without ID cards.
None of this dents Taylor’s resolve to get more of his neighbours into his country, and not because of the money they’ll bring. He reckons tourism helps people get to know each other and shed attitudes built on myths and hearsay.
“Tourism is the best way to forge a more intimate, bilateral relationship, giving Indonesians the chance to see how Australians live,” he said. “It challenges ignorance, misperceptions and suspicions.
“We need to bring hundreds of thousands more Indonesians to Australia, so we can start getting to know them better.”
Ironically this is the same message continually pushed by the Australian government. It says it wants people from the republic to jump a jet and check out the koalas and kangaroos for themselves, and for Aussies to discover that their neighbours no longer live in an autocracy.
The ignorance has been measured. Every year the well-respected Lowy Institute questions Australians’ perception of Indonesia and its citizens. The last report was little different from its predecessors:
“In 2018, only 24 percent of Australians agreed that Indonesia is a democracy. They are divided…on whether Indonesia is a dangerous source of terrorism, and only 32 percent agree that the Indonesian government has worked hard to fight terrorism.”
Maybe encouraging more Indonesians to visit Australia might help the locals revise their outdated attitudes.