SELLING BRAND MALANG: BUT IS IT MARKETABLE? © Duncan Graham 2006
Every time he parks outside his central Malang office, Sugiyanto anxiously scans the crowds in East Java’s second major city.
Not because he fears car thieves or street thugs. He’s on the lookout for the people who should be there, but aren’t. And for him that’s a serious concern
For Sugiyanto is Malang’s Mr Tourism, or more officially director of the Tourism Information Centre. What he wants to see are more nonplussed nomads dripping with digital cameras and sweat as they pour over crumpled maps.
Once spotted, these folk from afar are invited into his office for a friendly chat and offers of information in the language of their choice – English, Dutch or Japanese.
Sugiyanto is an energetic multilingual man with a double-barrelled task. He wants his neighbours to realise that incomers mean income – and he wants the footloose to know that Malang has all the right attractions – climate, history, art, handicrafts, culture, beauty and safety.
If this sounds like a cushy number a few more taps on the keyboard should set you straight.
The Centre is really a simple kiosk. It’s well placed close to the famous Toko Oen Dutch pastry shop but the holey floorboard will snap your heels or ankle and the air conditioning is breeze-powered. The welcome is warm – and so are the conditions.
There are some maps and brochures going limp in the sun, but the key promotion, a 28-page color booklet is behind the desk and too expensive to be handed over to casual inquirers. Forget your thirst – the fridge is empty.
International visitors familiar with the lavish presentations of no-expense spared bureaux in other countries will certainly respect the director’s effervescent sales pitch and sound knowledge. But they’ll also sadly conclude from the conditions that Malang isn’t serious about tourism, despite some backing by mayors and regents.
When grand ideas aren’t underpinned by a long-term strategy, a bountiful budget and international expertise, the result is predictable.
Which is no fault of Sugiyanto, a university language lecturer who spends his spare time and cash showcasing his hometown’s qualities. A local furniture company has donated a table and cupboard; the staff have to pay the phone bill. His assistants are students on work experience.
The problem is not that the city’s attractions don’t match Sugiyanto’s rhetoric; in many cases they crown his words.
The difficulty is that few in Malang seem to appreciate the message he hammers: That tourists don’t come like seasonal rains arriving without human involvement. Just because a high government official in a peaked cap fanfares a new Visit Indonesia programme doesn’t mean that Westerners snap to attention, pack their bags and e-mail their travel agent.
Earlier this year the government said it hoped six million foreign visitors would aim for the archipelago, generating US$6 billion. But so far only 3.5 million have fronted immigration desks at Indonesia’s entry points.
Of course terrorism is a factor in the downturn, but it’s not the only issue according to Sugiyanto.
“The US$25 visa-on-arrival charge is definitely an obstacle,” he said. “Most foreigners can spend up to three months in other South East Asian countries and their visas are free. International tourists are confronted with hundreds of choices. Why visit Indonesia when there are so many other quality attractions with no impediments?
“We get about 2,000 foreigners a month in Malang in the dry season, almost all from Europe. Each person spends at least Rp 1.5 million a day on local goods and services. The majority are Dutch, followed by Germans and the French. Very few Australians come here, though we’re next to their Bali playground.
“Then there’s the overall way Indonesia is advertised. Most public servants in tourism departments aren’t there for their expertise. They could be in any agency and can’t be sacked if they don’t perform. We should all be professionals working together to promote Malang as an international brand.”
A good example of the absence of coordination came when Sugiyanto invited this writer to visit the nearby eighth century Hindu temple of Candi Badut. But the gate was locked, the caretaker was out and no one knew the whereabouts of the key.
In a survey of local opinions Sugiyanto has uncovered a disturbing belief: Some think Western visitors will bring their infamous dissolute behaviour and ‘free sex’ into the conservative city. As most are plump matrons and arthritic gramps hesitant about mounting the steps of a tour bus, the idea of importing lascivious lifestyles is ludicrous.
Apart from a non-stop bombardment of local officials and the media, Sugiyanto’s strategy is to involve young people in appreciating Malang and developing pride in their district. Surprisingly few school kids know their city’s history or have visited the sites. (See sidebar).
In a well-publicised public contest, industrial engineering student Wahya Budi Leksono was elected as a youth tourism ambassador last month (Nov). Although his academic interests are more about hydraulics than hospitality Wahya speaks good English and has the self-confidence to approach foreigners alone, a rare quality among East Java teens who think it’s becoming to be bashful.
Another idea packaged by Sugiyanto is for a Tourism Board made up of industry representatives and experts to advise the government. This is the standard overseas model.
Such a bureaucracy-threatening advancement isn’t going to happen overnight, so in the meantime he’s pinning hopes for a visitor revival on a new southern access road to Mt Bromo through Tumpang.
This village is famous for its art and crafts, and in particular the performances at Mangun Dharma where American Karen Elizabeth Sekarum is an established pesinden (singer with a gamelan orchestra).
Till now the standard route to Bromo has been from the north through the coastal town of Probolinggo. Naturally enough Sugiyanto believes his way is shorter, offers more awesome vistas and extra attractions.
All this may well be true – but who will know unless Malang is given some serious money for publicity and a chorus of high-profile figures singing the city’s charms from the same songsheet?
Who hasn’t seen the slogan ‘ Malaysia - Truly Asia’, whether they live in Sydney or Stockholm? Who’s heard of Marvellous Malang?
Sugiyanto and his colleagues are banging a big gong, but the other players are taking a kip.
Part of the charm of this sedate city is in its late development. It only became popular as a Dutch hill town in the late 19th century so many buildings are well preserved.
Some major streets, like Jl Ijen are tree-lined European style boulevards, little changed from the days of pith helmets and swagger sticks. These thoroughfares retain their residential status and haven’t been destroyed by crass commercial development.
Visitors from Holland often have family links in the city which prospered during the colonial era from plantations of tea, sugar and coffee. Some are open to the public.
Yet paradoxically Malang is also saturated in ancient history. This was the heart of the Singosari kingdom. In the village of that name 12 km north are some extraordinary 700-year-old monuments built to honour Hindu and Buddhist priests.
All the numerous archaeological sites are close by and easy to visit by public transport. While visitors ooh and aah at the chance to run their fingers along Sanskrit chiselled by artisans centuries before Shakespeare sharpened his quill, the locals tend to find it all a bit of a yawn.
They’d rather spend time in artificial recreation parks like nearby Senaputra. Unless you’re a social scientist doing your doctorate on crowd behavior, best not to visit at weekends.
Malang has a population of around 800,000 and a reputation for being an education city with several quality universities. So you’re bound to encounter students everywhere. This gives the place a youthful feel despite the antiquities.
You’ll also fill your flash cards with enough pix of valleys and volcanoes. To the east is the Hindu’s sacred mountain Semeru (Java’s highest peak at 3680 metres), and Bromo-Tengger. To the west is Kawi, which has mystical properties, particularly for the Chinese.
Batu, just 20 minutes higher, is even cooler and blooming; its reputation as a city of flowers is well rooted. Indonesians like the little apples grown here though the leathery varieties don’t suit European palates.
The south coast is a couple of hours away and the journey never boring. Although there are pleasant beaches this is not Kuta and there’s no culture of sun baking in this Muslim area. The attractions are in the fishing villages and rugged coastline.
Malang is about 80 km south of Surabaya and can be reached by train (three hours) or by bus or car in under two if you go early. There’s no air link. One four star and several three star hotels are used to foreign visitors and their funny ways, like wanting hot water in the bathroom and a toilet with a seat.
Contact the Malang Tourist Information Centre on Jl Basuki Rakhmad 6 – phone (0341) 323 966.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 January 2006)