The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Time to rethink the sales pitch

Not a tourist show - this parade in Malang, East Java, was for the locals and a traffic stopper - literally.  And yes, they are wearing headscarves

  I’d like to claim credit, but that has to go to Patrick Winn, a man with a nose for nuances.  The Bangkok-based correspondent for the US on-line news site Global Post was first to comment on the Indonesian government’s latest tourist lure Wonderful Indonesia.

“In the chief promotional video you won't find a single skull cap, hijab or minaret at sunset,” he reported. “Islamic life, one of Indonesia's defining qualities, is conspicuously absent.”
He’s right.  The five-minute tape – and a shorter TV commercial version - is professional.  There are cute kids flying kites and bare-shouldered beauties flicking fingers – but it’s more Benoa than Bekasi.
In the global competition for visitors with visa stamps and Visa cards, seduction has become big business, no longer a fill-in for a handyman with a handycam. 
High production values require matching budgets.  Sadly creativity and cost don’t always marry well.  This is an industry that plagiarises shamelessly, though that’s not always the director’s fault. 
Calling the shots are the executive producers who’ve seen their rivals’ spectaculars and reckon that a look alike will be just as successful.
So they demand more slim-waisted couples watching an Armageddon sunset over a placid beach having just scuba-dived clean coral alive with rainbow fish. 
Over a dinner of fresh-caught crays they’ll watch a cultural floor show. Later come close encounters with plump furry creatures and the chance to sample even more local fare served by jolly gap-toothed rustics.
These are five-star resort images, accessible only to those who think a massage is hard work – for them, not the masseur.
The tone was set long ago by campaigns like Malaysia, Truly Asia.
Indonesia’s latest offering is beautiful – and boring. It could be anywhere in Southeast Asia. Even the title is bland. (The alliterative ‘Incredible’ has already been pinched by India.) Popular?  Sadly, no. When writing this BTW it had scored less than 2,000 hits.
Mr Winn asks if the absence of Islamic symbols is intentional.  Perhaps producers fear references to the faith followed by most Indonesians will turn-off prospective visitors with different beliefs.
Why shy? The Global Peace Index ranks Indonesia above the US, India and Thailand, all major tourist destinations. Recent outbreaks of religious violence in Indonesia have been appalling but they’ve been small, isolated and inter-religious, not anti-tourist.
Visitors don’t need to follow the world’s second largest religion to appreciate the beauty of Islamic artistic expression, richly inventive because living things can’t be depicted.
Mosques are obvious attractions.  There are hundreds – here’s a few I know – Tuban’s multi-minaret, intricately-patterned Grand Mosque and Surabaya’s Chinese themed Zheng He.
If age and culture appeal, the mosques constructed after the arrival of the nine saints (Wali Songo) are must-visits.  There’s Surabaya’s Ampel (plus Arab kampong) and Demak’s Grand Mosque built in timber in the 15th century.  This is pure Javanese architecture – no dome but a tiered teak roof.
The blending of Hindu, Buddhism and Islamic symbols indicates that the shift in religions was probably gradual and relatively peaceful.

The women of the Archipelago are just as beautiful as those in Bali particularly when wearing the elegant and colourful headscarves of the most fashionable.  Sensuous? Absolutely.
The pre-Islamic Majapahit Era is alive in East Java through the dances, stories, carvings and performances still found in villages.  They’re authentic, staged for cultural maintenance, not tourist dollars.
Although poorly preserved, the statuary and temples that have survived climate, neglect and vandalism are accessible, though not well known. It’s not exaggerating to say archaeological marvels are everywhere and seldom corrupted by commercialism.
Here’s one of a hundred examples: Just off the Surabaya-Malang highway flanking a narrow nondescript street stand two giant stone dvarapala, the gate guardians of the Singosari kingdom, 800 years old and remarkably telegenic. 
Last year Malaysia got 25 million visitors, Singapore around half that number.  Vast Indonesia, with far more attractions, is targeting just eight million with its new campaign.
By ignoring Islam and the nation’s rich cultural history the curiously labelled Ministry for Tourism and Creative Economy is another misnomer.  How about a Ministry of Creative Tourism to market the magic and mystery – and boost the economy beyond Bali?   

(First published in The Sunday Post, 22 September 2012)

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