Getting lost without getting lost
You’ve just arrived in a strange city and feel like exploring. You get the hotel name and address in the local language and cautiously venture beyond the safety of the security guards.
What next? The visitors’ brochures are out of date and only feature the attractions tourism department officials think will amuse. Few bureaucrats have been outside their own province, certainly not overseas alone and bent under a backpack.
Consequently they have little understanding of what drives foreigners to stray beyond the neon for a tiny taste of local life.
Now imagine you have a smart phone app prepared not by the chamber of commerce but members of a heritage organization. They want to steer your steps away from shopping malls and into narrow lanes where history has hidden in locations so secret even locals are unaware of their significance to the outside world.
Maybe you’ll find a shop where the goods haven’t been made in China and where the seller just wants a fair price, not your total wallet. Perhaps you’ll encounter quirky architecture and enter houses built centuries ago.
Wouldn’t that be worth US$2 [Rp 25,000] if the money was used to help conserve some of the buildings?
That’s the thinking of Dutch urban economist Ester van Steekelenburg who develops what she calls “innovative learning tools”. One of these is an app she and her colleagues at their Hong Kong based consultancy Urban Discovery have put on the market.
The company’s slogan is ‘keeping heritage alive for a vibrant and viable urban future’.
In the 1990s she spent a year in Xiamen, formerly Amoy, the ancient Chinese port opposite Taiwan. As usual, developers were following their herd instincts – wrecking history and building bland. It made her wonder if there wasn’t a middle way.
“There’s often conflict between conservation and development, yet preserving heritage can make economic sense,” said Dr Van Steekelenburg [she got her doctorate in urban economics] in an e-mail exchange from Hong Kong.
“It’s strange that Indonesians and other Asians go to Europe to see heritage buildings but ignore those in their own cities.
“The response from people who’ve done the app walks is great. They typically say that they’ve visited places they would otherwise not have found or would not have dared to go inside.
“Another comment is that users feel they have a better understanding of the neighborhood. Customers are mainly individual travellers who find us through our website and by simply browsing the app store for their travel destination.
“The apps, which include maps photos and videos, have been designed to help visitors get lost without getting lost.”
So far walks have been completed for Denpasar, Jakarta, Surabaya and Yogyakarta in association with NUFFIC [the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education], an independent non-profit with an office in Jakarta.
Dr Van Steekelenburg said NUFFIC covered costs for training, curating and technical maintenance. All proceeds from downloads [the first is free] go to local heritage societies.
New tours are planned for 2015, including one for Malang. The central East Java city is rich in remnants from the 13th to 16th century Majapahit Empire – and garnished with fine examples of 19th century Dutch colonial architecture.
Other cities on the list and scheduled to be ready this year are Magelang and Semarang [Central Java], Bandung [West Java], Medan [North Sumatra] and Padang [West Sumatra].
In 2008 Dr Van Steekelenburg edited Elmina; Building on the past to create a better future. Elmina, a port on the south coast of Ghana also known as the Dutch Gold Coast, was used to ship slaves to America. The slave fortress Coenraadsburg was restored in 2007.
In the book she wrote that the restoration encouraged sustainable developments: ‘This meant an increase in tourism, a revival of traditional culture and skills, an increasing demand for local products and thus improved living conditions’.
In other words conservation and development don’t necessarily make an unhappy marriage.
Yogya-based historian Emile Leushuis, author of Panduan Jelajah Kota-kota Pusaka di Indonesia [A guide to exploring heritage in Indonesia’s Cities] published last year and reviewed in The Jakarta Post on 8 December, said android apps were essential.
Dr Van Steekelenburg agreed: “We’re only one year old and especially in terms of local marketing and keeping walks up-to-date I think we can still improve.
“The bottleneck here is that we mainly rely on the local heritage organisations who are the co-curators of the walks,
“Very few Indonesians have i-Phones, so for them it’s a bit difficult to see the value added at this point. We hope that with the release of the android version next month (Feb) and increased revenues from downloads coming their way it will be a nice promotional tool, an exciting addition to their current activities to bring more awareness to local heritage.”
Leushuis said that creating an app is one thing, “but making it accessible and out there is another.
“Somehow people have to know that there is an app available when they are staying for example in Malang and might be tempted to explore the city.
“I think there should be clear barcode-scanning points at certain locations favored by expats and maybe also on the sign boards that Dwi Cahyono has put up around town.”
Cahyono (right) is a Malang entrepreneur who runs a private museum and has been urging local government to preserve the city’s heritage. He used his own money to erect signs around the city describing historical sites, hoping local government would fund English translations. That has yet to happen.
“I’m one hundred per cent behind this idea if it’s using android apps,” he said. “At the beginning this will attract foreigners – maybe it will take two years for Indonesians to catch up.
“Care has to be taken – what works in Hong Kong may need to be adapted to function here. There’s still a need for education; too few government tourism departments understand that heritage means money.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 January 2015)