As the resources boom continues to deteriorate, our Federal Government is looking for other sources to boost the struggling Australian economy. At the same time, our government is struggling to ensure our region remains safe at a time of increased threats of terrorism.
Although these issues may not be directly related, a long overdue announcement by our Border Force Minister Peter Dutton, from Jakarta during the PM’s visit recently, may help both these challenges faced by our state and federal governments.
As from 2017 Indonesian nationals wanting to visit Australia will have the visa application process simplified with a view to attracting more tourists from this emerging giant and home to 255 million people. There is enormous potential when we consider the tourist arrival figures into Australia for the year ending May 2014 from three neighbouring South East Asian nations:
· Singapore: 175,000
· Malaysia: 137,000
· Indonesia: 55,180
The above figures are disturbing. Our nearest neighbour, with a booming middle-class and 95 million young people, all located only a few hours away, and we can only attract less than 60,000 to come and see our wonderful country. And we wonder why most airlines battle to maintain direct flights services between Jakarta and Australian cities?
So why have we failed so badly to access the Indonesian market given that they do travel a lot; with 2.5 million Indonesians going to Malaysia last year and over two million flying into Singapore?
Apart from our lack of commitment to seriously promote Australia within Indonesia, another major deterrent is the process Indonesians face when considering a holiday here: No online visa applications allowed (yet we allow other South-East Asian nations to apply electronically), over 15 pages of forms and a $520.00 non-refundable fee just to obtain a visa for a family of four.
Why bother, when Indonesians can simply fly north without any of this red tape?
The Indonesia Institute has lobbied extensively to have the inbound tourist visa process made simpler and easier, but often we are told that an ‘easier’ visa system may encourage Indonesians to overstay once here. Yet Indonesian nationals who do come to Australia, including tourists, students and business people, have amongst the best record of any country in the world for visa compliance in Australia. So what mindset makes us actively discourage the growth of this market at such a critical time for our economy?
Fortunately with the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull as PM, relations with Indonesia have taken a sudden turn for the better. And Mr Dutton’s Jakarta announcement last month will now see Indonesians at least have access to online visas as from next year and the option of a multiple-entry visa. This is a good start, but the fees and the amount of paperwork should also be halved.
In the face of calls for tighter border controls, an announcement such as this was kept relatively low key. But the impact of this decision, combined with the recent decision to increase tourism promotion and staff in Indonesia, could see this market treble within the next two years and become a tsunami of free-spending middle-class Indonesians over the next ten years; all pumping much needed dollars into Australia’s services and hospitality sector.
The likelihood of Indonesia now removing the Visa-on-Arrival for our holidaymakers heading off to Bali will now be much higher, saving Australians $50 million every year.
But this quiet announcement of easier visa requirements for Indonesian tourists, achieves another important goal; bringing the people of our two nations closer.
At a national level, more Indonesians visiting us, means a better understanding of each other’s culture. With Australians still viewing Indonesia with great suspicion and alongside Egypt and Russia in terms of trust, there is much to be done to correct these warped perceptions.
More importantly for Australia though, is the threat of terrorism from Islamic Jihadists within our region. Indonesia may be the home to the largest population of Muslims in world, but it is also home to ‘real’ Muslims who overwhelmingly embrace the true meaning of Islam and who detest Islamic State who seek to inflict terror on not only Australia, but Indonesia itself.
Indonesia must play a critical role if Australia is to thwart the menace of IS. Our Federal Police have already developed close relations with their Indonesian counterparts since the 2002 Bali bombings, and our anti-terrorist agencies work closely in sharing information concerning terrorist cells and centres that have established themselves throughout the archipelago.
Only last month Bapak A. Mustufa Bisri, the Indonesian spiritual leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – who has 50 million Muslim members – rejected the whole basis of IS adding, “..every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion..and foster the perfection of human nature..”
If we are to be successful in keeping our respective nations safe, Indonesia and Australia must not only work closely together, but also rebuild the trust that has been lost during the difficulties of the past few years. Indonesia can be a strong voice in our campaign to discredit ISIS amongst our own Muslim communities.
Opening-up opportunities for our respective citizens – including our young people – to travel more freely and easily around our two great countries, will go a long way to correcting the outdated dogma that currently exists.
Indonesia can therefore help our nation in building a strong inbound tourist market that can provide jobs - and the need for Asian language skills - and it can also contribute significantly to making our region a safer place.
Ross Taylor AM is the President of the WA-based Indonesia Institute Inc
This article was originally published in The West Australian newspaper on 21st December 2015.