This may sound harsh and cold, but destination branding is ultimately an effort to market a nation to the world –allowing the practice to treat culture, people, amazing sceneries, and natural resources as commodities to lure visitors. When a destination puts out a video showing the best side of their culture, food, and amazing sceneries, it is putting forward its nation as a product. This is not to be interpreted as opportunistic scheme of a sell-out, one that casually forgoes national interest to gain profit. On the contrary, in most cases, it plays a role in elevating national pride or act as the extended hands of diplomacy.
Tourism marketing isn’t just getting people to spend their holidays. It plays a major role in providing job opportunities and it promotes economic growth.
Neighboring countries have realized the importance in prioritizing their tourism efforts and have been marketing it intensively for quite some time now. “Incredible India” started in 2002, “Malaysia. Truly Asia” was launched in 1999, while Singapore has been branding itself as a shopping and entertainment hub of Southeast Asia since 1985.
That is not to say that Indonesia hasn’t done anything to brand the country. It clearly has, but it hasn’t done a very good job at it as the results have been anything but effective until very recently.
“Visit Indonesia Year” campaign that was launched in the 1990s was the country’s first real effort at tourism marketing. There were specific themes assigned each year to centralize the tourism effort accordingly. Unfortunately the themes and slogans used during those times were very stiff and rigid: “The Role of Women in Development, Youth, and Sports Year”, “Telecommunication Year”, “Raising the Standard of Living Year”. None of which were anywhere near inviting and certainly not the charming and attractive slogans to lure visitors with.
The national planning and development ministry recorded a pathetic increase [PDF] of foreign visitors from 5 million in 2002 to 7 million in 2010.
In 2011, the Tourism Ministry changed its branding message to “Wonderful Indonesia”. While appearing to be in the right path by using an emotional tone to capture the image of Indonesia as destination of choice, unfortunately it remained a mere slogan for a few years without real comprehensive marketing efforts to back it up.
The initiatives were incoherent and unorganized but the timing seemed right as the country was on the brink of digital and social media snowball. The campaign received a boost from the rising interest in domestic traveling among the middle class millennials, thanks to burgeoning travel startup companies and the increasing popularity of travel bloggers.
The effort generated 9.4 million international visitors to Indonesia in 2014 according to the Tourism Ministry [PDF], a 7.2% growth from 2013. While year on year growth may have been strong, it’s still an embarrassingly low number for a country of more than 17,500 tropical islands, compared to Singapore’s success in luring 15.6 million tourists to its minuscule city state in 2013 as per Singapore Tourism Board, which targeted an increase of up to 16.8 million in 2014.
Arif Yahya, Indonesia’s current Tourism Minister, told Reuters in December last year that Indonesia hopes to boost foreign tourist arrivals to 20 million in 2019. An ambitious target considering the to-do list the country needs to fulfill –which is not short– includes infrastructure development and visa regulation reforms. He also added that the tourism sector is expected to generate eight percent of the country’s gross domestic product by 2019, up from four percent currently.
A plan to develop tourism infrastructure while leveraging the slogan with proper and strategic marketing effort was revealed early this year in which Rp 3.9 trillion was allocated for the tourism sector, more than twice the Ministry’s 2014 budget of Rp 1.7 trillion.
From the new budget, Rp 1.2 trillion, or 30%, will be used for promoting the destinations abroad and half of that will be allocated for digital marketing development. Sounds like a step in a right direction.
However, advertising the nation is much more than merely allocating promotional budget. Indonesia, a beautiful country with a massive tourism potential, is laden with flaws; poor access to most potential tourism spots, high taxes, visa problems, unsanitary conditions, corruption, substandard maintenance, and the list goes on.
Having said that, is there really anything wrong with marketing a flawed product? Who’s to say that you can’t be selectively honest? In an era where being raw is perceived as exceptionally attractive, what is wrong with presenting the not so perfect destination as is? Indonesia’s Tourism Ministry may want to consider the option to show the bruised and battered truths about Indonesia and brand it as part of the Rough Guides for the Adventurous. Definitely something to think about.
Fonnyta Amran is a freelance writer, formerly a travel editor at Female Daily Network. With a passion in traveling and marketing, she previously held a marketing position with Hard Rock Cafe and also at the Singapore Tourism Board in charge of marketing and communication strategies for Indonesia as well as being the editor of STB’s portal, singasik.com.
[header image: Fam Islands, Raja Ampat, by Ricky Pesik]