A great tourism slogan for Jakarta would be “Jakarta: The people make it bearable.”
Indeed, Indonesians are perhaps the warmest and most genuine people in all of Asia – at least by this reporter’s estimation, having lived in and traveled in dozens of Asian cities. And even in a massive city like Jakarta, with a population of nearly 10 million, that warmth and hospitality isn’t lost.
But the problem is that a traveler will find it hard to access these wonderful people. That’s because the city isn’t designed for interaction with strangers. It’s a city where you’re either stuck in a car, a taxi, or a mall.
There are very few local mom-and-pop cafes or restaurants where a business traveler or tourist can simply walk from a hotel and get to know local customers and staff. There’s no major metro system, like the one in Bangkok, where a stranger can easily exchange a few kind words with locals while in transit. Those can include simple things such as asking directions, or locals asking tourists where they’re from and how they like Bangkok, which happens all the time. Such interactions, small as they may be, create meaningful memories for travelers. At times they are the start of international friendships – at a time when millions of people worldwide can keep in touch with new overseas friends on apps like Whatsapp and Line.
Indeed, these days, most Western travelers do not go abroad with large tour groups of their countrymen. Rather, they want to experience local cultures and get to know local people on their own. That’s one reason sites like Airbnb are so popular – the best way to experience a new place is to meet locals. It’s a sign of a changing world, in which traveling abroad and making new, international friends is the new normal.
But Jakarta’s infrastructure isn’t set up for meeting new people. There are not many places to walk, except for a few re-vitalized neighborhoods that are difficult to get to. Much of the main business district has highways cutting right through the city center. A metro system is being built, although officials have promised it for years. If you want to go anywhere, you have to take a cab – and you might get stuck if there’s a taxi strike.
Most decent restaurants are located in malls, where there’s no local culture at all. There are nearly 200 malls in the city – sparkling and new, where the city’s middle and upper middle class can go to get away from the slums outside. It’s understandable, but tourists don’t get on a plane just to see malls. Malls are also expensive to build. And the money would be better spent creating upscale public spaces like parks and outdoor markets, as Bangkok has.
Jakarta’s national monument, for example, could be made into a great public space, as there are ample grounds to do so. But the place is usually empty, and there are no restaurants or other attractions to draw tourists.
Jakarta actually does have some great tourist attractions, but the government doesn’t do much to promote them. A first time visitor could pass through and not have the faintest idea that these places exist.
In sharp contrast, when you check into a reputable Bangkok hotel, staff will immediately let you know about all the great attractions and restaurants, even cooking classes and massage classes for tourists that the city offers.
Jakarta’s largest mosque, the Istiqlal mosque, is a wonderful place to visit. Staff there are helpful to foreigners and Indonesian worshipers will often approach a foreigner to take a selfie together. Students are especially friendly. Indonesians are quite warm and this is one of the few places a traveler can easily interact with locals. The place is also a testament to Indonesia’s moderate brand of Islam and welcoming attitude toward those of other faiths. It’s located right across the street from a major Christian cathedral. And they even share a parking lot.
But it’s hard to get to. A tourist will have to hire a taxi to get there. And if you don’t want to get stuck there, you have to ask the driver that you’d like him to wait outside the place for you while you go in. He will have no problem doing this. But while you’re inside, you feel rushed, because the taxi driver is sweating bullets outside in the heat while he waits for you, and you feel guilty for making him wait so long. He won’t complain, but who wants to ask someone to wait outside in the scorching sun?
These are things billionaire businessman Sandiaga Uno says he wants to fix if elected governor of Jakarta in February.
“Right now the focus of the government… is unfortunately more focused toward mobility by car,” the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial candidate told Borderless News Online.
“And I think I want to change that. I want to have more public transport as a focus, and areas whereby people can interact” he said, speaking of what he would do if elected.
“So massive projects like the subway, which is underway, I want to speed it up, I want to accelerate it,” he said. “And the light rail system, I want to integrate it with the bus system, which for the last 30-40 years has had the same route,” he said.
“They need to change the route because the city has transformed and you see different sides of Jakarta are now becoming a center of growth, and center of where people are now basically situated,” he said.
Uno added that, if elected, he would focus on building mass rapid transportation systems, and focus less on building malls. While middle and upper-middle class Indonesians like malls because they offer a clean, air conditioned escape from the grinding traffic, heat and poverty outside – essentially an escape from the reality – malls do nothing to draw tourists in one of Asia’s largest cities.
“Less focus on malls and upscale shopping areas and more focus on providing open space for people to interact,” he said.
“Areas like north of Jakarta, whereby you have waterfront, it’s completely neglected. Those areas are prime areas for waterfront development,” he said.
But even with the best of intentions, Indonesia’s bloated autocracies move at a snail’s pace – and often don’t even move at all. And even politicians who say they want to cut through the red tape – including the nation’s president Joko Widodo – do not have a magic want they can wave and force sluggish bureaucrats to do their jobs more efficiently.
Uno noted that there are many draws for tourism, but added that they are very difficult for any tourist to access due to lack of public transport.
“…The 120 plus museums (in Jakarta)…are just not well connected,” he said.
Uno told Borderless in an interview last year that he would cut through the bureaucracy by offering incentives through a system of evaluation. Employees with good evaluations might be rewarded, for example.
Such changes, he said, would allow visitors to interact more frequently and on a more meaningful level.
“If you want to be treated nice, come to Jakarta,” he said.
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