John McBeth, Jakarta – As foreign tourists start trickling back to Indonesia, Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan has created a furor by announcing plans to charge domestic tourists 750,000 rupiah (US$52) to explore Central Java's iconic Borobudur temple complex.
That's a whopping increase over the current 50,000 rupiah and about half of the new $100 fee imposed on foreigners, who before the Covid-19 pandemic were paying only $12-$25 to enter one of the world's largest Buddhist temples near Jogjakarta.
Panjaitan sought to justify the fee his countrymen will have to pay by pointing to the need to preserve Borobudur; Buddhist Thailand has often criticized Muslim-majority Indonesia for disregarding the temple's religious significance and treating it as purely a tourist site.
"We are taking these measures purely to preserve the rich historical and cultural values of the archipelago," the minister said in announcing the proposed price increase, which is to compensate for a new limit on those permitted to climb the temple to 1,200 people.
But within days a public outcry forced President Joko Widodo's right-man man to postpone the decision, saying he will ask the Borobudur Temple Tourist Park and central government authorities to carry out an immediate review "so the tariff can be lowered."
With the 2024 presidential and general elections looming, Panjaitan has already taken fire from Widodo's ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), which relies on Central Java voters, in particular, for much of its support.
Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo, a prospective presidential candidate, favors the price increase, but he and other officials pointed out that the new charges won't apply to visitors who only want to enter the parkland around the temple.
Archaeologists say the new restriction is not before time. Worried about weathering and the impact of frequent earthquakes, some want the government to forbid tourists from climbing the temple steps altogether.
Borobudur attracts more than five million tourists a year, compared to the 6.3 million who visited Bali in 2019. Daily visitors to the temple soar from an average of 13,000 to as many as 300,000 during holidays.
Foreign tourists will now have to fork out about 40% more than what foreigners are charged at Cambodia's sprawling 12th Century Angkor Wat temple complex, which covers 162 hectares and is much larger in size and scope.
Built in the 9th century, Borobudur was restored in 1911 and was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1991, a year before Angkor Wat.
Other global tourist sites appear to impose lower fees. A visit to the Great Wall of China costs $6. In Egypt, tourists pay $5.35 at the entrance to the Giza Pyramids, but $21 to enter the Great Pyramid itself. England's Tower of London charges $32.15, similar to Buckingham Palace.
Meanwhile, boosted by an easing of pandemic restrictions, more international flights and the recent reintroduction of visas-on-arrival for 72 nationalities, foreign tourist arrivals in Indonesia jumped to more than 111,000 in April from 40,800 in March.
At the same time, the number of air travelers arriving in Bali surged to 58,320, helped along by domestic tourists whose inability to venture overseas has led to them rediscovering their own country.
Foreign arrivals to Indonesia dropped by 75% – from 16.11 million in 2019 to 4.02 million in 2020 – as the pandemic took hold. With tighter travel restrictions, that number had dropped even further to 1.56 million by the end of 2021.
Tourism Minister Sadiaga Uno hopes to attract 1.8 to 3.6 million international visitors this year, with the school holidays this month likely to see a lot more Australians returning to Bali. Continued Covid-19 lockdowns, however, have delayed a renewed influx of Chinese tourists.
Uno recently announced that the government plans to issue special visas for so-called digital nomads, which will allow them to stay for five years without paying taxes if they don't earn an income in Indonesia.
Remote workers and small business operators make up many of the 110,000 foreign nationals who remained in Bali during the pandemic and played a significant role in keeping the resort island's economy ticking over, particularly in the Canggu tourist belt.