[Updated at 7:03 p.m. on Tuesday March 17, 2015, to add further comment]
Jakarta. To boost tourist numbers, Indonesia from next month will waive visa requirements for nationals from an extra 30 countries — but not Australia — the government has announced.
When the new regulation goes into effect, there will be a total of 45 countries whose citizens can enter Indonesia for short-term visits without the need for a visa.
“Offering visa-free travel is one of the easiest ways to boost tourist numbers," Tourism Minister Arief Yahya said on Monday. "Malaysia offers visa-free travel to 164 countries and Thailand offers it to 56 countries.”
Both Malaysia and Thailand attract far more tourists than Indonesia each year.
Arief said the government was hoping that an estimated 10 million foreign tourists would spend at least $1 billion this year. Indonesia recorded 9 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2014, rising from 8.8 million visitors in 2013.
“Only nine million tourists came to Indonesia last year. Thailand recorded 26 million foreign tourist arrivals last year and Malaysia recorded 27 million foreign tourists last year. By waiving visa requirements, we can attract more tourists than Thailand or Malaysia in two years,” Arief said.
Australia, with which ties are currently strained over the pending execution of two Australian drug convicts, was not included in the list of visa-free countries.
"If we give visa-free travel to Australia, we have to be given the same thing," Arief was quoted as saying by Reuters, stressing the importance of reciprocity.
The minister denied that the decision was tied to the planned execution of the two Australian nationals.
"I can guarantee that if the Australian government wants [to agree to visa-free travel], that the foreign minister and president will almost definitely want it too," Arief said.Australian tourists accounted for 12 percent of foreigners visiting Indonesia in 2014, according to the Central Statistic Agency (BPS), making them the third-largest group after Singaporeans and Malaysians.
While the new measure was expected to boost arrivals to Indonesia, the government admitted there was a risk of visitors abusing the new arrangement.
“It’s true that the government is worried about tourist breaking immigration laws with the implementation of this policy, especially tourists from China," said Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly. "Last year there were 3,300 cases involving Chinese tourists."
Visa-free travel will only be available through five international airports in Jakarta, Medan, Batam, Bali and Surabaya, and would come with tighter monitoring, Yasonna said.
Foreign tourists found smuggling illegal goods, such as drugs, would face serious penalties, the Justice Minister said.
The chief of Indonesia's armed forces, meanwhile, has said the government had discusses security matters related to the visa-free travel plan.
“We have discussed it in the cabinet meeting and there is no problem,” Gen. Moeldoko told news portal detik.com. “The most important thing is that we are ready to anticipate any risk.”
Citizens from the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as well as Hong Kong, Macau, Ecuador, Chile and Peru were already exempted from the visa requirement. The countries that will join this list next month are: China, Japan, South Korea, United States, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Russia, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and South Africa.
Additional reporting from Reuters