The Ambassador of India to Indonesia and Timor Leste 2012-2015 sat down with InClover and shared popular destinations, special activities and cultural experiences, along with the challenges in bringing more visitors to India.
I: Last year you held the Festival of India in Indonesia with the slogan “Sahabat India” (trustful, loyal, true friend). Can you tell us more about the program and how do you expect it to influence Indonesian travelers?
G: Sahabat India is basically a cultural-economic program to increase people engagement. It’s a long program consisting of many events. We don’t only go to Jakarta and Bali, but to sixteen cities, many universities, shopping malls, and vihara to bring our linkage together. It’s not only about travel— we held seminars, yoga, exhibitions, education, all at once. All that helped in raising awareness about India among Indonesian people.
Throughout Sahabat India, we give many prizes for people to go to India, along with inviting travel bloggers and media to create a buzz. Most Indonesians who go to India are going for spiritual trips, so we publish about spiritual tourism in Bahasa Indonesia. That is one of our efforts to achieve the constituency. We also hope that more businessmen will travel.
I: What challenges do you find while trying to make more Indonesians visit India?
G: In travel fairs, many people say they want to go to India. We have provided permission for some Indonesian airlines to fly direct to India, but until now we have yet to receive their business proposals. They will fly when there are more tourists. But the government told them to fly first before they aid the promotion so that more people will fly. They’re following the chicken and egg story. But we’re not saying that the low number of Indonesian tourists who go to India means we will neglect you. On the contrary, we will work harder to engage you.
I: What are the favorite destinations of Indonesian visitors?
G: Many people from Bali go to Hindu tourism in Uttarakhand, Delhi, Hyderabad, Agra and Kurukshetra. For Muslim tourism, they go to Delhi, Ajmer, and many more. There are also some Buddhist areas. Plus new age gurus in Bangalore and Mumbai. There are a lot of spiritual tourism.
I: What about the regular tourists?
G: They are increasing now. We are particularly happy that female individual tourists are increasing. They mostly go to the Golden Triangle: Delhi – Agra – Jaipur.
Since we are trying to promote diversity in tourism and also high end tourism, we’d love for people to visit Southern India. Like Kerala, where people go for backwaters and spice studies.
For the high-end tourism, aside from the spa resorts and five star hotels, you can also ride the luxury trains like the Palace on Wheels and the Deccan Odyssey. These trains are very unique because they don’t simply take you to destinations but also enable you to stay in the train like royalties. For example, you can take a return trip between Delhi and Rajasthan on board the Palace on Wheels, or between Delhi and Mumbai with the Deccan Odyssey.
I: Any lesser-known destinations you’d like to promote?
G: I went to school in Ajmer, in Rajashtan. It is a very unique city because it holds the oldest temple of the god Brahma, of the creator, and perhaps the only temple in India for Brahma. Ajmer also has a Sufi Dargah and a big camel fair.
I: What should an Indonesian expect when they visit India?
G: They will see a lot of their own culture in India. They will say, oh, you also have Mahabharat and Ramayana. There will be immense cultural engagement.
Some cultural shock is also bound to happen. Some Indonesians are used to delicate and quiet atmosphere. In India, they will be exposed to vibrant colors and loud sounds, particularly in Rajasthan. Even the dances are livelier. The Ramayana dance performed in India, for example, has much faster tempo compared to the one in Yogyakarta.
For the food, Indonesians perhaps use 2-3 spices in your food. In India we use 10. We use many chili and spices. The way you use them is unique, you don’t mix them. In our case, masala is a mix of chili. The taste is more delicate in Indonesia and “deeper” in India. We also tend to use more color, more chili. Then again, I find it interesting how some Indonesians go to India and they say very hot food, but then they open their bottled chili and mix them into the food.
But what I wish for Indonesians who visit India is they will see how much progress both of our countries have and how similar we are to one another.
I: What’s the plan for 2016 between India and Indonesia?
G: We will focus more on economic engagement, tourism and education. Students are big motivators for education business and tourism. Currently there are few students from Indonesia, so we are very happy that recently two universities in Indonesia have signed an agreement with India: ITB Bandung with TERI University and Wahid Hasyim University with Jamia Millia Islamia University. The agreement includes student and faculty exchange, scholarship along with joint program and curriculum.