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Tourism Dilemma

North Sumatra’s dreams of better tourism times

Luc Citrinot, eTN Senior editor Asia (in Medan)  Jan 12, 2010

North Sumatra tourism hopes that improving air connections will help tourism to grow quicker. In the early nineties, North Sumatra used to be one of the top destinations for foreigners.

“Prior to the crisis of 1997, North Sumatra used to welcome close to 300,000 foreign travelers per year. By the time, we had direct flights to Europe with Garuda making a stopover in Medan out of Amsterdam. We also used to have flights to Taipei a couple of years ago,” explained Nurlisa Ginting, head of the Office for Culture and Tourism for North Sumatra Province.

Transport is indeed a crucial issue to boost tourism. Medan Polonia airport offers a lot of international connections but they are mostly to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore. AirAsia recently inaugurated three weekly flights to Phuket.

“It s good to be linked to Thailand but I think that a daily flight to Bangkok would be more relevant to us due to a bigger potential, especially with a big expatriate community and many intercontinental flights,” said Artur Batubara, head of North Sumatra Tourism Promotion Board. Priority is now given to China and especially for a flight to Guangzhou, according to Nurlisa Ginting.

It might only be a question of time: the current airport in Polonia is overcrowded and has a reputation to be an unsafe airfield due to its proximity to a hill in the midst of Medan city. The expected opening of a brand new facility for eight million passengers in Kuala Namu, some 30 km from the city as well as an ASEAN open-skies status for the airport –due to come into effect next April- should then improve Sumatra connection to the rest of the world.

But North Sumatra must also define precisely its objectives. The Province has everything to make it a perfect destination for a wonderful vacation: it has history with old monuments in Medan, vernacular architecture on Lake Toba and in Nias Island; spectacular scenery around Lake Toba with volcanoes, rain-forests, national parks, protected areas for Orang Utan. However, little has been done so far in terms of international exposures.

“We concentrate a lot on domestic tourism as this continues to represent the bulk of our tourism with over one million arrivals per year. By comparison, foreigners represented only 160,000 arrivals last year,” added Ginting.

Things are likely also to change. Ginting and Batubara are working together to have more exposure abroad. The budget of North Sumatra Tourism is up by over 80 percent and should reach this year US$1.6 million. “It will give us the possibility to participate at large international travel shows in China, ASEAN countries and eventually in Europe,” said Ginting.

In terms of activities, North Sumatra Tourism will continue to advertise cultural festivals and events all around the provinces, and most particularly in Medan and around Lake Toba. To improve the quality of the destination, Ginting also foresees guide training as well as the launch of a campaign to clean main tourism objects as well as villages and city centers. Some famous attractions in Medan such as Maimoon Palace, the Grand Mosque or the markets in both cities of Berastagi and Parapat are in dire needs of a complete revamp. Discussions should also take place in Parapat to provide a proper jetty for visitors taking ferry services to Samosir Island.

Ginting is also very keen on stressing on heritage tourism. “We have wonderful old buildings from the Dutch time but also historical places with a Chinese or Malay historical background. We must put more emphasize on preservation and conversion into modern tourism objects,” said Ginting. Traditional houses in Batak Karo and Batak Toba villages should be put urgently under heritage to save them from a probable demolition.

Medan has been more successful to retain some of its old building, despite the fact that many of them already have been erased from the city landscape to give way to modern constructions. A first example of successful conversion into a tourist attraction is the Tjong A Fie Mansion on Ahmad Yani Street in Medan, an 150-year old Chinese-Malay mansion, which has been turned into a museum. Ginting works now to restore the building where her offices are located which used to be a previous Dutch printing company.

“I dream to convert Ahmad Yani Street up to Independence Square into a vast pedestrian area,” declared Ginting. She could get the support of more private business. Not far from this area rises the silhouette of Medan’s tallest building, the J.W. Marriott.

And, on Lapangan Merdeka (Independence Square), the old City Hall will reopen by the end of the month as part of a new five-star hotel, the Aston Grand City Hall.

Both hotel companies might be more supportive of a beautification program in Medan old town.

North Sumatra’s dreams of better tourism times
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