In early 2016, the government announced that Lake Toba and its surrounding area in North Sumatra would be made into an international tourist destination, one of the “new Bali” locations. The following year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inaugurated the airport in Silangit as an international airport. In a later visit, he quipped, “Every place located in Lake Toba is so beautiful”, echoing the sentiments of countless visitors.
On Monday, a ferry sank in Toba, a crater lake known as the world’s deepest, reaching up to 500 meters deep. Many fear the worst for the dozens still missing in the usually freezing waters. At least one person died among the 80 on board. The ferry reportedly lacked a manifest and sufficient life vests, if any. Tuesday’s reports said only 18 had been rescued.
In this holiday season, hopefully the ferry’s capsizing was the last accident. Rescue workers are still seeking one missing passenger of a boat that sank off the coast of Makassar, South Sulawesi, last week. Seventeen had died among the 55 passengers. In December 2015, almost 80 boat passengers died, also in the waters off South Sulawesi.
Despite so many accidents during regular holiday seasons and our heavy daily dependence on sea transportation, the lack of safety measures of passenger vessels is the norm rather than the exception — similar to many, if not most of our modes of public transportation, regardless of “international” tourist destination status.
Local and foreign travelers will find that preventative measures exist only where supervision is intensive and strict, which is a rarity. This is despite the campaigns for the “new Bali” destinations to boost tourist arrivals and diversify them beyond Bali. Most of these sites boast heavenly beaches and diving spots, including Tanjung Kelayang in Belitung, Labuan Bajo in East Nusa Tenggara, Mandalika in West Nusa Tenggara, North Maluku, the Wakatobi islands of Southeast Sulawesi and Tanjung Lesung in Banten.
Even the “new Bali” of the Thousand Islands near Jakarta lacks passenger vessels that meet safety standards set by the National Transportation Safety Commission, as revealed when a boat engine exploded and reportedly injured nine people earlier this year.
In such a situation, how are we to promote such tourist resorts? The campaign shows our national trait of disregard for safety, amid conviction that Indonesia’s natural beauty from west to east is surely enough to lure travelers.
Beyond the adventurous, however, more cautious visitors select locations with more certainty of safety for their families, therefore falling back on Bali with its wide choice of players experienced in tourism. Alongside the locals offering carefree and inexpensive boat rides, picky tourists wary of their insurance coverage opt for operators seeking to adhere to strict safety standards, if only to survive tight international competition.
Both safety and hygiene remain low on the radar of tourism campaigners. A much higher awareness of these aspects is urgent among those involved in the industry, if we indeed care about our visitors, and not just their expected cash.