Tourism during the Colonial Era in Indonesia

Not many people are aware that actually modern tourism in Indonesia already commenced during the colonial era in the 20th century. The exact timing is unknown since data concerning this matter is still limited. At that time of course the name “Indonesia” was yet unknown because it was still named the Nederlandsch-Indie or the Dutch Indies.

This issue becomes increasingly interesting because in the previous periods (the 19th century) the Dutch Indies government in fact did not support tourism to the Dutch Indies. There were rules prohibiting foreigners to come to the Dutch Indies. These rules already existed since the VOC period during the 18th century and were further strengthened during the liberal era in the year 1872. Foreign visitors had to obtain permits, toelatingskaart from the Governor General if they wanted to go on journeys to several large towns on Java, specifically those in the hinterlands (binnenlanden).

The Dutch Indies authorities apparently were unable to continue putting up obstacles against incoming visitors. This was added by international media stories concerning the Dutch Indies in the 19th century which were about news concerning epidemics (cholera, bubonic plague), volcano eruptions, ethnic wars and violence among original inhabitants (incites of violence, black magic). However all this in fact brought about the curiosity of those with surplus of funds. Mainly those in Europe and Northern America. Journeys to Eastern countries also become faster and easier after the opening of the Suez Channel in 1869.

In year 1908, the same year as the establishment of Boedi Oetomo, a  pro-nationalist Indonesian movement, the Dutch Indies authorities established the Vereniging Toeristenverkeer (VTV) in Weltevreden, Batavia. This semi official body constituted an association of state and private enterprises handling the matter of tourism in the Dutch Indies. This body was under the supervision of J.B. van Heutsz, the Governor General of the Dutch Indies at that time. We know the name van Heutsz as the General who once overpowered Aceh in the beginning of the 20th century.

Automatically this tourism board became a ‘government board’ that controlled all matters pertaining to tourism in the Dutch Indies. This board also obtained subsidy from the colonial government. It is recorded that in 1908 it acquired aid of 25,000 guilders, in 1908 20,000 guilders and finally in 1910 it was decided that it shall receive annual aid of 10,000 guilders. Quite a large amount for those days.

The tourism board with office at Jl.Noordwijk 36 (currently Jl.Ir.H.Juanda) also received the support of several circles. Such as hotel owners, restaurant owners, shop owners, banks, private railway companies and seafaring shipping agents. Between the years 1910-1912 this tourism board had an office at Rijswijk 11 and Rijswijk 38 (currently Jl. Veteran).

In 1922, the board had a total of 60 members. The caretakers of this board comprised senior officials of the state railway company (Staatspoorwegen), banking entrepreneurs, hotel and shop owners as well as officials from the KPM (Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij) – the state shipping company. They also gave their contributions to the VTV. Until the 1940s, shipping companies constituted the main contributors.

Historian Robert Cribb assumes that the change why did the colonial government became the main sponsor in promoting tourism in the Dutch Indies related Ethical Politics in 1901. The policy of Ethical Politics emphasizes on the colonial government role to uphold the degree of the local inhabitants. However programs towards the “success” of such Ethical Politics appeared to need quite substantial financing and appeared that modern tourism constituted a new and important source of income for the colonial government.

Previously, the Dutch Indies government had also prepared several other supporting facilities such as roads, railways and also opened up channels for sea vessels. Of course all this was initially intended for economy/trading, not specifically for tourism. For example the construction of the railway was proposed by the plantation entrepreneurs. Thereafter, since the 1920s an air flight route was opened to the Dutch Indies by the Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij (state airline company). This airline company in the Dutch Indies was established through the intervention of former VTV chairman, D.A. Delprat and KLM director, A. Plesman.

Brochures, posters and books on tourism published by VTV were disseminated overseas. The targets were Europeans (Dutch, French, English), North America and Australia. The tourism area offered up for the first time was Java because Java was considered secure and politically under control. Meanwhile objects promoted were volcanos and their craters, lakes, hot water baths and the beautiful scenery in Java as well as its cultural inheritances such as the Borobudur and Prambanan temples. Several new cities designed by the colonial government in Java were also established as tourism objects, such as Bandung, Candi (Semarang) and Malang. The colonial government created a kind of ‘Tropical Holland’ or ‘Het Paradijs der Tropen’ in the Dutch Indies.

To attract prospective tourists, especially since during that time they were more interested in vacationing in tourism spots in Europe, the colonial government then created names for cities in Java obtained in tourism guide books, such as Zwitserland van Java for Garut, Parijs van Java for Bandung, Venetie van Java for Batavia, Gibraltar van Java for Semarang.

Approaching the 1930s, Java was no longer considered safe due to increasingly radical national movements. Additionally the original Javanese culture of Hindhu and Buddhist teachings in Java which according to the colonial government was a tourist attraction in the Dutch Indies was increasingly disappearing. The colonial government then looked at Bali to become an alternative tourist destination and was expected to replace the lost Java. Thus Bali was named “the lost paradise”. In spite of this in the subsequent years Java still remained the destination of foreign tourists even until now.

Tourism promotion in the 30s was also unbeatable in intensity. After an initial deterioration due to malaise that swept the world, this time Bali became the spearhead of the promotion. Artists such as Walter Spies, Miguel Covarrubias, Rudolf Bonnet and anthropologists such as Jane Belo and Margaret Mead also indirectly promoted Bali as an island worth visiting. Bali was said to be an island of paradise. Tourism advertisements in the 30s mentioned that one should not die without seeing the Island of Bali first. Even a silent movie of Charlie Chaplin showed that he visited this island.
Bali’s fame was established as a theme during the international colonial exhibition in Paris in 1931. The entrance to the Dutch Indies pavilion was a duplicate of the entrance door to the Camenggon temple in Sukawati, South Bali with a height of 50 meters complete with the granite carvings. Not only that, fifty dancers and Bali gamelan musical instrument players were brought in to add to the festivities of the exhibition. As a result, flows of incoming tourists arrived in Bali.

Other than Bali, the Dutch Indies government also tried to offer up other areas such as Sumatra (Brastagi, Danau Toba, Fort de Kock), Sulawesi (Toraja), Maluku Islands. Definitely all this could not be separated from the factors of facilities and security. The government also did not want to take any risks of acquiring just any kind of facility with no security because this could ‘damage’ their promotions.

Since the establishment of VTV until the 1940s, the itineraries offered almost never changed. From the tourism guidebooks from 1910 and 1940 the routes and objects offered, for example started from Batavia, Priangan, Vorstenlanden(Yogya, Solo), Surabaya, Bromo Mountains and then Bali. There also were several itineraries from the 30s that offered trips to Sumatra, Celebes (Sulawesi), Borneo (Kalimantan), Maluku Isles.
Then what about the local tourists alias the indigenous? Were they only an audience? Indeed tourism appeared to be only for the upper classes. Previously, the local royalty in the Dutch Indies had hobbies in hunting, vacation in health resorts and resting in their rest houses near the mountains. These rest houses were even used by tourists as places to stop by or sleep over.

In the meantime after the entrance of foreign influence, the neo royalty (royalty class not through inheritance) who acquired modern education in large cities in Java followed such vacationing habits. This neo royalty such as Soekarno, M. Hatta, Sutan Sjahrir, M. Yamin went for recreation to tourism objects regulated by the colonial government and which were actually not for them. Their experiences in these recreational activities are contained in their memoirs, autobiographies or biographies. It was during such journeys that their experiences in finding their Indonesian nationality were formed. What is interesting is that the images of this neo royalty are formed from pictures and photographs in their study books which used photographs promoting tourism in the Dutch Hindies. For example a picture of railway tracks crossing the Priangan mountains, photos of the magnificent Borobudur temple.

Not only that, tourism in the colonial era also opened up new professions in this sector. For example, overseers, hotel employees, tour guides or entertainers (dances, music). An interesting fact is the ‘tourist’ concept among the population in Java until now. They name all tourists, mainly those with Caucasian skin as ‘londo (dutch) tourists’. No matter if they originate from America, England, France or Germany.

Published in INA MAGAZINE Volume XVII Third Issue October 2006

I would like to thank you to Iskandar P. Nugraha (UNSW) for the discussion and the sources of this article

2 thoughts on “Tourism during the Colonial Era in Indonesia”

  1. kepada ahmadsunjayadi,
    bolehkah saya mengetahui sumber-sumber yang saudara pakai dalam menulis artikel ‘tourism during the colonial era in indonesia’?
    saya membutuhkannya untuk referensi skripsi saya.

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