BY: ROSS TAYLOR
For years, Indonesian and Australian leaders have been meeting to shake hands and declare the huge potential for our two countries to build closer relations.
The visit to Sydney last week by Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was noticeably different. Not only did Jokowi bring with him a number of very senior ministers and business people, he also brought with him a list of future priorities, including proposals to partner with Australia on Indonesia’s new planned capital and the manufacture of electric vehicles.
One of these priorities was better visa access for Indonesians. Jokowi made this well known in advance of his visit through an exclusive interview with the Australian Financial Review where he emphasised ease of travel for building closer relations. In fact, visa reciprocity has been a long‑standing bugbear for the Indonesians and Jokowi raised it with Australia in 2018 and 2020.
So, as Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese welcomed Jokowi last Tuesday, he moved quickly to announce reforms that he said will make, “an enormous difference, and remove bureaucratic impediments to our closer relationship”, allowing people to move more freely between our two nations.
At the annual leaders’ summit, he unveiled a suite of visa reforms designed to improve access for Indonesian businesspeople. These included the extension of business visas from three to five years and plans to make 10-year visas available to Indonesian nationals under Australia’s Frequent Traveller Stream. He also boasted of improved visa processing times, down from a median of 60 days in 2022 to 7 days in May. In addition, Indonesians with e-passports will also now get access to Australia’s smart gates on arrival.
These are important reforms that will be welcomed by the business community – but not everyone is happy.
Indonesian holidaymakers appear to have missed-out and that means Australia will be the bigger loser as Indonesia’s millennial generation seek-out destinations that welcome them and their families. Outbound tourism is undergoing substantial growth in Indonesia, rising from 7.7 million international travellers in 2012 to a pre-pandemic high of 11.7 million in 2019. With many countries now allowing Indonesian tourists to visit without a visa there are plenty of choices, and Australia is often not one of them.
To make things worse, currently, Indonesian holidaymakers must pay $140 per person in application fees just to apply for a visa to come here. And that applies to each family member, including children, so a family of four could end up handing over $560 in fees before they even book their flights. These fees are often non-refundable if a visa is refused.
Indonesians must also answer a demeaning 15-page questionnaire that includes questions such as, “Have you been involved in acts of genocide?”. Australia also requires Indonesian people to prove they can fund their stay in Australia and they can even be asked to undergo health checks.
Meanwhile, Australians heading to Bali are granted a visa-on-arrival for a cost of AUD $50. This contrast no doubt leaves Indonesian leaders and officials frustrated and annoyed at a time when, otherwise, the relationship – whether it be defence, policing, business, or government relations – is in a rare sweet spot.
Collectively, the new business partnerships and visa reforms announced at Jokowi’s visit are a breakthrough for the business relationship. But, ironically, the same Australian bureaucracy that celebrates the success of the visit and the closeness of relations insists on maintaining the same draconian visa restrictions for Indonesian citizens coming here to holiday.
This creates a disincentive for our two countries to really get to know one another. The Lowy Institute’s attitude surveys from 2023 show Australians are sceptical of Indonesians – just 51% said they trusted Indonesia to act responsibility in the world.
And the feeling is mutual. Lowy’s 2021 survey of Indonesians showed only 55% of Indonesians said they trust Australia – a 20-point drop from 2011.
Until the Australian government fully reforms its outdated visa system, we will continue to miss out on the tourism boom in from Indonesia. Critically, we will also fail to build the close people-to-people links that will allow us to move beyond what is currently a transactional relationship.
People-to-people links are the cornerstone of business because, ultimately, business is about trust. It is very difficult to do business with people you don’t know, in a country you have never visited.
And that means that as more and more Indonesians venture abroad, they may simply choose to do business elsewhere.