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Indonesia recorded a steep drop in foreign tourist arrivals number in March as the COVID-19 pandemic decimates the country’s tourism industry, Statistics Indonesia (BPS) data show.

Foreign tourist arrivals plunged 64.1 percent year-on-year (yoy) in March to 470,898 visitors, a level unseen in more than a decade, BPS head Suhariyanto said on Wednesday.

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“The number of tourists from all over the world is declining sharply because of the social movement restrictions, lockdowns and flight restrictions in effect in different countries,” he said during a livestreamed press conference.

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The pandemic has dealt a blow to Indonesia’s tourism at a time when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration is striving to develop the industry to be one of the country’s new sources of economic growth.

According to BPS data, March’s foreign tourist number is the lowest monthly figure since February 2009, when the agency recorded 421,555 foreign tourist arrivals to the country.

Tourists from mainland China saw the steepest drop in March at 97.4 percent yoy, followed by Hong Kong tourists (96 percent) and those from Kuwait (89 percent). China is among the countries that send the most tourists to Indonesia.

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“The drop is so severe and we need to be wary of it. Such a level of decline will greatly affect the tourism industry and its supporting sectors,” Suhariyanto said.

In line with the slump in tourist arrivals, the hotel occupancy rate in March also dropped 16.9 percentage points from February to 32.2 percent.

“We never thought that things would get this bad. We thought the pandemic would be contained to China just like SARS,” Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI) chairman Hariyadi Sukamdani told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

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“This is the worst period Indonesia’s tourism industry has ever seen,” he added.

In late April, the PHRI reported that 1,642 hotels and 353 restaurants had so far shut their businesses down. The association also revealed that 180 tourist destinations and 232 tourist villages across Indonesia had been temporarily closed.

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Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies (ASITA) chairman Nunung Rusmiati also said the assocation’s 7,000 members had been trying not to lay off workers, but were forced to carry out extra cost-efficiency measures, such as cutting salaries by 50 percent, in order to survive.

Despite hoteliers’ attempts to adapt to new business strategies, such as renting hotels for medical workers, Hariyadi said the falling demand had made it almost impossible for hotels to remain profitable.

“It’s hard to survive when demand is dwindling. All mitigation strategies that we’ve tried only provide us with a fractional result,” he said.

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He added that the association was now asking for penalty fee waivers from state electricity company PLN and gas company PGN for hotels and restaurants, and expansions of the government social safety net for furloughed workers to cushion the detrimental impacts of COVID-19.

Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Wishnutama Kusubandio said the decline was in line with the ministry’s projection.

“The ministry is currently working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and implementing the mitigation plan for the tourism and creative economy sector, which has been hit by the pandemic,” he said in a press statement on Monday.

“We will focus future tourism development on principal things to anticipate new trends in which [tourists] are more concerned with sanitation and hygiene, for instance, and on a digital and technological approach,” he added.

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