Tourists visit Borobudur Temple in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. Slamet Riyadi/AP
Hundreds of tourists, many of them young Westerners, sat on gray stone steps atop the world's largest Buddhist temple, occasionally checking cell phones or whispering to each other as they waited for daylight.
The 9th century temple is in the centre of Indonesia's Java Island, a densely populated region with stunning vistas. Other highlights include the towering Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, like Borobudur a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Mount Merapi, the country's most active volcano, whose lava-covered slopes are accessible by jeep.
Local tourists take a selfie with the background of Mount Merapi. AP
Recently re-elected President Joko Widodo wants to change this dynamic by pushing ahead with "10 new Balis," an ambitious plan to boost tourism and diversify Southeast Asia's largest economy.
Key to the plan is to upgrade provincial airports and improve access to outlying destinations, such as Lake Toba on Sumatra Island, more than 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from Jakarta, the capital. Yogyakarta, the provincial city from where visitors head to Borobudur and Prambanan, is getting a second airport, expected to be fully operational later this year.
Tourists inspect a Buddha statue at Borobudur Temple. AP
"For investment and tourism, we would like to invite investors from the Middle East as much as possible because ... we have many tourism locations in Indonesia, not only one or two or four, but many," said Widodo. He did not give specifics.
The tourism plan remains key to Widodo's final five-year term, though at least one target - 20 million visitors this year - appears to have been too ambitious. The 2019 visitor tally is expected to be 18 million, based on current growth figures, said Thaib.
Workers make batik clothes at a workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. AP
Still, the Indonesian tourism sector grew by 7.8 percent in 2018, or twice the global average, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Local museums, including two royal palaces and a former Dutch fort, pose a challenge for foreign visitors eager to learn more about local history and culture because they mostly lack easily accessible explanations in English.
Thaib, the tourism official, acknowledged that there is room for improvement. He said Indonesia is determined to catch up to other Asian nations, including Thailand, which he said began developing their tourism industries much sooner.
"There is still a lot of work," he said of his nation's efforts. "We believe we are on the right track."
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