You see it all the time in Hollywood films: Main characters nonchalantly get on a plane to fly somewhere abroad, impulsively booking a trip to a foreign destination and effortlessly going after a golden opportunity that lies ahead, wherever it may be – without having to bother with any visa requirements.
For citizens of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia, such spontaneous acts are a reality. Not so much for Indonesians like me.
I will never forget the first time I realized how powerless my Indonesian passport really is.
In March 2011, my best friend and I won a short trip to London. However, we were notified of our good luck just two weeks prior to departure.
Being both first-timers to the UK, we did our research on how to get a British visa and quickly contacted the organizers to ask them to send us a sponsorship letter.
Aside from us and two others from Indonesia, the rest of the winners were from Malaysia and the UK. Fortunately for the Malaysians, they did not need a visa to enter Britain, which also means they did not need to prepare the complicated paperwork required to apply for one at the time. Oh, how I envied them.
Unfortunately for us, the organizer, which was a Malaysian company, responded very slowly to our request for a sponsorship letter. They finally emailed it to us a mere week prior to the trip. Also, like we didn’t have enough problems already, they failed to send us the return tickets for the Kuala Lumpur-London flight and the London hotel bookings on time, so we could not include them in our tourist visa applications.
With only five working days left to apply for a visa, we initially planned to use the services of a travel agency, hoping for a smoother process. We contacted two of them and both immediately turned us down, saying that we would need at least two weeks to apply, adding that since we had never visited any “significant” countries like the US and Japan or any European nations prior to this trip meant our chance of obtaining a UK visa on such short notice was very small. I’ve been on trips abroad before, including to ASEAN countries, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, but apparently none of those seemed to matter much.
Determined to pursue our dream trip, we decided to apply for the visa ourselves, which at the time was required to be done online anyway.
After submitting the application forms online, we printed them to submit them offline via a service provider called PT VFS Services Indonesia (VFS) alongside other documents, which included old and new passports, copies of family cards, birth certificates and identity cards, employment verification letters, bank statements, flight bookings (we could only provide the return Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur tickets that we had bought ourselves), hotel bookings (we could only include ones in Kuala Lumpur) and the sponsorship letter. We also included a full itinerary of our daily activities in London to show the UK Embassy that our activities there were well planned.
When we finally submitted the application to VFS on a Thursday afternoon, we requested it to be marked “URGENT”. I was then asked to write a short note (a love letter, I called it) explaining the urgency of the matter, right in front of the VFS employee.
The visa fee was Rp 1.05 million (US$74.44), plus an additional Rp 25,000 fee for notification by SMS.
On the afternoon of the following Monday, I received a call from a British Embassy officer who interviewed me regarding my visa application: My purpose in London, whether I knew anyone there (I did not) and my planned activities during the trip. At the end of the interview, I asked whether the visa could be issued by the upcoming Wednesday. She said it was up to the embassy.
On Wednesday morning, the last day I could pick up my passport, I called VFS to learn the status of my visa application. The operator said it was still being processed and such applications usually took two weeks to process. I felt like all hope was lost (but I had already packed my suitcase just in case).
A few hours after that call, I received an SMS notifying that my passport was available for pick-up at the VFS office – a six-month multiple-entry UK visa had been stuck to one of the pages.
Needless to say, that London trip became one of my most memorable ones, but it was also a reminder of how low my global mobility was as an Indonesian passport holder.
Depending on which report you’re looking at, the power of the Indonesian passport is currently ranked 61st out of 97, or 72nd out of 104. According to the former, released by the Passport Index, Indonesians can enter 35 countries without visas, 39 countries using visa-on-arrival (VoA) and are required to apply for visas to visit 124 countries. Meanwhile, the latter, based on the Henley Passport Index, suggests that for Indonesian passport holders 71 destinations around the world are visa-free or require only VoA and 155 require visas in advance.
Despite that Indonesian citizens can only freely visit 71 countries, Indonesia welcomes citizens of 169 countries without requiring visas or only demanding VoA, according to the Passport Index, which ranked the archipelago quite high at 17 in its “global welcoming countries” score.
Indonesia’s goal for expanding visa-free access since 2015 is clear: to lure more foreign tourists to the country. However, the country still failed to reach its target of attracting 17 million foreign visitors in 2018 – only having recorded 15.81 million foreign tourist arrivals throughout the year.
Opening the door wide is perhaps a good idea to attract big-spending tourists we hope would help boost the local economy, but it is not without risks amid a rise of “begpackers”, a kind of backpacker-style traveler who can be found exploring low-cost countries like Indonesia on such low budgets that they don’t hesitate to ask for financial support or freebies from local people.
You might ask why Indonesia is not high on most countries’ visa-free lists. International law expert Hikmahanto Juwana of the University of Indonesia said that terrorism (of which Indonesians have been known to be the perpetrators), the fact that Indonesian tourists are not seen as potential big spenders by many countries and weak law enforcement that may lead to the misuse of documents are among the potential reasons. All of them are valid and should be regarded as important assessments and perceptions of Indonesia, especially in terms of its national security status and national economic prowess.
Hence, other than focusing on our “global welcoming countries” score, we should also make efforts to increase the ranking of our passport’s power and strive to be on par with the likes of the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Japan and Singapore, which now hold the top spots as the world’s most powerful passports.