ALMOST 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus set sail for the Spice Islands of Indonesia. But he stumbled on America. ``We want Americans to finish the voyage,'' chuckles Joop Ave, Indonesia's director general of tourism.
In the booming Southeast Asia tourist market, Indonesia is playing catchup. Hong Kong (5.4 million visitors), Thailand (4.9 million), and Singapore (4.8 million) led the way in 1989, according to a 10-nation study by the Singapore government. With 1.6 million visitors, Indonesia is still near the bottom of the tourism ladder, just ahead of the Philippines and Brunei.
But Indonesia is climbing the rungs fastest. The number of visitors was up 25 percent over 1988. Hong Kong-based Baring Securities predicts a rise of 28 percent this year. Visitors also tend to stay longer and spend more than elsewhere in Asia.
Traditionally, tourists in Indonesia have focused on Jakarta, the capital, and on Bali, a volcanic island of terraced rice fields, mystical Hindu-Balinese ceremonies, and ancient temples. But beyond Bali lies the world's largest archipelago - 13,766 islands.
Visitors are starting to discover (with a government promotional and development efforts) such highlights as 10th-century Buddhist temples of Java, primitive tribes of Irian Jaya, orangutans and white-water rafting on ``Amazon of the East'' Mahakam River in Kalimantan, and thousands of unexplored beaches and coral reefs.
And, if expectations are high for this year, growth in 1991 looks stronger. It is ``Visit Indonesia Year,'' Jakarta's turn in the successful series of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual tourism campaigns. Coinciding with the 1991 government promotion is a privately funded ``Festival Indonesia'' cultural program in the United States. Launched in July and running through 1991, the touring program includes 19 art exhibitions and 12 different dance, music, and theater company performances.
None of this has been lost on the Indonesian hotel industry. ``We're seeing unprecedented growth in hotel development and investment,'' says Mr. Joop. Sheraton plans to add 10 hotels in the next five years. Three are already being built. The Hilton, Regent, Meridien, and Grand Hyatt all have hotels under construction. On Battam Island, near Singapore, a $500 million ``Waterfront City'' resort is being developed by a Singapore businessman. The government predicts an additional 30,000 rooms will be available by 1993.
The Suharto government, which has recently eliminated the red tape for visitors and investors, is keen on this development. Tourism is now the fourth biggest non-oil source of foreign earnings. Moreover, the government sees the industry as a means of providing jobs for a labor force expanding at the rate of 2.3 million people per year.
Is the director general concerned this flood of tourists may undermine Indonesian culture?
``That's nonsense,'' Joop Ave says. ``Indonesia has 180 million people. We are the stepping stones between the continents. We are at the crossroads of two oceans. Our culture has always been influenced by other cultures. But Indonesians have been able for centuries to absorb what it considers good and kick out what we don't like. So we are not afraid of that. You should ask what impact our culture will have on visitors.''