Reviving City Tourism through Digital Apps

Tourism in Jakarta is in an ironic state. Number of visitors are growing from 2002 and 2010 and city government revenues are climbing up from 2009 to 2010 by 14% according to Badan Pusat Statistik, but these are not enough to compete with Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore, the three top city destinations in Southeast Asia.

Speaking of traveling Jakarta, we don’t see an immediate response from travellers when they are asked about the highlights of this particular destination. Could it be its museums? Parks? Shopping centers? Landmarks? If you ask the same questions to travellers going to Singapore, they would easily answer it. Even, with almost the same breadth and urban problems, Bangkok sounds more appealing.

If Jakarta wasn’t designed or intended for tourism, could it be helped a little, considering the fact that it is the second largest international port of entry to Indonesia after Denpasar?  Twenty percent of annual foreign visitors to Indonesia stop by Jakarta before exploring the rest of the nation. Could we at least make it more exciting for this twenty percent to spend quality time in this dense urban sprawl, even for a short 24 hours of stay? If then we’d say it should be exciting, could we make a detour from the luxurious shopping malls and find more authentic experiences? Could we at least make it more informative or enlightening? Is there the other side of the spectrum?

Jakarta has a long history. It spans from the 4th century and experienced a major development and urbanization during Dutch colonialization when it was called Batavia for three centuries. After the Indonesian independence, it was handed over to our hands and experienced rapid growths in just under a half century. Population multiplied nearly ten times from 1950s to the new millennium, from around 1.5 millions to 11.7 millions. The inhabitants are a mix of ethnics as a result of the influx of migrations, even from outside the city, or even the nation. Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Sundanese, Javanese and hundreds of thousands others flocked to Jakarta in the name of a better life or fate. This is simply the most diverse city in Indonesia.

As a result of the long history and diverse population, the resulting mix is fascinating: fusion cuisines, diverse cultural showcase, “a new kind” of language or dialect, intercultural marriages, historical vestiges from the Batavian era, and many more. They are definitely some interesting aspects to inform our visitors, those we already know for many years but still fail to harness. We are busy coping with our own problems. Could there be a solution?

Enter the world of digital apps. The advent of mobile devices has shed a new light on city-based tourism. Digital apps run on mobile devices, and many of these are related to helping the travel community find their own ways in a city. It can simply be a self-running travel guide with audio narratives without internet connectivity, or a new kind of social travel app that lets you share what you find on the way with your friends and families through a 3G network.

However, many of these city-based and location-based apps are designed for commerce, which means they are often more into digital classifieds, directories or aggregates–helping you find the “nearest coffee chain” or “best clothing bargains”–based on an automated algorithm.

We have to carefully pick the ones that are tailored for tourism, and even more, ones that promote actual & authentic local experiences. A few names exist in this area that provides curated and researched reviews, which includes major publishers like Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Moon or National Geographic; independent ones like Travelfish, Creative Tourist, GuidePal, Trover or Spotted by Locals; or city government sponsored projects.

Unfortunate but apparent, many Indonesian-based apps and websites don’t provide enough time to curate and edit their own contents, and more often than not, leave these into the jungle of crowdsourcing.  The key here is technology can help, but it needs human touch: selective curation. Too many of a time, we have seen apps or websites with crowd-sourced information with content quality that falls below standard and quickly becomes trash. It is important to strive for a simple-working mobile travel app or website with a content that is well-curated and professionally edited. The careful editorial process a printed book also needs to be applied to the content of digital apps.

I amsterdam” is particularly inspiring in this regard. With the help of Amsterdam Tourism & Congress Board (ATCB) and Edenspiekerman–a world-known design agency–the city government of Amsterdam developed an interactive city exploration application that helps visitors understands lesser known attractions, in a total number of 140 locations. The collaboration puts physical signage systems adjacent to each attraction with short paragraphs and QR code printed on them. These signages are made from handmade ceramic tiles to withstand outdoor conditions and reflect a Dutch identity. People without a QR code-enabled device might read the short paragraphs, while those with an enabled device can scan the QR code through an accompanying “I amsterdam” app that will tell you more about the specific attraction, a unique story that you might never heard of. Altogether, it weaves a more detailed story of a city than you would ever imagine. If sounds or videos are added, touring a city independently can’t be more immersive than this.

Another good example of simple city touring application is Guardian’s Streetstories app featuring the King’s Cross area in the city of London, United Kingdom. Available for Apple iOS and Android devices, it takes users on a focused independent tour at King’s Cross, an area in central London with a mixed history and an important rail hub. It doesn’t tackle the whole city, but it tackles the specific area in a very detailed manner. Visually on the map, we will see several colored circles. In manual mode, when clicked or active, these circles will play the story relevant to a street, a building or any place. In automatic mode, a feature called “Autoplay” will track our location via global positioning system and plays the relevant audio guide automatically. We can imagine walking on the routes and begin listening to the story as we walk pass by a building or a street. The audio will fade away when we leave that particular area.

The third example is a bit different, yet is still related to travel. “” is a Singapore-based transportation directory that automatically calculates the shortest and best-fared routes on a public transport from one point to another, in the Singapore island. While not catering specifically to attractions, it helps guide travelers in their own preferences.

Meanwhile, an independent Manchester-based travel website called “Creative Tourist” created a special city guide app that caters to museums and art galleries. In this simple iPhone app, users can view basic information of a museum or gallery such as history, opening times, contact and events, as well as going on a recommended trail from a select few.

Now, imagine having any kind of those apps in Jakarta. With selective curation and editing of the content, we could leverage the lesser known attractions. Imagine an app that lists off-the-beaten path culinary spots, a strip of shopping bargains in a local market, public festivals organized independently, and the list goes on. An app can also be utilized to show the best way or trail to enjoy Jakarta’s museums or historic streets. We can put signages printed with QR codes to let users learn more about a fun story of a building or a market. Create city-scale game that asks visitors to shop fruits specific to Indonesia–or cakes specific to Jakarta–and collect digital badges. The possibilities are endless. 

These rich mosaic complement the already popular ones like historical sites in Kota Tua. It might be worth trying to avoid completely the major commercial attractions like Dunia Fantasi, golf courses or shopping malls to make way for introducing more authentic attractions. It might also be a great idea to focus solely on the historical sites and aspects of Jakarta, which have always been in our hindsight but never came out as the main stars. 

Applications for tourism in Jakarta can be done in several ways: independent or through the city government. If developers aim for money, they could sell this app or content, or provide a teaser version containing a set of limited information. If the city government is still willing, they can do the same like the “I amsterdam” campaign and invest on creating a self-guided app or other interactive system that facilitates independent exploration. While Jakarta is not convenient to explore on foot, we can localize the attraction by area, or create a recommendation for excursion by car or taxi. 

Why should we use digital apps? This is definitely not the only solution, but one that can partially save Jakarta. We aim mainly for educated, young to productive age visitors. A large number of these visitors would possess a smartphone and are independent explorers. Digital applications are also centrally maintained, and with a way to hook the apps into social networking sites, it will likely find attention.