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.
Sunrise wasn’t spectacular on that recent summer day. But even an ordinary dawn at Borobudur Temple—nine stone tiers stacked like a wedding cake and adorned with hundreds of Buddha statues and relief panels—provided a memorable experience.
The 9th-century temple is in the center 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.
While the two temples draw many visitors, other foreigners head to the relaxing beaches of Bali, just east of Java and by far the most popular tourist destination in a nation of thousands of islands and almost 270 million people. More than 6 million tourists visited Bali last year, or about 40 percent of 15.8 million visitors to Indonesia overall, according to official figures.
Recently reelected 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.
One of the 10 sites earmarked for development is the Borobudur Temple area and nearby Yogyakarta. A provincial city of several hundred thousand people from where visitors head to Borobudur and Prambanan, Yogyakarta is getting a second airport, expected to be fully operational later this year. The city is a center of Javanese culture and a seat of royal dynasties going back centuries.
In 2017, former President Barack Obama and his family visited the city, where his late mother, Ann Dunham, spent years doing anthropological research. Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, toured Borobudur and Prambanan during the nostalgic trip.
But while the Obamas got around with relative ease, including private jet travel, ordinary visitors struggle with congested streets packed with motorbikes weaving in and out of slow-moving traffic.
Key to the plan is to upgrade provincial airports and improve access to outlying destinations, such as Lake Toba on Sumatra island, more than 800 miles from Jakarta, the capital.
Travelers hoping to be in place at Borobudur right before sunrise need at least 90 minutes to get there from Yogyakarta, a journey of 24 miles. A 140-mile round-trip to the Dieng highlands, with terraced fields, small temples, and a colorful volcanic lake, requires a full day of travel, some of it on bumpy back roads.
In Yogyakarta, tourists can visit workshops for Batik textiles, silver jewelry, and Kopi Luwak—coffee made from partially digested coffee cherries that were eaten and defecated by wild tree cats, or civets. Billed as the “world’s most expensive coffee,” Kopi Luwak became known to a wider audience in the 2007 Jack Nicholson–Morgan Freeman movie The Bucket List.
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.
Hiramsyah Thaib, who heads the “10 New Balis” initiative, 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.”