Australians can visit Indonesia for free. Why don’t we return the favour?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison after signing the official visitors book at Parliament House. Source: Pool AAP Image

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is in Australia for a landmark visit to discuss trade, security and tourism. Why are visas one of the longstanding issues between the nations?

“Visa on arrival” are the three magic words proving to be an ongoing pressure point on the diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Australia.

Indonesian tourists pay a $140 visa application fee and complete a 17 page questionnaire, which includes questions like “have you ever committed an act of genocide,” to obtain a travel visa. Indonesian visitors must also apply for the visa before leaving their country.

In comparison, Australians visiting Indonesia can receive free 30 day visa on arrival.

Indonesia is not one of the thirty-five countries - including Estonia, Latvia and Spain - eligible for free Australian visas, which allow visitors to stay up to three months.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo addresses Parliament in Canberra.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo addresses Parliament in Canberra.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that home affairs minister Peter Dutton will look at changing travel arrangements between the two countries.

“Today we have agreed to include new elements as part of this implementation,” he said.

“We are pleased that our home affairs minister here in Australia will be engaging with his Indonesian counterpart to proceed to look at how we can simplify and streamline the issues of entry into Australia.”

Morrison added that Australia may consider watering down travel warnings to Australians visiting Indonesia.

"Particularly for those areas most frequented by Australian visitors."

President Joko Widodo, known widely as Jokowi, said he will use his visit to Australia to negotiate a visa deal that mirrors the treatment Australia receives from Indonesia.

“Visa on arrival should be ­reciprocal and fair,” Jokowi said in an interview with The Australian paper ahead of his visit.

Despite being one of Australia’s closest neighbours, the relationship with Indonesia has long been complicated. Asylum-seeker boats, embassy attacks, spying revelations and the execution of Bali Nine members has added to tensions between the nations. Although the tourist visa issue doesn’t rate as the most complex, it has become a consistent hurdle to Australia’s claims that Indonesia is one of our closest friends.

Indonesians accounted for the 11th largest group of inbound visitors, according to Tourism Australia. Whereas, Australia is the fourth most common visitor to Indonesia -- behind Malaysia, China and Singapore -- with more than one million visiting the country last year.

Joko Widodo (centre) receives a ceremonial welcome at Government House
Joko Widodo (centre) receives a ceremonial welcome at Government House

Trade is at the top of the agenda, as Jokowi’s visit marks the success of the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), a deal 10 years in the making and approved by Indonesia’s parliament last week. The agreement will reduce trade tariffs and other economic barriers between the two nations.

Jokowi’s address to parliament on Monday was the first by an Indonesian head of state in 10 years.

When welcoming Jokowi, Scott Morrison chose to highlight how the two countries have worked together on global issues.

“Australia and Indonesia understand this well and we have worked together closely over many years, on defence and counter-terrorism issues, on maritime security, combating smugglers, and illegal fish along our maritime border,” he said.

Joko Widodo, in turn, recognised the joint efforts to combat challenges for developing countries in the region including climate change.

“Indonesia and Australia must become troupe friends for countries collaborating as development part addressing the -- partners, addressing climate change and alleviating poverty and social inequality, and to create new centres of economic growth in the Pacific region,” he said while addressing parliament in Bahasa, translated in English.

The environment was a talking point, with both leaders commenting on Australia’s Black Summer. Jokowi said the nations must work together to “protect the environment and to achieve sustainability.”

President Widodo and his wife will stay in Australia until Wednesday.