Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Amazing Race 23, Episode 9

Bandung (Indonesia)

Belo Horizonte skyline

[Belo Horizonte, Brazil, as seen from our hotel room.]

The same destination can be very different things to different visitors.

When I visited Bandung — a story I told in The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace and in one of my columns about an earlier visit to Java by The Amazing Race — I was most interested in the legacy of the 1955 Bandung conference that preceded the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The cast/contestants in The Amazing Race 23 visited volcanoes, waterfalls, tea plantations, villages and other sights in the mountainous countryside around the city of Bandung.

Both the Asia-Africa Conference Museum and the Tangkuban Perahu volcano crater visited by the racers are among the top attractions in the region listed on the government tourist promotion board’s Web site. But these aren’t what brings most foreign visitors to Bandung.

What does? Shopping for clothes.

While most foreigners associate Indonesian fabric with Balinese batik and other textile art, Bandung is the center of Indonesia’s garment industry.

Robots can weld, but they can’t (yet) sew clothing of any complexity. Like other labor-intensive manufacturing industries, garment-making sweatshops have largely (with the exception of some high-fashion short-turnaround facilities, mainly in New York and downtown Los Angeles) migrated from the USA to lower-wage countries.

In most of the world, most new clothes are imported from China by the container load. In the global South, the déclassé alternative for people who can’t afford new Chinese-made clothes is second-hand clothing discarded or donated in wealthy countries like the USA, and distributed — sometimes first sorted, sometimes not — to “container shops” (the shipping container in which the bales of used clothes are delivered often also serves as the showroom and as secure storage for the merchandise) in shanty-towns and villages throughout the Third and Fourth Worlds. If you’ve ever wondered how people in Africa who’ve never before met an American come to be wearing T-shirts with advertising slogans for products not available anywhere nearby, or logos for seemingly random U.S. businesses or institutions, this is usually the explanation.

It’s hard for local garment industries to compete with either of these streams of imports. Only a few countries — notably India, Indonesia, and Brazil — have large enough and sufficiently autonomous domestic markets, and a sufficiently large available pool of sufficiently low-paid potential sweatshop labor, to sustain large-scale domestic garment industries in the face of competition from China and from First World cast-offs and hand-me-downs.

Bandung’s sister city in this respect is Belo Horizonte, the garment-making center of Brazil (as I mentioned in passing during an earlier visit to Brazil by “The Amazing Race”). You might remember seeing Bandung mentioned in a history book — it was once, although fairly briefly, the site of the Dutch colonial capital of Indonesia — but Belo Horizonte is one of the larger cities outside of China that most foreigners have never heard of.

Bandung and Belo Horizionte are very similar in size: 2-3 million people each in the city proper, with another 5 million or more in the surrounding metropolitan area. That makes them the second or third largest urban centers in their respective countries, but still only half the size, or less, of Jakarta, São Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro.

Once upon a time, the owner of a local clothing store in a small town in the U.S. would have made seasonal pilgrimages to wholesale markets in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Today, shopkeepers (or at least the larger-scale brokers and middlemen) from Africa and Latin America make annual trips to China — or if they can’t afford to go that far, to intermediaries in Dubai or Panama — to source products for their stores.

In the same manner, buyers of blue jeans and bras, sandals and shoes from throughout the Indonesian archipelago come to Bandung to stock their stores. And in Belo Horizonte, our hotel downtown, like those around it, was filled with garment buyers from across Brazil.

Many of the showrooms in both Bandung and Belo Horizonte sell only in wholesale quantities. There are also, however, factory and designer retail outlets, not to mention street vendors and retail shops run by re-sellers, that sell samples, seconds, overstock, and discontinued items.

There are buses from the airport in Jakarta to downtown Bandung, but there are also direct buses to the Bandung Trade Center and its BTC Fashion Mall.

This context of Bandung’s main industry and attraction is necessary to make sense out of visitor statistics. On average, fewer than 500 foreign visitors are staying in government-rated hotels on any given night in the entire province that includes Bandung (West Java).

Only a few dozen foreign visitors a day arrive at Bandung’s Husein Sastranegara airport (BDO). Most of these foreign visitors to Bandung are Malaysians and Singaporeans on shopping junkets.

White-skinned foreign sightseers aren’t unknown, and are welcomed. But unless you seek out the most expensive hotels (and maybe even if you do, since they cater mainly to the domestic business elite) or the hostels that anchor the Lonely Planet backpacker trail (which largely bypasses both Bandung and Belo Horizonte), you might never see a U.S. or European face in your time in Bandung, or a non-Brazilian in Belo Horizonte.

To be clear, these are big, cosmopolitan (in a domestic sense) cities, not backwaters. The lesson, as always, is just how hard you have to work to stay on the tourist track.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 1 December 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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