Spectacle a huge tourism event for Indonesia

People crowding around a camera for a closer look at the solar eclipse in Jakarta yesterday, as it swept through 12 of Indonesia's 34 provinces before heading out towards the Pacific Ocean.
People crowding around a camera for a closer look at the solar eclipse in Jakarta yesterday, as it swept through 12 of Indonesia's 34 provinces before heading out towards the Pacific Ocean.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Housewife Sina and her family woke up early yesterday to offer a prayer of praise, as a total solar eclipse swept across Indonesia's vast archipelago, including her island hometown of Belitung, off the east coast of Sumatra.

After performing the special Muslim prayer at the village mosque, they joined thousands of others on the beach of Tanjung Kelayang to watch the moon entirely block the sun, creating a tenuous silver ring of light against the coal-black sky.

"Nothing exciting ever happens in Belitung. And certainly nothing as extraordinary and beautiful as this. I was so emotional I cried," the 42-year-old told The Straits Times, fiddling with the pair of special filter glasses she had bought for $4. "This is God's great work which is impossible for man to recreate. Imagine life without the sun, we will be in darkness forever."

The total solar eclipse is a rare natural phenomenon that occurs when the Moon passes precisely between the Sun and the Earth, casting a shadow over the Earth's surface.

Yesterday, it passed through 12 of Indonesia's 34 provinces, before heading out in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. The last such sighting in the country took place on Oct 24, 1995. The next eclipse is seven years away on April 20, 2023.

Dr Chatief Kunjaya, an astrophysicist and president of Universitas Ma Chung, who witnessed two minutes of the total eclipse from Palu, in central Sulawesi, said the period of "totality" when the moon completely obscures the sun "is like sunset".

"At the end, the first light appears from behind the moon disk, creating an image like a diamond ring. It's so beautiful," he said.

On Tanjung Kelayang, jubilant shrieks and squeals of joy rang out when the Sun, which had been obscured by clouds all morning, suddenly pierced through them just as the eclipse began to peak at 8.24am.

"It's like watching a soap opera as there was so much drama. I thought I was going to get a heart attack. I just wanted to skip all the bad parts and quickly get to the end. And luckily, it ended well," said Ms Listri, 38.

The project manager said she had camped overnight on the beach as she lives over an hour's drive away. Like her, dozens of people were seen sleeping on mats under trees.

President Joko Widodo was also among the thousands who caught the eclipse. He posted on Facebook a photo of himself in a sarong and wearing special glasses to view the phenomenon from Bogor Palace.

Indonesia has spared no effort in turning the spectacle into the biggest tourism highlight of the year, pumping in 15 billion rupiah (S$1.58 million) to promote the 12 provinces since a year ago. About 100,000 foreign tourists flocked to Indonesia this week, and early government estimates put tourism receipts, from hotels, retailers and travel agencies, at nearly 200 billion rupiah.

"We are very happy to have international tourists visiting Indonesia for this solar eclipse," Tourism Minister Arief Yahya told The Straits Times. "In business, winning has to be by design and this has been designed more than one year ago."

But avid stargazers said they needed no coaxing to visit Indonesia.

Dutch general practitioner Ineke Ruting, 55, said she had seen total solar eclipses in Turkey and China.

"It's fascinating. When the sky turns dark, the birds stop singing, some flowers close (their petals), life suddenly stops," she said.

For Indonesians, the phenomenon offers an opportunity to show off their country - and humble hometowns - to the world.

Belitung housewife Ayang, 40, said: "Mention Indonesia, and tourists only think of Bali. But the beaches here are just as beautiful, if not more so, and the waters here are so much clearer. Hopefully, just like the eclipse, the darkness will lift soon and Belitung will become the next cool place to be."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Spectacle a huge tourism event for Indonesia'. Print Edition | Subscribe