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From ghost town to boomtown

In Balikpapan of East Kalimantan (above), housing complexes for the well-heeled are growing in tandem with the development of new shopping centres. (PHOTO: GUSTI AMBRI)

Publication Date : 29-10-2012


This city got its name from the long-haired, shrieking ghosts who were thought to have inhabited the riverfront settlement, and which the founding sultan expelled by firing cannon shots.

And as recent as five years ago, parts of Pontianak did resemble a ghost town.

These days, however, it is a different story as new malls, housing complexes and hotels keep going up, as do property prices. The tiny airport is being upgraded, and the Indonesia Port Corporation is thinking of building a new port nearby.

Thanks to a commodities boom, the 241-year- old city is chalking up growth of 9.5 per cent a year, compared to the national figure of over 6 per cent. And with Pontianak's population of 600,000 residents, there is room for expansion in the capital of West Kalimantan, a province of five million that is larger than the island of Java.

"Growth prospects for the next 10 to 15 years are bright, but if the infrastructure is even better, investments will flow and growth can be faster," said city mayor Sutarmidji.

"We don't have natural resources - but our surrounding areas do - so we grow on providing services and trade and we are working to do that well," he told a group of visiting reporters recently.

The city's growth comes at a time when Kalimantan is becoming the centre of attention, 50 years after Indonesia's first President, Sukarno, mooted the idea of moving the capital to Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan.

That idea has long been scrapped, but the central government and private investors are now looking to Kalimantan as a key engine of growth for the country and a mining and mineral processing hub.

The region's four, soon to be five, provinces with a little over 15 million people in all have vast resources of coal and other minerals, as well as open fields for palm oil plantations. And plans are afoot to build food estates to better meet domestic demand and boost exports.

"Don't underestimate the huge island of Kalimantan only as a sleeping giant any longer," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, last Wednesday.

"Kalimantan, especially East Kalimantan, is moving ahead tremendously. That is a reality," he added at the inauguration of eight mega projects with a combined price tag of 19 trillion rupiah (US$1.97 billion).

Two of them - a port and an airport north of the city - have been completed. The other projects include twin bridges and an airport in East Kalimantan's capital Samarinda. Balikpapan's Sepinggan airport, originally designed for under two million passengers a year but now seeing treble that volume, is being expanded to handle 10 million passengers.

Some two-thirds of Kalimantan's activity - and wealth - are now concentrated in East Kalimantan, but cities such as Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, Palangkaraya and Pontianak are also gearing up to tap on their neighbour's growth and rising interest in the island.

A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute noted that Pontianak and Balikpapan were among the fastest-growing middleweight cities - those with under two million people - and this is fuelled by a growth in both population and productivity.

McKinsey also projected that over 80 per cent of urban areas in Kalimantan should grow by at least 7 per cent a year up till 2030.

To ensure that does happen in Pontianak, Mr Sutarmidji plans to persuade international schools and private hospitals to set up shop there, noting that some 30 per cent of students who graduate from the city's better schools go abroad to study. It is not a bad thing, he said, that few locals now want to take up jobs in construction for the many projects underway.

Many well-heeled residents also seek medical treatment in Sarawak or in Singapore.

"If the opportunities are here, they will stay here," he said. "Human resources are also the best form of investment, and our local schools and hospitals should gear up for competition, because if others can compete, so can we."

Sutarmidji is also promoting his city as a tourism and convention destination for Indonesians and visitors from neighbouring countries. His administration organises a Pontianak October Festival to celebrate the city's founding on October 23.

This year, it included a procession of boats bearing huge balloons of marine animals. But the highlight was a cannon firing competition. The ghosts may have been chased away, but it is best to pull out all the stops to make sure the city keeps booming away.


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