Thursday 6 March 2014

Jakarta, Asia’s downtown shopping and smoking lottery

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country with 30+ million of the country’s total living in Jakarta. As in many developing countries, especially in Asia, the first thing that hits you is the traffic and the fumes created by the mass of vehicles and motor cycles that seem to outnumber the people.

But, on arrival in the centre of the city and taking a refreshing drink from the oppressive afternoon heat and humidity, one notices that smokers are not banished to the streets, like they are in many other countries. 

Smoking seems to be widely tolerated and in most locations you can sense the pungent smell of Kretek tobacco, a distinctive cigarette blend which includes cloves, a product almost unique to Indonesia and very acceptable to the 63% of the male population who smoke. It seems that more people smoke in Indonesia, than almost any other place on earth.

Another first for the international smoker is that Indonesia must be one of the few countries where cigarettes are substantially cheaper in the domestic market than they are in the “tax-free” duty-free shops. Take a walk down the street and the kiosks are merchandised with display units for international brands like Dunhill and Marlboro selling at prices around US$1.20 per pack of 20 or the equivalent of $12 per carton of 200. If you take a similar walk through the airport duty free stores or the impressive Downtown Lotte Avenue Mall, you will find the same brands for sale in US Dollars $25 per carton (200 cigarettes) virtually double the price. 

That said, the duty free prices are still cheaper than many western equivalent stores and the brands on sale are probably the internationally produced blend, rather than the locally made version. But all the same, it does seem to be somewhat of a lottery as to where one would choose to buy.

Buying alcohol is less of a lottery, because locally there appears to be a distinct absence of liquor stores, albeit for beer, which you can buy in convenience stores. A small can of Heineken retails around $2.50 or local beer at $1.50. However, if you go to a hotel bar or nightclub, alcohol prices can go through the roof. That was certainly the case at the open-air rooftop bar of a trendy new boutique hotel where a medium local beer cost around USD$9 per glass. But, if you consider that Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, there seems to be a discreet, tolerant and well controlled attitude towards the sale of alcoholic drinks.

Lotte Avenue Mall Downtown Duty Free
For duty free shopping, Jakarta airport and the palatial city centre Lotte Shopping Avenue offers the traveller every conceivable international luxury brand. The Downtown complex, with the Tax Free section occupying the 4th and 5th floors, is clearly designed for the Korean, Japanese and Chinese visitors, because European and American travellers don’t understand the concept of Downtown Duty Free.

That said, all the prices are quoted in US Dollars, which is a strange paradox. As is such a huge investment in one of the most magnificent malls you will ever find in a city which is not best known for its mass shopping tourism.

The main airport, Soekano Hatta is going through a change with the new Terminal construction visible on the horizon, yet during the middle of the day it was a pleasure to travel through Terminal 2, which was virtually deserted on a Tuesday morning.

Duty Free Stores at Soekano Hatta International 

In fact, there were more duty free shops in the departure lounge than passengers at one point. Six different stores at the last count, all selling an array of goods from tobaccos to perfumes, (depending on their various rights to sell the different products), again all priced in US Dollars and all seemingly at similar or identical prices. The good news being that the traditional lines of liquor and tobacco were highly competitive compared to Europe or The USA. Other products just seem to cost the same where ever you travel to, probably because there is actually no duty on them, only sales and import tax, so perhaps it is not so easy to offer a big saving.

Overall, Jakarta is certainly a shopping lottery, with extremes of pricing for all goods and services. Use it as a transit point for Bali and the airport is one of the most tranquil and organised you will find. Venture downtown and one way or another, the smoke will certainly get in your eyes.

To check all duty free stores, rules and regulations for Indonesia go to our sister site

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