- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2003

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 21 (UPI) — The bombing in Bali last Oct. 12 killed nearly 200 people, knocked half a percentage point from Indonesia's gross domestic product growth of 3.5 percent, and exposed the country's frailties as a safe tourist destination.

Hotel occupancy rates in Bali dropped to single figures after the blasts. To break even they need about 20 percent to 40 percent occupancy. The tourism business is worth $5.4 billion in revenue to Indonesia each year, with Bali, which attracts 1.5 million tourists per year, accounting for a third of that sum.

Spotting the goodwill of Western tourists toward the Kalimantan rainforests, the Sumatran tiger and the orangutan, Indonesia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism had designated 2002 as National Eco-tourism year. It was a catchy title designed to appeal to the environmentally sensitive, post-modern traveler, though beyond invoking the "eco" buzzword, there was no particular effort made to protect any creature unlucky enough to be born in an Indonesian forest or to stop slashing and burning its habitat. In the middle of 2002, land clearance fires in Indonesia smoked up all of the neighboring countries.

A similar commitment to image over substance had emerged at the Association of South East Asian Nations Tourism Forum in Yogyakarta in January 2002. ASEAN tourism ministers and industry players agreed to promote the region as a safe destination for tourists. Predictably, nothing was materially done to make the region safer, but in the spirit of pro-activity they decided to brand the area as being harmless.

The response of embassies to the bombing was to rationalize after the event, with travel warnings issued by British, Japanese, Australian, German and United States governments advising their vacationers not to travel to Bali. The advice now of the British Embassy is that the situation in Bali has "stabilized." By this choice of words, they simply mean that there has not been another bomb.

Fourth quarter arrivals to Bali usually account for 30 percent of the year's total. November 2002 arrivals fell to 32,000 tourists, when more than 100,000 would normally be expected. In December, visitor numbers picked up to 63,000. Surprisingly, occupancy rates at the hotels in the busy Kuta Beach area, the scene of the bombing, fared better in December than the secluded boutique hotels of central Bali, which would not ostensibly appear such attractive mass targets to terrorists.

Western tourists remained nervous and in general stayed away, with the increase in December being the result of Christmas visits from stoic, north Asian tourists seduced by the bargains. Additionally, there was heavy demand for short breaks from Jakarta residents for whom a hazardous Bali is still preferable to the urban nightmare of Indonesia's capital.

"This tragedy has put Bali in a high position," the Head of the Bali Tourism Authority declared. "Nobody blames Bali."

Whether this declaration that all publicity is good publicity is no more than a gormless gaffe, it represents one in a series of official attempts to gloss over the new role of Indonesian tourist as soft terrorist target. Having lulled tourists into a false sense of security with the 2002 ASEAN campaign, there seems no reason why anyone should not believe that he remains in a state of denial.

Having collared the alleged gang of bombers, all of whom cheerfully confessed, though none of these confessions are admissible as court evidence, the Indonesian government allocated $4.6 million for a global promotional campaign to lure back tourists to Bali. Its gift for responding to serious problems with appealingly titled campaigns had temporarily deserted the spin doctors, who gave the marketing drive the un-poetic name of "Bali, get into it."

'The Government is expecting that by the end of 2003 the country's tourism industry would regain its attractiveness for world travelers," Minister of Culture and Tourism I Gede Ardika said.

Private enterprise, no doubt fearful of the effects of government and ASEAN platitudes, responded with their own crusade. The Bali Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman I Gede Wiratha said, "Bali businessmen have decided to join hands, without involving the government, to launch their own campaign to assure world travelers that Bali is safe."

They decided to call their campaign "Bali for the World." In recognition that merely joining hands would be unlikely to prevent the physical devastation of another bomb, their workmanlike solution has been simply to offer discounts on holiday packages.

What the tourist is being asked to predict is whether lightning can strike twice in the same place. Tourists returning to Bali have made a calculated decision that there will be no second attack. Thankfully, fewer people in the South Tower of the World Trade Center were as dismissive when its neighbor was struck. The Bali bombers took the ferry across to the island, and drove into Kuta Beach. There is nothing to stop another group of terrorists following the same path, and there are no reports of other sleeper cells being arrested.

So are there any causes for optimism? Even though they were not the perpetrators, the Indonesian based Islamic group Laskar Jihad announced its dissolution immediately after the Bali bombing, realizing they and their human rights risked becoming as endangered a species as the Sumatran tiger.

Whilst there is no news of potential terrorists being incarcerated, the implications of the empty jail cells may be just as revealing. In Indonesia, potential terrorists now risk being silently exterminated in a publicity-free way for which the custodians of Guantanamo Bay camp might be full of envy. As the career aspirations of bombers are curtailed, a greater future danger for tourists in Indonesia could be that of kidnapping. This form of crime, long popular in neighboring Philippines, has never been popular among Indonesian thugs, but may prove to be a money-spinner for them in future.

Behind the scenes, there are tangible efforts that promise to make Bali a safer place. Still to be formally announced or publicized is the prospect of a 9/11 emergency and accident response system, similar to that for visitors to the United States, which will be implemented for international tourists to Bali. This scheme, which will be surcharged to air tickets in the form of an insurance premium, will be backed by the International Association of Travel Agents and will accommodate a well-equipped hospital and a fleet of helicopters. Emergency teams will be incentivized by a reward for the first to respond to a call-out.

Whilst responses and medical treatment should improve as a result, this program cannot prevent the planting of bombs, and so it is understood that to deal with the residual terrorist threat, the Indonesian government has approached anti-terrorist consultancy vehicles established by foreign governments. They will be mandated to provide pre-emptive, counter-terrorism operations in Bali.

Beyond the gnomic comments of Indonesian politicians and travel agents, there may be some hope that the Bali of the future will be a safer place, but until then, beware the glib re-assuring spin from Indonesia's beleaguered hospitality industry.


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