Australians cool on Indonesia's Bali
By Gary LaMoshi
BALI - Another high season after another bomb attack, and another struggle to recover for Bali's tourism-driven economy. After the terrorist bombings that targeted foreign tourists in October 2002, Bali, one of Asia's premier tourist destinations, was on track for a record year in 2005 before October's explosions that killed 23 people, mostly tourists. Australian tourists had led the previous recovery, but this time they're leading the decline - and the bombs, it appears, are only part of the reason.
Bali tourist arrivals have fallen 19.8% for the first half of 2006, from 114,829 per month last year to 92,096 this year. For the estimated 1 million Balinese who rely on tourism for their livelihoods, that means everything from lower income from the service charges that comprise the lion's share of wages, to working on a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule, to selling a motorbike or even the family land.
On the sunny side, this year's tourism figures top the 63,901 arrivals the year after the first Bali bombings, which then represented a 41% drop off from the previous year. But there's a dark Down Under side to this year's story. Australian tourist arrivals are down 57% so far in 2006, from a monthly average of 21,813 in 2005 to 9,466 this year. That difference accounts for more than half of the shortfall on Bali and has pushed Australia down to third place on the tropical island's arrivals chart behind Taiwan.
The Australian shortfall is larger both in percentage terms and in raw numbers than witnessed after the 2002 terrorist bombings that killed 88 Australians among the 202 dead. Four Australians were among the 23 dead, including three suicide bombers, in last year's attacks.
Cheap beer and sunburns
Ryan Van Berkmoes, who researched in June the next edition of Lonely Planet's guidebook to Bali, has noticed the difference.
"Bali has suffered greatly because so much of the mass Australian market is gone. These aren't the people who wanted to go see a dance or indulge in the island's culture. They weren't coming to Bali so much because it was Bali but because it was comparably close to home and wouldn't cost a lot.
"Bali [now] is damaged to such a degree that when you tell someone at the market or in the pub that you're going to Bali on holiday, they're likely to say, 'Why the hell would you go to that bloody place?' So increasingly Australians are getting their cheap beer and sunburns elsewhere."
Tourism officials confirm that lower-rated one-, two- and three-star hotels are suffering more than luxury properties, and Kuta, the touchstone for Australian holidaymakers, is noticeably quieter this high season.
"After the 2002 bombings, there was a general outpouring of goodwill from around the world and from Australia in particular," said Australian Rodney Holt, owner of five restaurants in Bali. "The goodwill from Australia that was present after 2002 this time seems absent. And we do not understand why."
Bali insiders cite several reasons for the change in Australian attitude. The most obvious factor has been a series of high-profile drug cases involving Australians in Bali. The first and most famous involved beauty-school graduate Schapelle Corby, who was arrested after customs officials found nearly 10 kilograms of marijuana in her boogie-board bag (see Indonesian trial for Australia, June 4, 2005).
Corby, whose sister is married to a Balinese and lives on the island, arguably should have known that the best strategy was to keep quiet and aim to negotiate the charges away. Instead, the family launched an intensive media campaign in Australia to assert their daughter's innocence and blame Indonesia for discrimination against foreigners. That misplaced effort ensured that Indonesian prosecutors and judges threw the book at Corby, to the tune of 15 years, later raised to 20 on appeal.
After Corby, Australian underwear model Michelle Leslie was busted at a party with two Ecstasy pills in her purse. After three months of incarceration, including court appearances in Muslim dress - Leslie claimed to have converted the previous year - she got off with time served and wore a tank top for her release photos. More seriously, nine Australians were arrested in Bali for carrying heroin from elsewhere in Southeast Asia on their way to Australia. Two of the so-called "Bali Nine" received death sentences.
"In Bali, people are at a loss to understand how a few cases involving tourists with drugs, which have been happening for as long as foreigners have been coming to Bali, created such headlines verging on national hysteria in Australia," Holt said.
Corby's defense claimed that the drugs were placed in her unlocked luggage by an Australian airport smuggling operation. Leslie's lawyers claimed alternately that she was holding the pills for a friend and that they were an emergency substitute for her usual prescription dose of Ritalin. The Bali Nine arrests were prompted by a tip from Australian Federal Police, which sniffed out the scheme before the smugglers arrived in Bali.
Facts aside, there's a widespread perception that the defendants were set up by Indonesian authorities.
"Ask Australians what is stopping them from coming to Bali [and they say] they are scared of getting drugs planted on them," Bali Hotel Association vice chairman Robert Kelsall said. "Bookings for the wholesalers in Australia started to show a severe decline back in May 2005 when the Corby issue was strong."
Kelsall also chides the Australian media for stirring up negative sentiments toward Indonesia, focused on the drug convictions and a series of contentious diplomatic incidents over the past year. Canberra loudly protested the sentence reductions and early release in June of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the alleged spiritual leader of terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, for his alleged role in the planning of the 2002 Bali bombings. Australia's dissent revived ever-popular charges of interference in Indonesia's internal affairs.
Amid rising violence in Papua, Indonesia's primitive easternmost province, Indonesian officials once again pointed fingers at Australia, where many Papuan separatists live and enjoy grassroots support from various rights organizations. That prompted a war of cartoons depicting each nation's leaders as canines, a particularly nasty insult to Indonesia's Muslim sensibilities. Australia's subsequent decision to grant political asylum to self-proclaimed Papuan separatists prompted the recall of Indonesia's ambassador to Canberra (see Diplomatic dog days ahead, April 13).
"I don't think anyone listens to the political issues," said Kelsall, general manager of a five-star hotel in the heart of Kuta. "The Australian press tried to make an association and tried to create an issue trying to state the Indonesians would be angry with the Australians if they came to Bali - same as they tried to do during the Timor crisis."
He contended that "on the whole, the people are not interested in politics. They just want to get on with their lives and get things back to normal ASAP."
The drug issue is the second-biggest reason for the decline of Australian visitors, said Kelsall, who chairs a Bali Hotels Association subcommittee on Australia that includes Bali government officials and other tourism stakeholders.
The No 1 reason, he contends, was closure of Bali-based airline Air Paradise, which launched in 2003 and quickly became the island's unofficial flag carrier.
"Air Paradise was the No 1 cause for a faster recovery from Australia" after the 2002 bombings, Kelsall explained. "Not only through their ability to add more capacity, but their strong marketing strategy and their ability to quickly adapt strategies to the changing needs of the market. They were willing to take risks and add capacity before they knew they would fill that additional capacity. Then they would try hard and market it, and they succeeded at it."
However, Air Paradise was grounded after last year's bombs, which remain at the heart of Bali's current doldrums.
"Whereas after the 2002 bombings there was a general optimism that the worst was over, I do not have that feeling now and feel the long-term effects of 2005 bombings are far more difficult to predict," Holt said.
Gary LaMoshi has worked as a broadcast producer and print writer and editor in the US and Asia. Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, he's also a contributor to Slate and Salon.com, and a counselor for Writing Camp.