Thu, 29 May 2003

Bali has abundant, untapped diving destinations

Ayu Anggraeni, Contributor, Karangasem, East Bali

Tourism, which provides the bulk of the diving industry's income, is already one of Southeast Asia's most important money-spinners, and moves are afoot to further improve infrastructure and make the respective countries more palatable to international travelers.

Indonesia, with its 17,000 islands, plays host to 16 percent of the world's coral reefs and is already known worldwide as one of the top diving destinations.

Exotic and consummate dive destinations like Bali, Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara, Manado in North Sulawesi and choice islands in the Flores Sea and the Banda Sea already figure prominently in any seasoned diver's logbook.

Discounting the huge majority of the 17,000 islands, which remain underdeveloped, Indonesia still offers a sizable, untapped potential. As competition intensifies across the region, tourists will likely be drawn to the destinations that best market and manage their tourism products and potential.

At a recent seminar on the potential of the country's marine potential, organized by the Bali's Marine Journalists Association, in Sanur, vice president of PADI Asia-Pacific Claus C. Nimb said that in the past three years, the Asian region had produced consistently an annual double-digit certification growth figure, placing Asia as the top-performing region in the world for recreational scuba diving.

This was based on the issuance of diving certificates provided to professional dive operators and professional divers.

"Those figures were based on the issuance of certificates from PADI international dive training and operators, not to mention those issued by other operators," he said.

Australia and Thailand still enjoy the bulk of the total certification pool, with 64,800 and 53,000 certifications respectively in 2002. The Philippines, in the meantime, turned out 13,700 certifications, New Zealand 11,000, Malaysia 8,500, Indonesian 8,300 and Singapore 6,400. All these markets, with the exception of Indonesia, have over the past three years produced annual growth figures between 2.5 percent and 22 percent.

Among marine sports, scuba diving uniquely offers a three- dimensional sensory experience, a full range of experiences from relaxing to high adventure, interactions with other people and life forms, fish, turtles, dolphins, mantas and enrichment of a person's sense of purpose and self. "And this is a most lucrative business," Nimb added.

According to a PADI survey, most divers are between 16 and 40 years of age and 69 percent are male. They are outdoor-loving, fun-seeking and adventurous individuals with a steady job. During their diving trips, they prefer middle- to upper-class (up to US$125 per night) accommodation. The diving individual spends an average of $2,200 on his five- to 10-day holiday.

According to Cipto A.Gunawan of Bahtera Lestari, a community- based integrated marine ecotourism and eco-training management organization, Indonesia has more diving destinations as compared with Thailand.

But Thailand earned approximately $128 million to $240 million in foreign exchange revenue from scuba diving and related activities, while the equivalent figure for Indonesia was only $13.18 million to $24 million.

"If we managed our diving industry properly, we could earn about $507 million to $960 million from diving, hotel accommodation, diving facilities and other related activities," Gunawan said.

A number of factors have hampered the development of the local diving industry. First, a lack of integrated government policies, which regulate underwater development and protection.

Gunawan noted that the government, as well as the public, still had little understanding of how to manage and protect our marine resources.

Local fishermen, for instance, have no understanding of how to catch fish and marine produce without destroying the environment.

"Traditional fishing practices, which often use potassium bombs to catch fish, have certainly destroyed the rich coral reefs and other marine species," Gunawan said.

"Indonesia has not yet marketed its diving destinations in the international tourism markets," he said. "We promote our products by ourselves without integrated and government-supported promotional campaigns," he added.

To make matter worse, Indonesia has only a small number of professional trainers and dive operators. Inadequate infrastructure, including roads, proper diving sites and facilities, have also prevented both domestic and foreign divers from reaching beautiful diving destinations in Indonesia's remote islands, such as in West and East Nusa Tenggara provinces.

"Bali has been the best diving destination in Indonesia, with adequate facilities and a lot of professional diving trainers," he said.

However, a series of incidents, such as the Bali bombing, and the resultant travel advisories imposed by certain countries, have left the diving industry on the island in a difficult position.

The Association of Marine Tourism Association's Bali Chapter has created a number of programs to attract international divers back to the island.

Among the programs are Dive for Peace, the Darwin-Bali Yacht Race in corporation with the Australian Yacht Club and ocean clean up, together with the Singapore Diving Community, to clean up Bali's beaches and underwater.

Gogo Prayogo, chairman of the association, has called on the government to help support marine tourism operators, especially those in Bali, which is the prima donna of Indonesia's marine tourism.

He also suggested the government ease the complicated regulations concerning diving and marine sports.

Complicated government bureaucracy in the issuance of various permits for operators and international divers and sportsmen has forced them to look to other diving alternatives, he said.

"Compared with those in Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesia's immigration system and marine policies are the most complicated. Thousands of divers prefer to avoid Indonesian waters because of this ongoing problem," Prayogo said.

More importantly, he said, both the government and the banking sectors were still reluctant to support the development of marine tourism in Indonesia, despite abundant resources.

"The government has only provided rhetoric. The banking sector has been unhelpful so far," said an executive of a marine resort, who declined to be named.