Bali, Lombok count the costs from brief unrest
Bali has long been the shining star of Indonesian tourism, famed as the gentle "island of the gods". But its pristine reputation and that of Lombok, which became known as "Bali 30 years ago", has been tarnished by spates of unrest over the past 18 months. The Jakarta Post contributor I Wayan Juniarta examines what the tourist industry has done to heal the wounds.
DENPASAR, Bali (JP): The flamboyant chairman of the Bali branch of the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI), I Gde Wiratha, is not only known for his penchant for controversial ideas, but also for his direct manner in addressing an issue.
A recent afternoon was no exception.
"The good news is that the Bali tourism industry has recovered from the damaging after-effects of last year's riots," he said with a wide grin.
"On the other hand, the bad news is that the level of social and political uncertainty is still high, so don't ask me about next year, because I don't know."
Still, he was willing to give his personal opinion.
"All I know is that I, and a lot of tourism industry operators, are preparing to enter 2001 with mixed feelings of optimism and caution."
Bali's tourism industry learned a hard and expensive lesson on Oct. 21, 1999. After chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle Megawati Soekarnoputri was shut out of the presidency in what many considered a political conspiracy, angry supporters ran amok on the resort island, long a stronghold of her party.
The immediate victims were uprooted trees, vandalized public facilities and road signs as well as government buildings, some of which were set on fire.
The not-so-immediate victim was the tourism industry, as images of the unrest were flashed around the world. Bali, the idyllic island paradise and land of smiles, had suddenly turned ugly.
Jittery tourists and travel agencies canceled bookings in droves, even though the unrest fizzled out after Megawati was appointed vice president.
Data from the provincial tourism office show that the number of foreign tourist arrivals in Bali in that fateful month dropped significantly to 104,140 tourists from 120,607 tourists in October 1998.
"It was really a shocking surprise for us because in September 1999, just one month before the riot, the number of arrivals was 134,688 tourists, quite an increase from 125,684 tourists in September 1998," an official at the office said.
The number kept decreasing in November 1999 to 87,336 tourists, and to 85,837 in December, the traditional "peak season" month. A similar decrease also took place in the first four months of 2000.
After exhaustive promotional efforts both in Bali and abroad, a concrete sign of recovery finally appeared in May 2000, when the number reached 118,559 tourists compared to 117,833 in May 1999.
"So it took six months for the Bali tourism industry to get back into its stride and on track. It is difficult to imagine the extent of the losses, both in terms of finance and image, that Bali suffered due to one single mass riot, which had its causes far from the realm of the tourism industry," tourism observer Dwi Yani said.
The number of foreign tourist arrivals improved in June 2000 to 142,951. The positive trend has reportedly continued in following months.
The industry's nascent recovery was confirmed by Sheraton Hotels and Resorts director of communications for Bali and Lombok, Lisa Halim, who said that this year the average occupancy rate of two Sheraton properties in Bali was 84 percent, or 10 percent higher than last year.
"The business is improving, and so is market confidence," she said.
The public relations manager of the five-star Novotel Tanjung Benoa, Dewi F. Brany, was of a similar opinion.
Novotel's average occupancy rate reached 77.5 percent, compared to 65 percent in 1999.
Brany said the hotel was relatively unaffected by fallout from the unrest.
"Most of our clients are very mature and have extensive knowledge of the Indonesian macropolitical situation."
Tourist business operators also learned not to, in Lisa Halim's words, "put all their eggs in one basket".
"We are broadening our horizons and exploring new markets. The riot taught us that certain markets are quite sensitive to political issues and turmoil, while other markets are relatively immune to those matters," Halim said.
Bali tourism operators are increasing their efforts to penetrate markets with good prospects, such as Taiwan, Russia, South Korea and China.
"Russia has great potential because their tourists tend to stay longer, with an average length of stay reaching 10 days, and also spend more," a tourism operator said.
Lombok's tourist businesses were also sent reeling by a day of disorder and violence in January 2000. The negative ramifications may, however, take considerably longer to overcome than in Bali.
"Lombok is a difficult case because of its limited human resources and infrastructure, not to mention the fact that when the riot struck Lombok, it had not reached a level of fame in the world tourism market which it needed in order to bounce back on its own," said Wiratha, who owns the Bounty Cruise, a luxury cruise ship that sails to Lombok daily.
The riot followed a rally about the religious strife in Maluku. A mob vandalized and looted hundreds of buildings, including two restaurants, two bars and one gallery in Lombok's prime tourism area of Senggigi.
"Of course the condition is improving, but not as fast as we had expected it to," said Halim, who also oversees communication affairs at the five-star Sheraton Senggigi.
She said that the average occupancy in the 156-room hotel was currently about 40 percent, far below the target of 70 percent.
Still, it is a vast improvement on the paltry 5 percent occupancy it endured in the weeks following the riot.
The number of foreign tourist arrivals to Lombok decreased from 245,000 in 1997 to 212,000 in 1998, and in 1999 plunged to 189,659.
Tourism operators in the area have launched various aggressive marketing and promotional efforts in an effort to boost the industry.
"We have just introduced a very low price package for travel agencies. It's just US$29 per room, when the normal rate is $170 per room, so the package is likely to attract a lot of attention," Halim said.
I Gde Wiratha and Halim, and many others in the tourism industry, believe that difficult times for Bali, Lombok and Indonesian tourism are not over yet.
The seemingly endless political hostility between the nation's leaders, the instability of the country's currency, growing separatist tendencies, not to mention the wave of negative sentiment toward Australians and Americans, have all contributed to the industry being at probably the most uncertain point in its history.
"We keep saying that Indonesia is safe, and then bombs explode in a number of places. We are trying to attract visitors, and then we learn that a mob has stormed hotels and demanded that visitors leave," Dwi Yani said, adding that the events not only confused the market, but also baffled tourism operators at home.
The most recent mixed signal was the government's plan to revoke the free visa facility for Australian visitors. The government reportedly wanted to impose a A$50 visa for each foreign visitor to Indonesia, but it was widely taken as a slap in the face of Canberra amid already strained diplomatic ties.
Despite the justifications presented by the government, Bali tourist business operators were left scratching their heads.
Considering the fact that Australia has been Bali's biggest tourist contributor since 1997, many considered the plan a potentially fatal move.
In 1999 alone there were 312,394 Australian tourists who visited Bali. From January to June 2000, Australia's 116,696 tourist arrivals in Bali were second only to Japan's 206,509.
"The government had better reconsider its plan since it might weaken Bali or Indonesia's competitive value at such a critical time," Dwi Yani said.
Today the fate and future of the multibillion dollar tourism industry on the island do not rest solely in the hands of tourism operators, or the government, but also with the general public.
They were the ones who took to the streets on that violent day 14 months ago. Because of their action, Bali's tourism industry paid a high price.