Sun, 08 Jun 2003

Beleaguered Bali feeling ill effects from outbreak

Rita A. Widiadana, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar, Bali

The country's number one tourist destination has been blindsided by the impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

It has come as yet another blow to Bali, still reeling from the bombings that hit nightspots in Kuta last October and the inevitable drop in visitors due to the recent war in Iraq.

The chairman of the Bali Recovery Program, I Gusti Alit Putra, said it would take a miracle to help the tourist industry rebound anytime soon.

"This is the hardest period in the last 30 years. In Bali, the tourism and hotel industry have been the main economic pillars," said Alit Putra, who is also the province's deputy governor.

"It has a huge multiplier impact on the people's economic situation."

About 1.2 million of the island's 3 million population work in tourism-related enterprises, including as travel agents, handicraft and souvenir producers, hotel suppliers, artists and farmers supplying produce to hotels and restaurants.

The chairman of the Bali chapter of the Association of Travel Agencies (ASITA), I Gusti Agung Prana, agreed that the impact of SARS was crippling, especially as many on the island felt they were on the road to recovery earlier this year.

In January, the travel industry reported an increase in reservations from international clients, Agung Prana said.

"Many of them were beginning to forget the bomb incidents and had regained their confidence in Bali as a safe tourist destination," he added.

Even during the war in Iraq, visitors from European countries and the Asia Pacific were returning. Then came reports of SARS in March and April, which "destroyed everything", he said.

The chairman of the Bali chapter of the Hotel and Restaurant Association, I Gde Wiratha, said fears about SARS would be hard to dispell.

"In my opinion, many of us (in the hotel, travel and restaurant industry) will not be able to survive if the condition persists for the next six months," Wiratha said.

Several five-star hotels operating in Nusa Dua, Kuta and Sanur currently report only 25 percent room occupancy, which is not enough to maintain their high operational costs.

"Imagine a five-star hotel with more than 600 rooms that is only occupied by 30 to 50 guests," Wiratha said.

"A hotel is doing well if its room occupancy reaches at least 40 percent."

Four- and three-star hotels are surviving, with between 40 percent and 60 percent room occupancy. "The saddening thing is around 800,000 people are now employed in the hotel and travel- related business," he said.

Some hotels have cut operational costs by allowing their employees to take annual or unpaid leave. Others have introduced 15-day work months.

Travel agents are also enduring tough times.

"Many of us have stopped operations, especially those who have clients from Taiwan, China and Japan," said the owner of Terima Kasih Indonesia Tour and Travel Enterprises, Eddy Sunyoto.

Some have sold their offices or company vehicles to stay in business.

Many argue that the government must do more to help Bali, which generates 30 percent of the country's estimated US$6 billion in foreign exchange revenue from tourism.

"We know that the government has a large agenda and is now cash-strapped. However, we urge the government and the banking industry to help," Agung Prana said.

Most companies have depleted their savings to keep afloat over the past seven months.

"We really need fresh funds to continue operating, as well as debt rescheduling, to avoid bankruptcy," Agung Prana said.

However, Bali has also benefited from the outbreak of SARS. Some organizers moved events from China or Hong Kong to Bali.

Director of operations at Bali International Conference Center (BICC) Alex Riva said the organization had taken steps to educate its employees about SARS.

In April, at the height of the SARS scare, BICC hosted the 52nd Annual Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference, with more 900 delegates from the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and Africa.

"It was a successful conference even amid fears about SARS. Nobody was wearing masks, although there were delegations from affected countries," Alex said.

BICC has since hosted other major conferences, and Alex said they proved to be positive experiences.

"The majority of my clients didn't show they were afraid of the SARS threat. They didn't even mention the trial of the Bali bombing suspects," he said.

"I'm pretty confident that Bali will again become a favorite destination for business and leisure (travel), as soon as the trials are over and if SARS is handled carefully," he said.

Agung Prana said the government and the tourism industry must lobby the World Health Organization (WHO) for official verification of the country's SARS-free status.

"If Canada, which has several SARS victims, could get a SARS- free certificate, Indonesia should work hard to convince WHO to issue that certificate, otherwise our tourism industry will die soon," he said.