Indonesian unrest hurting tourist trade in balmy Bali: Hotel occupancy down, international flights cut back

Washington Times, Feb. 12, 1998

BALI, Indonesia - An economic meltdown and small-scale riots on nearby islands are making tourists think twice about visiting this storied tropical paradise.

"Do you think it's safe for me to drive around the island on my own?" Rosemary Reynolds, a tourist from California nervously asked a Bali resident at a beachfront cafe. "I mean with everything that has been going on."

Some hotels on Bali are reporting occupancy down 50 percent, tour operators' businesses are failing and airlines have cut flights to Indonesia, wrecking the government's hopes that tourism would become the largest foreign exchange earner after oil.

It's another blow to an economy already reeling under $130 billion in foreign debts and a currency that has lost 80 percent of its value in six months.

Bali, the country's main tourist destination, has largely been insulated from the cultural factors sparking instability in Java and other parts of Indonesia. But for some visitors, the distinction between the island and the rest of country is lost in the swirl of reporting on Indonesia's troubles.

"People see all the negative press, and they don't want to come here," said Erhard Hotter, general manager of the Sheraton Laguna.

Others try to put those stories in context.

"The distance from Jakarta to Bali is like New York to Chicago," argued Julia Gejeck, a spokesperson for the Four Seasons Hotel, which has so far seen little fallout among its well-heeled, frequently American, clientele. "Something wild and crazy can happen in New York without affecting Chicago. That's true here, too."

Still, not everyone knows where Bali is, much less understands Indonesia's geopolitics.

"We live here, so we can see the difference," said another hotel manager. "You can't expect that of a tourist on the other side of the world."

Some of the island's loss of business is due to nerves, but a sizable portion has more to do with the wallet.

Tourists from elsewhere in Asia enduring their own economic woes are less likely to travel these days. Many Australian, European and American travelers are being lured to neighboring Asian destinations like Thailand, where hotels charge in the heavily devalued local currencies, unlike Indonesian hotels that bill in dollars.

The economic crisis hits an industry already severely damaged by the haze from Indonesian forest fires that blanketed much of the region for many months last year.

"The smoke never came near Bali, but unfortunately the perception was that it was all over Indonesia," said Brad Kirk of the Bali Hyatt. With demand reduced, several European airlines canceled their direct flights to Bali, making things even tougher.

"The last thing a European tourist wants to do is fly 12 hours, lay-over in Jakarta for two hours, then get on a plane for another 90-minute flight," said Mr. Ryan.

The government added what many saw as another nail in the coffin of tourism this week by announcing a quadrupling of the exit tax that Indonesians and foreign residents must pay to leave the country.

The head of the tour operators association predicted that would exacerbate the situation.

"This measure is rubbing salt into the wound for airline companies already badly hurt by the rupiah's slide," added Benny Rungkat, secretary-general of the Indonesian National Air Carriers Association.

Indonesia's ability to counter negative perceptions recently was undermined by the tourism board's announcement that it was suspending overseas promotions because it couldn't pay its $26 million debt


Copyright Washington Times Library Feb 12, 1998

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