Bali: to go or not to go

As I stood at ground zero in Kuta, my guide brought home the full horror of the bomb attacks in Bali. “My neighbour was a guard at the Sari Club the night of the first bombs,” he said. “They only found his shoe.”

The Sari Club in Kuta was known to be frequented almost entirely by tourists. So the explosion that ripped through the nightclub in 2002 sent a chilling message. Tourists were being targeted by those behind the attacks.

More than 200 people were killed, 40 of them Indonesian. An estimated 80% of the workforce on the island relies on tourism, so the fallout was dire as occupancy rates fell following the blasts. Yet business had largely recovered by October 1 last year. About 95% of hotel rooms were occupied and 2005 was set to be a record year for incoming visitors, according to the Bali Hotel Association. Then the second bombs hit.

Two weeks after the blasts, occupancy had dipped to 45%.

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 © Image Bank
But tourism has bounced back faster this time. Bali Hotel Association vice-chairman Robert Kelsal said there was no panic after the second bombing and 4,400 visitors arrived on the island the following day. While cancellations peaked three days after the attack at 19% of those due to arrive, many were replaced by fresh bookings. In the 12 days after the attacks, bookings came in at double the rate that followed the 2002 bombings.

“The immediate drop following 2002 was dramatic,” said Kelsall. “But after the 2005 bombing, people stayed on their holidays.”

A major difference for the UK market was that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not advise against travel as it did in the aftermath of the first attacks.

And on the ground, the industry and local police are now working together. Hotels are becoming more security conscious – each must have a member of security staff for every 10 rooms.

The industry has nothing but praise for Bali’s police force, which has brought more than 30 suspects to trial and announced the death, following a shootout, of the man suspected to have masterminded both attacks. A security council has also been established to co-ordinate the safety of tourists.

The police presence in tourist areas increased after the first bombings and is now the highest in Indonesia – with one to every 300 people.

Specialist tourism police now monitor pedestrians and diners accessing restaurants from the beach. And before long, checkpoints will be in place at the entrance to every resort.

So what advice do local police have for UK tourists?

“Groups of visitors should nominate one person to be a security official,” said a spokesman for the Bali police. “If anyone has concerns, they should send a text message to 1120 and the police will phone them immediately.”

Visitors to upmarket resorts must expect to have their vehicles searched with metal detectors and mirrors before entering hotels or busy beach areas. But once through the checkpoints, life in a Balinese resort remains as idyllic as ever. And away from the resorts, the temples, paddy fields and rainforests are still safe and accessible.

Few international hotels have slashed prices to stimulate bookings, preferring to add value instead. So until occupancy levels are back up, guests may find extra nights, spa treatments or free champagne included in their holiday packages. However, the message from Bali’s tourism authorities to the UK travel trade is clear.

“The government has spent a lot of money on security,” said Kelsall. “But we don’t want to make false promises. “All these activities take time to get right. Yet we are confident the visitors will come back.”

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