Indonesia seeks to repair battered tourism image

IT has all the ingredients of a tourist paradise: stunning beaches, a countryside with lush paddy fields, grand heritage buildings and a deeply mystical culture.

But tourism in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of some 17 000 islands, has been shaken to the core by a str

ing of disasters from bomb attacks on the resort island of Bali to deadly tsunamis and bird flu outbreaks.

“Indonesia has been hit by so many misfortunes, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it,” said Meity Robot, vice-chair of the Indonesian Tourism Council. “It’s not easy for us to convince people to come back,” she told Reuters.

Indonesia’s tourism industry was only just recovering from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s when it suffered a devastating blow in 2002 with Islamic militants bombing nightclubs on Bali, killing 202 people, most of them foreigners.

Since then, a string of disasters have kept tourists away.

The industry took a big hit from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 as well as a tsunami this year that struck a popular beach resort in Java and a massive earthquake in May in Yogyakarta, a popular Java tourist destination.

A bird flu outbreak, which has killed more than 40 people in Indonesia, has also kept visitors away.

“We have to tell visitors these are natural disasters, not man-made,” said Yanti Sukamdani, head of the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurants Association.

“We’re trying to get the government to educate people on tsunamis and get an early warning system in place. But if a warning system is not set up in Bali, business could be hit,” she added.

The drop in tourism since the 2004 tsunami continued this year with foreign tourist arrivals dropping 7,5% to 1,89 million in the first half of 2006, the statistics bureau said. Four million tourists visited Indonesia last year.

Indonesian tourism officials are trying to turn the tide by promoting other parts of the country that have been spared by natural disasters.

“Besides Bali and Java that have always been main tourist destinations, we have areas like Lombok, Sumatra, Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia for marine tourism,” said Sambujo Parikesit, a senior tourism ministry official.

Nature reserves in Kalimantan and stone-age villages in Papua are enticing to adventure travellers. High-end tourists can take their pick of secluded luxury resorts where prices are dropping due to low occupancy rates.

The slowdown in tourism, which accounts for around 5% of Indonesia’s GDP and raked in about US$4,4 billion last year, is compounding a cooling of the economy.

With fewer tourists, shopkeepers in deserted souvenir shops on once-packed streets in Bali’s popular Kuta area are desperate. Some wear T-shirts emblazoned with abusive messages against militants.

“The bombs have really affected our business,” said a sarong-clad woman at an art shop.

But despite the potential dangers, some tourists say they are not deterred from enjoying Indonesia’s sun-kissed beaches.

“I am not afraid of being in Bali. A quake and tsunami could happen anywhere. Bali is beautiful, the waves are great,” said Mick, a 24-year-old Australian surfer, as he waded out of the water at Kuta.

“Disasters can happen anytime, everywhere,” he added. — Reuter.

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