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The Future of Bali

On a recent journey to Bali, Christopher R. Cox finds that after two blows to the island’s tourism industry, the residents are more determined than ever to win back the confidence of travelers

By Christopher R. Cox

Rudi Limas surveys his new restaurant, R. Aja’s, in the upscale town of Seminyak, on Bali. The airy, second- floor space stretches more than half a football field in length, and on this April night, at the beginning of tourist season, holds just a few dozen diners. He allows himself a weary smile. On October 1, 2005, a suicide bomber destroyed Limas’s original R. Aja’s, an institution on Kuta Square, southern Bali’s retail hub. Three of his staff were killed that night, and the attack, along with other bombings, crippled the island’s tourism-dependent economy.

"I had to reopen," says the native of Surabaya, Java, who kept his 40-plus workers on the payroll while he built the new outpost of his restaurant. "I couldn’t leave my staff."

"Business is not good," Limas continues, offering me fermented tapioca steamed in banana leaves. "But I’m not thinking about profit now."

Like the hundreds of thousands of other residents of this battered, beguiling island, who rely for their livings on a healthy influx of visitors, Limas can only hope that travelers will steel themselves against lingering concerns after the terrorist attacks of October 2005—which revived memories of similar attacks in 2002—and return to one of the world’s iconic vacation destinations.

"When one bomb goes off, it’s seen as an isolated event," says John O’Sullivan, general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. "When two bombs go off, it’s perceived as a target. People are trying to determine: Is Bali safe?"

Attracting more than 3 million visitors annually, Bali is the engine of Indonesia’s $5 billion-per-year tourism industry, which, after oil and gas, is the country’s second-largest foreign-exchange earner. That distinction, and the fact that most of Bali’s 3.4 million inhabitants are Hindu, has attracted Islamic jihadists looking to sow unrest in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

"Bali is like a bowl of sweets," one restaurateur says, "and the ants come from everywhere."

There’s no question that the 2002 bombings that killed more than 200 people at two Kuta Square clubs devastated Bali’s then robust economy. The SARS outbreak in 2003 and the American invasion of Iraq only exacerbated travelers’ fears. A 2003 World Bank study reported an average income decline of 43 percent among residents. Yet idyllic Bali rebounded: in 2004, foreign arrivals reached a record 1.46 million, and the first three-quarters of 2005 shaped up even better. Then, in the space of 10 minutes on a Saturday evening, attacks at R. Aja’s and a pair of seaside restaurants in Jimbaran killed 26 people and sent Bali reeling once more.

"No more bookings," laments a clerk at the Lokha Legian Hotel. "Only cancellations."

One of Bali’s best restaurants, La Lucciola, reports a 40 percent drop in business since the October bombings. Declining orders have driven 70 of the island’s 120 garment businesses into bankruptcy, leaving an estimated 15,000 workers jobless. In the north-shore town of Lovina, a glum tout tells me one sun-splashed afternoon that just five prau outriggers carried tourists to view the famed dolphins that day; last year, 40 or 50 boats would have made the same trip.

The economic aftershocks have rippled far beyond the tourist trail. In the misty central highlands, farmers who supply hotels and restaurants have seen produce prices collapse. With less income, many Balinese have had to cut back on their own spending. Before 2002, gong-maker Made Budiana worked 10 months a year to fill orders for new gamelan sets; last year, he had enough work for only three months.

"When there are no tourists," the father of four says in his overstocked showroom near Sawan, in rural northern Bali, "Balinese cannot buy new gongs. Most will just repair their old sets.

"I’d love to see my children continue this tradition," adds the sixth-generation artisan, "but they may have to learn a different skill."

In the face of tragedy, many Balinese Are inclined to introspection, to ponder whether they’ve somehow upset the gods. After each attack, hundreds of Balinese spontaneously congregated at the bombing sites to perform cleansing and rebalancing rituals.

"We don’t blame others; we blame ourselves," says Agung Rai, who oversees a cultural foundation in the up-country town of Ubud. "We always try to be in balance between the good and bad, the positive and negative energy."

But many beleaguered islanders also looked to the central government. Declaring terrorism a threat to national stability, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono quickly assigned Indonesia’s military the role of assisting local police. The Badan Intelijens Nasional, the country’s equivalent of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, opened an office in Denpasar. Because the suicide bombers were non-Balinese, off-island Indonesians must now register within 24 hours of arrival with thebanjar—the highly organized local community that is the heart of tightly knit Balinese society. The police also sweep boarding houses to check identity cards and job status; unemployed immigrants are deported.

"Everyone is concerned with security," says Bagus Sudibya, chairman of the Bali Tourism Board. "More or less, everyone in Bali is a policeman. Enough is enough."

The Bali Hotels Association sponsored an island-wide security assessment of hotels, restaurants, and key infrastructure. The hotels have since formulated safety plans, which will be extended into the surroundingbanjarto establish secure zones. BHA chairman Michael Burchett likens the initiative, which hotels will underwrite, to a giant Neighborhood Watch program. "The Balinese know they will not regain tourists’ confidence by sitting back," says the Perth native. "Action must be taken."

Many hotels have already increased their security measures. The Four Seasons, for instance, has strengthened its main-entrance checkpoint with a heavy-duty gate, explosives-sniffing dogs, and armed police who inspect every vehicle; the resort also hired three dozen extra security guards and sent them for two weeks’ military training.

Although foreign arrivals dipped noticeably after the most recent assaults, the decline wasn’t as severe as the drop-off after the 2002 bombings. Numbers for the first half of 2003 were down 41 percent compared with those of 2002; from January to June of 2006, the figures were only 20 percent below the 2005 levels. This leveling off suggests travelers may be less likely to change their plans following terrorist incidents. Since the first Kuta Square attack, terrorists have struck in London, Madrid, and Turkey, and plots have been uncovered in Britain, Denmark, and Morocco.

"There is a growing sense that no place is necessarily a priori safe anymore," says Don George, an editor for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet. "People recognize that after disasters like the Bali bombings, in a place that relies on tourism income for much of its collective livelihood, they can do a lot of good by traveling and spending their money there."

O’Sullivan at the Four Seasons also senses a more visceral reason: "There’s an element of resistance to being held ransom by terrorists. This is the island of the gods…there’s a certain feeling of total violation. People are still going to come back to the bosom of spirituality, which is Bali."

He isn’t the only hotelier who is still betting on Bali. Como has revamped its Begawan property into a holistic spa, and Pansea opened Ubud Hanging Gardens last summer, in a dramatic Ayung River gorge. Bulgari Hotels’ clifftop, all-villa resort near Ulu Watu debuts this October, and St. Regis is building a hotel and residence development that will open in 2007.

"We are very confident in Bali," says Hanging Gardens general manager Nicolas Pillet. "We are convinced the business will come back."

Less than two weeks after last October’s attacks, the second annual Ubud Writer’s Festival went off without a hitch, and the Pacific Asia Travel Association will hold its Travel Mart on Bali in 2007. In May, Quest for Global Healing held its second conference here; speakers included Bishop Desmond Tutu. Coincidentally, the event took place during Galungan, a major festival celebrating the death of a mythical tyrant. In Bali, good invariably trumps evil.

"To look at the world from a global perspective—I can’t think of any greater place to do it than Bali," says conference codirector Marcia Jaffe. "You get a chance to witness every single day how people try to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other."

That grace is evident across this island: in sarong-clad men carrying an elaborate cremation tower down a busy Kuta street; in children practicing intricate dance movements along a rural road; and, everywhere, in the delicate, flower-filledcanang saribaskets the Balinese offer to their gods.

One morning at sunrise, Agung Rai drives me east from Ubud into a dreamscape that would have moved Walter Spies, an artist whose paintings celebrated everyday Balinese life. Beyond untouristed villages bristling with pendulouspenjorpoles for an upcoming festival, the narrow road winds into the foothills of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest and holiest peak. Every serene, terraced rice paddy beneath the two-mile-high volcano holds a shrine; the fatal mountain, which killed more than 1,000 people in a 1963 eruption, is also prodigiously fertile. Here, the promise of both nurture and annihilation is never far away. It is Bali’s special curse to live in that tenuous balance between two opposing forces.

"We are in the middle," Agung Rai says. "We have to worship the good as well as the bad spirits. In harmony, good and bad work together. And that can be powerful."

Christopher R. Cox is a frequent T+L contributor. His story "Pol Pot’s Toilet" appears in the new Lonely Planet anthologyTales from Nowhere.