Balinese offer prayers as rumbling volcano threatens tourism lifeblood

PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA/CANDI DASA, Indonesia - Bali's rumbling Mount Agung is starting to impact the economy of the holiday island and, if the eruptions and volcanic ash clouds persist, could spark a bigger wave of cancellations by visitors to Indonesia's main tourism destination as peak season beckons.

The relatively small island has an outsized importance for Indonesian tourism. In January-September, Bali received 4.5 million foreign tourist arrivals, nearly half of the 10.5 million arrivals in Indonesia.

Foreign tourist arrivals to the majority-Hindu island rose 26 per cent in the nine-month period on an annual basis, though dropped on a monthly basis in September, when Indonesian authorities first raised the warning alert on Agung.

"Bali is about tourism, nothing else. If it (the eruption) is prolonged for around 1-3 months, it will impact our tourism significantly," said I Ketut Ardana, chairman of the Association of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies (ASITA).

"We can feel a small impact now, the price of staple goods is increasing," he said.

Indonesia closed Bali's airport on Tuesday for a second day, stranding thousands of visitors due to the ash cloud. On Monday alone, it disrupted 445 flights that would have carried 59,000 passengers.

Chinese tourists have overtaken Australians to become the top visitors to Bali, representing around a quarter of arrivals in January-September. Australian and Japanese tourists are the second- and third-largest groups.

Foreign tourists spent about $1,100 on average during Indonesia holidays in 2016, according to tourism ministry data.

President Joko Widodo has been trying to promote creation of 10 "new Balis" in other parts of the scenic Indonesian archipelago. But for many so far, holidaying in Indonesia means going to Bali.

Authorities raise Mount Agung's threat warning to highest level

  • Bali's Ngurah Rai airport was closed on Monday (Nov 27) until Tuesday morning.
  • On the neighbouring island of Lombok, the international airport resumed flights on Monday morning after it was closed on Sunday due to ash clouds.
  • Indonesia's disaster management agency (BNPB) spokesman, Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, said in a statement that the volcano,
  • which began to spew lava on Saturday, has also continuously ejected ash while the sound of intermittent eruptions can be heard as far as 12km away.
  • Lava is molten rock or magma that has erupted from the volcano.
  • A bright glow from the lava on the volcano summit was often seen on Sunday night,
  • signalling that potentially greater eruptions are very imminent, Dr Sutopo said.
  • BNPB issued the level four warning alert, which is the highest possible, at 6am.
  • Residents have been told to evacuate from the danger zone, which has been expanded to between 8 to 10km from 6 to 7.5km.
  • "The estimated danger zones are dynamic and are under consistent evaluation,
  • and may change anytime depending on the most actual observation data," Dr Sutopo said.
  • He also warned residents to be alert for cold lava around Mount Agung.
  • "Cold lava floods have started to hit several places on the foot of the volcano," he said on Twitter.
  • All observation stations around Mount Agung have been recording tremendously higher intensity of tremors since Sunday, state news agency Antara reported citing Mr Gede Suantika of the Volcanology and Disaster Mitigation Centre.
  • The volcano, the highest point in Bali and located about 75 kilometres from the tourist hub of Kuta, has been rumbling since August.
  • More than 34,000 people have fled from a rumbling volcano on the resort island of Bali as the magnitude of tremors grows,
  • prompting fears it could erupt for the first time in more than 50 years, an official said.
  • Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency said the number of people fleeing their homes surrounding the volcano had tripled amid growing alarm that Mount Agung could erupt at any moment.
  • The airport has prepared buses and trains to divert passengers to alternative hubs in neighbouring provinces if the mountain erupts.
  • Flight disruptions due to drifting ash clouds are not uncommon in Indonesia, which sits on a belt of seismic activity known as the "Ring of Fire".
  • Bali officials said the island was still generally safe but urged tourists to stay away from tourism spots located within the danger zone.
  • Indonesia is home to around 130 volcanoes due to its position on the "Ring of Fire", a belt of tectonic plate boundaries circling the Pacific Ocean where frequent seismic activity occurs.
  • The volcano agency's chief Kasbani said Mount Agung had a history of major eruptions that eclipsed recent episodes in Indonesia, including the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi in Central Java that claimed at least 350 lives.

ECONOMY STUCK IN SLOWER GEAR

As Agung spewed tall columns of ash, life continued largely as normal on Tuesday for villagers near the volcano who set up traditional markets and offered Hindu prayers.

Matthew Smyth from Ireland, a restaurant owner in Amed, around 15 km (9 miles) from the volcano, said many businesses using rented land would be threatened if the eruption dragged on."Half of the businesses here are built on credit... if the situation continues many people will lose their land," said Smyth, who is also setting up a yoga retreat and freediving centre.

The problems facing Bali tourism come as Indonesian policymakers have been trying to fire up an economy stuck at around 5 per cent growth, held back by largely flat consumption.

Bali has been growing more quickly. The tourism sector was the biggest contributor to its 6.24 per cent regional GDP growth last year.

But Agung has already put a dent in Bali's growth this year.

"If it (the eruption) is prolonged to a month, especially in Bali, it could have an impact on tourism revenue. I think this is a short-term shock, but it needs to be watched," said Myrdal Gunarto, an economist at Maybank Indonesia in Jakarta.

Wayan Wirjana, 31, the manager of a restaurant in Candi Dasa, a popular beach town in Bali, said he was only getting five visitors a day, down from 15-20 in the summer, and expects the usually busy Christmas and New Year period to be slow.

"If things continue in the long term, like through the Christmas period, we'll have to lay off staff even if temporarily. We all have families so there is a very real impact on us," he said.

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