Aftershock of the beach bombs

Western governments' response to attacks on tourists can make or break places like Bali.

Peter Smith

Topics Politics

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The dust has now settled on the beachside bombs in Bali on 2 October that killed 22 people. While the immediate impact is on relatives and friends of the victims, Western governments’ response to the tragedy will have a more long-term impact on tourism in the region.

After the bombs, there were conflicting reports about tourists’ response. According to some, many tourists stayed put in Bali (1); while others reported efforts to evacuate tourists (2). Bali relies on tourism. Over 900,000 of the island’s population of 2.9million work in the tourism sector, servicing 1.5million visitors a year (3). Tourism spending in turn accounts for $7billion in revenues each year for the Indonesian economy (4).

Tragically, we’ve been here before. In October 2002, Bali nightclubs were targeted, killing 202 people, most of them foreigners. Following the nightclub bombings, in line with other Western governments, the UK Foreign Office put out a blanket notice warning UK citizens against all but essential travel to Indonesia.

A ‘do not travel’ warning from the Foreign Office is a strong statement, not only for people considering visiting a particular region, but for the travel and tourism industry as a whole. The warning is the standard industry trigger that alters a cancellation from voluntary to involuntary. Once a ‘do not travel’ warning has been issued, UK tour operators are obliged to evacuate at customers’ request and to consider cancelling future trips. As a further discouragement, parts of travel insurance policies become null and void when such a notice has been issued.

Despite lobbying from the Indonesian government, the Foreign Office’s warning against all but essential travel to Indonesia was in place for over a-year-and-a-half, and was only lifted last year. As a result of Western governments’ response, the fall in Bali’s tourist receipts continued well after the evacuation of foreign visitors in October 2002. Direct international tourist arrivals dropped from 150,747 in September 2002 to 31,498 in November 2002 (4). Immediately following the nightclub bombings this may be understandable. But the effects continued for months: the United Nations Development Programme reported that incomes across Bali fell by an average of 43 per cent between October 2002 and May 2003 (5).

In the UK, we would quite rightly raise objections if foreign governments advised their citizens not to travel here as a result of the London bombings. Yet this was precisely the Foreign Office’s approach to Indonesia in 2002.

Only following significant pressure from the Indonesian government (and others such as Turkey and Kenya) did the Foreign Office carry out a consultation involving the travel industry and other stakeholders. When a general review of travel advice warnings was published in 2004, foreign secretary Jack Straw conceded that too many warnings ‘did the terrorists’ work for them’ (6).

The Foreign Office advice for travellers to Indonesia was finally downgraded in July 2004. The current approach aims to be more selective, only issuing warnings when the threat to British tourists appears specific, imminent and large scale.

After the 2 October attacks, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who lost his brother in the 2002 Bali bombs, attacked the Foreign Office for not following the Australian government’s example – Australian authorities had put out more stringent warnings to tourists in Indonesia in the days before the bombs (8). A Guardian leader also asked: ‘One question raised by the Bali bombs is why the Foreign Office failed to follow the Australian government’s serious warnings to tourists.’ (9)

These criticisms seem to follow the all-too-familiar pattern of seeking to blame the authorities for terrorist attacks – when in truth, the only people to blame are the terrorists. The Foreign Office rightly responded: ‘We have had bombs going off in London and we wouldn’t want other countries to say “don’t go to London”.’ (10) This level-headed response is in stark contrast to the response in 2002.

The people of Bali have worked hard to rebuild their tourism industry – but largely as a result of the approach taken by Western governments following the 2002 bombings, the damage to Bali’s economy has already been done. The Foreign Office is taking a stoic line now – if only it had also done so three years ago.

Peter Smith is a lecturer in tourism at St Mary’s College, University of Surrey.

(1) ‘Indonesia’s still-deadly Islamists’, Economist, 3 October 2005

(2) ‘Soft target that will struggle to recover second time around’, Independent, 3 October 2005

(3) ‘Bali blast may hit Indonesian economy’, Financial Times, 14 October 2002

(4) ‘Bali blast may hit Indonesian economy’, Financial Times, 14 October 2002

(5) Bali Crisis and Recovery Programme, on the United Nations website

(6) Bali Crisis and Recovery Programme, on the United Nations website

(7) New rules over travel warnings, BBC News, 23 June 2004

(8) Brother criticises UK Bali advice, BBC News, 3 October 2005
; Australia warned travellers to get out, Martin Bright and Martin Bentham, Observer, 2 October 2005

(9) British lessons from the Bali bombs, Guardian, October 3 2005

(10) Brother criticises UK Bali advice, BBC News, 3 October 2005

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Topics Politics


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