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Bali Times Interviews J.M. Daniels

Bali Times Interviews Editor of Bali Update and President Director of Bali Discovery Tours.


The Friday, May 13, 2005, edition of the Bali Times carried the following interview with John M. Daniels, President Director of and Editor of Bali Update.

Long-since smitten by Bali's charms, Jack Daniels, an American from the state of Michigan, makes his living by selling the island to potential holidaymakers via Bali Discovery Tours. Outspoken on contentious issues like Indonesia's visa system and the rapid, unchecked pace of development in Bali, he has received awards by the nation's president and the Bali government for his contribution to the local tourism industry. Publisher of Bali Update, a widely read weekly email newsletter, he set out his thoughts to The Bali Times

How do you think Bali is perceived overseas these days? Does it have a discernable image – say, related to recent events, or does the island's culture and physical appeal still shine through?

Never underestimate the tremendous "brand equity" possessed by Bali. With little or no professional marketing of the destination, Bali continues to get selected year after year in major travel polls as one of the world's favorite island destinations. Bali's image abroad is totally the result of word-of-mouth from past visitors; with no discernable involvement by spin-doctors or destination-image consultants.

On one level this says a lot about the island's intrinsic charm. On another, it's very worrying, as the people who live and work in Bali have no means to shape or influence public perceptions about the island when we become the focus of negative press coverage.

Multiple arrests of Australian drugs-smuggling suspects have made headlines in Australia and beyond – as well as a high-profile drugs trial of a young woman. Some industry analysts have suggested these cases are tarnishing Bali's image, and that tourists will opt for other places. Do you agree?

As I said in a recent editorial on, it's more than a little ironic that that some Australians find their relationships with a free and democratically evolving Indonesia more problematic than with the autocratic Indonesia of the Suharto era.

The young woman in question arrived at Bali's airport with a large quantity of narcotics in her baggage. No one seems to suggest that the drugs were planted by anyone in Indonesia, which means they either were owned by the woman or she was the hapless victim of some bungled drug shipment originating in Australia. Arrive in any country and be discovered with 4 kilograms of cannabis and you're certain to find yourself living in a world of legal trouble. This is not a case of Indonesia's choosing or making.

Time will tell what fallout, if any, will result from the final disposition of the Corby case. One report I read estimates over 150 Australians are incarcerated abroad – and 70 percent are narcotics-related cases. I also remember a celebrated case of some years ago where a grandmother arrived in Singapore with a Volkswagen Van with drugs concealed in the floorboards she similarly claimed the drugs were planted.

My guess is that any fallout from any potential harsh Schapelle Corby verdict will be of short duration.

From your experience in the travel industry, are people now more reluctant to travel abroad?

Aside from momentary hiccups occasioned by events such as 9-11, the Bali bombing, SARS scares and the invasion of Iraq, worldwide travel continues to grow year after year.

Do you see a new demographic of tourist coming to Bali?

There's been a dramatic shift in Bali's arrival demographics. We've traded quality for quantity. European and American travelers are running at totals that are below their performance of five to six years ago. The numbers have been made up by regional travelers from the Asia-Pacific region, spending less and staying for shorter periods. So while the total number of arrivals is setting new records, there's still a shortfall in the amount of spending and room nights produced. This fact explains why people continue to ask, "Where are the tourists?"

Also of concern to me is the lack of diversification in our tourism numbers. Japan, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea represent over 55 percent of all arrivals in Bali. Have a problem in any one of those markets and the impact on Bali's economy will be significant.

There are still some grumblings about the visa system that was introduced last year, when the free visa-on-arrival (VOA) was revoked for citizens of most countries; but on the whole, tourist numbers to Bali are steady and increasing, and most tourists don't mind paying for their visas. Do you see it that way?

I've been pretty consistent in my opposition to the VOA. We've shown that if the policy reduces arrivals by as little as 2.3 percent, the foreign exchange lost in overall tourism spending will more than cancel out any revenues collected from visa fees.

That there is a negative impact on arrivals caused by the VOA is proven by the shortfall in European and American travelers we’re currently experiencing and the fact that when seen in terms of total arrivals to all ASEAN countries, Indonesia lost significant market share in 2004 – the year the VOA was introduced.

Do you know approximately how much has been taken in from visa fees – and where the money is going?

The last figures I saw estimated that US$32.47 million was collected nationwide from the VOA's introduction on February 1 through December 10, 2004. My understanding is that those funds have yet to be disbursed, pending the issuance of a piece of legislation that will determine how that money is to be divided up.

For people who are on their first visit to Bali, do you think they get a good first impression when they land at the airport? For instance, in general, are they treated well by airport officials, including immigration personnel?

I can't help but recall that a tourism consultant once observed that a destination's airport is a pretty good mirror of the experience that awaits the traveler beyond the airport. When I think of Singapore's ultra-modern Changi Airport or the space-age qualities of Hong Kong's new airport, I have to say that they are pretty good indications of those two destinations.

Let me answer your question diplomatically: there's lots of work to be done that can improve the overall experience of Bali's visitors, both inside and outside the airport.

We hear stories, and have personal experience, of immigration officers extorting money from those passing through their channel. Is there anything immediate that can be done to bring more transparency and accountability to this area, or is graft too ingrained?

The first rule has to be having your paperwork in order and holding the proper kind of visa for your actual purpose for being in the country. This allows you the option of refusing any request for a bribe and demanding your right to discuss the matter with a supervisor.

My experience is that, when politely challenged, groundless requests for facilitation payments are generally immediately withdrawn.

In short, play by the rules and stand your ground if you feel you are being treated unfairly.

What kinds of complaints about Bali do you hear from foreign tourists?

Many people write because of our extensive web presence and our weekly newsletter that goes out to 15,000 readers. The complaints can touch on any aspect of a visit, ranging from moneychangers, harassment by drug dealers in Kuta, dishonest taxi drivers and poor treatment at a local hotel or restaurant.

I really don't feel it is my right to answer these messages and think Bali really needs an agency that will consider and respond to formal complaints from the public. Bali needs to be more v

More information: The Bali Times Web Site

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