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Editorial: Hold on Tight

We Ask 'Where's the Leadership?' as More Hotel Closures Loom in the Dark Days Ahead.

(5/12/2003) Several months ago, a member of the foreign press contacted us, asking us to describe how Bali had managed to survive following the devastating effects of the October 2002 bombing.

On reflection, the question was an interesting one. It seemed to suggest that there existed some sort of well thought-out crisis plan to help guide the tourism industry through the many problems caused by that terrorist attack.

The reporter seemed surprised when we suggested that her question was not dissimilar to asking a small boy how he manages to just survive a thrilling roller coaster ride. His answer would surely be, "Lady, it's like this: we hung on like hell!"

Fear that the current roller coaster ride being experienced by Bali's tourism operators may be in danger of dangerously going off its rails were heightened last week by the closure of a 5 star hotel in Tanjung Benoa and increasing reports of reduced pay and work schedules at many Bali properties.

The Current Statistics Tell Only Half the Story

While the dip in arrivals for March decreased on average 36.4% as compared to the same month last year, the overall downturn in business is more severe than the situation reflected in these numbers. With the U.S.A., Australian, and most European markets to Bali down by even larger margins, the loss in total "guest days" lost to local hotels has had an even more dramatic effect on the local tourism economy.

With average lengths of stay 3 and 4 times greater than their Asian counterparts, the massive losses being experienced in the European, U.S., and Australian source markets must be seen as perhaps the chief underlying cause of Bali's abysmal hotel occupancy levels.

A Worsening Situation Ahead

Unofficial figures for April of only 53,714 direct foreign tourist arrivals via Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport, if correct, mean the business gap as measured against previous years is worsening, with arrivals lagging 48.8% behind April of 2003 and 54.2% behind the same month in 2002.

An Industry Left to Battle All Alone

Admittedly, the negative impact on international travel of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is not specific to Bali, with all of Asia suffering from the sudden downturn in international travel.

Indonesia does, however, stand out among its regional neighbors for the seeming nonchalance with which its government is confronting the current crisis.

While Hong Kong has responded with a $1.5 billion relief package for their embattled tourism industry and Singapore is moving ahead full speed with the preparation for its post-SARS recovery re-launch program, local tourism industry players in Indonesia sit nervously waiting for a leader to step forward with a plan for a coordinated response or, at least, a meeting to be called to discuss options and formulate a recovery strategy.

Incredulously, while all eyes were turned in search of some leadership and guidance on how to weather and survive the current imbroglio, the government responded by issuing a decree that will eventually remove the visa-free-on-arrival facility enjoyed by the citizens of 48 countries.

The Lack of Crisis Communication Plan

In the midst of this failure to lead and inspire the nation's tourism cadres, the lack of a coordinated communications plan for the SARS crisis is perhap the most sorely felt failings of the country's tourism leadership in this time of unparalled crisis. While World Health Organization (W.H.O.) figures indicate that Indonesia and, by extension, Bali, have largely escaped the scourge of the SARS epidemic, almost nothing is being done to publicize this crucial piece of information to the world.

Hang on, Kiddo!

The Indonesian tourism industry, like the little boy preparing for his next ride on a giant roller coaster, is sitting white-knuckled "hanging on," hoping to survive the next circuit around the track, alive and intact.

A final word of advice, "don't forget, Kiddo, hang on tight because you're well and truly on your own!"