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(7/25/2005) In the absence of a well-defined Master Plan for Bali and the continuing uncontrolled growth in villas and hotels, themost obvious limit on Bali's future tourism growth is often overlooked - the carrying capacity of Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport.
No Where to Grow
Bali's airport is extremely busy handling over an estimated 150 flights each day that bring nearly 20,000 passengers to the island. Meanwhile, the fact that Bali is an island positioned along the middle of the Indonesian archipelago and otherwise only accessible by ship and ferry, render Ngurah Rai's 3,000 meter long runway as the all-important jugular vein for Bali's vital flow of tourists.
With tourism numbers – both domestic and international – booming, the obvious solution to "grow" the current 6.4 million estimated maximum carrying capacity of tourists at Ngurah Rai is to expand the present airport's size.
An Urgent Need
With the potential of of nearly 5 million domestic and international air passengers estimated to pass through Ngurah Rai airport in 2005, Bali is fast approaching the point where it will either have to either expand its airport or sadly discover that its air infrastructure is no longer capable of satisfying the ravenous appetite for more passengers created by the current unbridled growth in villas and hotel roomss.
Although airport authorites insist there are investors eager to underwrite the cost of expanding Bali's airport, physical limitations imposed by the airport geography as well as local cultural limitations make any scheme to expand the airport extremely problematic.
Ngurah Rai Airport occupies nearly 300 hectares of land running east-to-west on the narrow isthmus of land joining Nusa Dua to the island of Bali. Low-lying and bordered by the ocean to the west and mangrove wetlands to the east, the current airport runway - with the exception of a single four-lane road that connects Bali to its southernmost tourism areas - completely dominates the narrow land bridge.
A Situation Where Size Really Does Matter
Ideally, Bali's airport sole runway needs another 1,000 meters added to its current 3,000 meter length to allow jumbo jets to depart fully fueled for long haul flights to Europe, thereby avoiding the current mandatory refueling stop in Singapore.
However, expanding the length of the current runways may prove a near impossible accomplishment. Extending the runways by reclaiming land on the airport's western boundary is seen currently deemed impractical, with engineers concerned that any change in ocean current flows resulting from the required landfill might result in severe erosion along Kuta's beachfront. Meanwhile, expansion of the airport's area on the eastern end of the present runway is strongly opposed by environmentalists concerned for the delicate state of the surrounding mangrove forests.
The Ever Present Need to Consider Balinese Culture
Local Bali-Hindu culture also offers its own set of unique challenges to any plan to extend the present runways. Efforts to expand the southern boundary of the airport, necessary for a possible second runway, have been long-stalled by the inability of airport authorities to come to terms with local villagers who would be displaced by an southward expansion and opposition from religious leaders who fear the possible destruction of a religious site.
Ironically, a creative engineering solution of building a road tunnel under the eastern end of the present runway to enable a runway extension also runs afoul of strongly-held local religious beliefs that prohibit the use road tunnels and roadway overpasses. To those that doubt this, note the abolute lack of pedestrian bridges over any of Bali's busy city streets and highways.
What are the Alternatives?
Faced with these almost insurmountable obstacles to the expansion of Bali's airport, the island has few remaining options at its disposal if it wishes to continue to grow its tourism base at the current pace. Given Bali's mountainous terrain, it will be, at best, difficult to duplicate Ngurah Rai’s nearly 300 hectare land plot elsewhere on the island without first finding a way to literally move both mountains and ancient sacred religious monuments.
In fact, such is the present impasse and the growing desperation of local government officials in finding ways to handle anticipated growth in arrival numbers that plans are being actively discussed on how to restart Lombok's stalled international airport project as a means of accommodating the surplus of air travelers who may soon exceed Bali airport's carrying capacity.
Time to Freeze New Development?
In the absence of any concrete plan that will quickly expand the number of passengers that can be handled by Bali's airport, it may well be that the most prudent plan of action for the Government is to freeze permits for the construction of more hotel or villa rooms until Bali discovers a viable way to welcome the air passengers needed to fill those rooms.