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(5/11/2009) A travel and tourism expert once suggested that every airport reflects, to some degree, the larger destination waiting the traveler beyond the airport's borders. And, just as the slick and ultra modern air hubs in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong blend almost seamlessly with those 21st century cities – the helter-skelter and modulated pandemonium encountered at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport also reflects daily life in nearby Kuta.
Thus, the urgent need to improve first or final travel experience for Bali holidaymakers prompt us to give a resounding "thumbs up" to Bali's governor, Made Mangku Pastika, for his recent public statements demanding a dramatic rethink of design proposals under consideration for an expanded and modernized Bali airport. Governor Pastika has rejected the latest proposal for the revamped airport, considering them more of the "same old same old" of over commercialization, systemic inefficiency and a key destination facility that fails to reflect Balinese architectural values.
Sadly, it's hard to argue with "Pak" Made on those counts. Angkasa Pura, the government company that manages the airport have proven themselves to be more concerned with increasing revenues than with enhancing the comfort of the traveling public.
The list of the failing of Bali's airport is painfully long:
• Eight or more desperate money changers shops scream frantically at arriving passengers, when one or two foreign exchange counters would be sufficient and more economically sustainable.
• On occasion, aggressive real estate people offering shady "freehold" property deals to arriving tourists stop travelers while still in the customs area. And, this, in a country where such freehold land purchases by foreigners are strictly against the law.
• Long immigration lines in poorly air conditioned areas can, at key periods of the day, see people waiting in line for more than one hour.
• Poorly maintained toilets staffed by panhandling cleaning staff provide an odious welcome to Bali visitors.
• Badly maintained luggage trolleys are positioned in the most distant corner of the baggage claim area, made cynically accessible only after running the gamut of an obstacle course of over-eager airport porters.
• Teflon-coated uniformed security guards who, as reported by the local press, where recently caught red-handed in the act of pilfering items from passengers hand luggage, could not be prosecuted "due to the lack of a formal complaint" from an already departed passenger.
• Restaurant concession extended with little or no reference to supply and demand flows or the dietary tendencies of the visitors' market mix. Those concession when granted, in many instances, are operated without any airport supervision ensuring safe, modern and hygienic food and beverage service.
• Shops and restaurant leases granted on a "who-do-you-know-basis" that ignore any effort to created a sustainable proper balance of vendors offering a range of non-competing merchandise and services.
• A surfeit reflexology salons, resulting in 50 or more people engaged in that business sector at the airport with little chance of earning a reasonable standard of living from rubbing the feet of tired travelers.
Clearly, even the most basic skill-set possessed by the myriad of professional shopping mall managers found elsewhere in Indonesia is sorely lacking at Angkasa Pura - the government-owned company charged with running the nation's airport. While mall marketing managers have finely honed formulas that ensure a sustainable mix and variety of businesses that will provide for an enjoyable experience for the shopper and a reasonable expectation of profitability for tenants, this basic concept of commercial space management is an apparent mystery for those in charge at Bali's airport.
Moreover, recent reports in the Bali press indicate that Heru Legowo, Angkasa Pura's manager in Bali, finds the governor advice and input bothersome, preferring instead to grow the amount of space set aside for shops, restaurants and foot massages a Bali's airport. He responds to critics by insisting his job is to maximize revenues for his employers. Heru's focus on immediate profits above all else also allows him to ignore the negative impact of his policies on Bali's reputations as a world class holiday destination.
A Larger Issue at Play
From our perspective, the current tug-of-war between Angkasa Pura and the Governor's office underlines the need for more local say in how Bali's airport is run. Recent changes in Indonesian legal and administrative structures intended to give people more control over their lives is a message with little meaning when it comes to the management and operation of the Nation's airports. Bali's airport, controlled by Jakarta which siphons off the hefty profits the airport generates each year, is without argument the single most important piece of infrastructure to the island's massive tourism industry. At the same time, the people of Bali and the stakeholders in local tourism have almost no voice in how the airport is run.
Complaints and suggestions on what might be done to improve the airport are regularly published in Bali's press, only to be greeted with a polite smile and benign contempt, as evidenced by Mr. Legowo's response to recent suggestions from Governor Pastika. [See: Shopping Around for an Airport]
Enough is Enough?
It's time that Bali has a larger say in how its single most important gateway is managed and operated. At the very least, local political leaders and representatives of tourism stakeholders organization must be regularly consulted and asked for input on the future course of Bali's airport. And, when our governor speaks, the airport management must listen.
In the final analysis, Mr. Legowo, the people of Bali are not the enemy; we're your neighbors.