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Bali Security: The Elephant in the Room

Editorial: Why the Threat of Terrorism Makes it Imperative that Bali Regulate its Tourism Sector.

(7/27/2009) The July 17, 2009, bombing of two international hotels in Jakarta has once again brought home to the need for Bali to be unfailingly diligent in keeping the island safe for both residents and villagers. To Bali's credit, travel industry leaders, island administrators and local police authorities huddled within hours of the Jakarta bombing to tighten controls on Bali's public places and hotels, determined to make Bali a tough target for any aspiring terrorist.

But, any attempt by Bali to bolster existing systems and procedures in order to keep the island safe from those intent on its destruction, runs into a brick wall when trying to impose order and rules on a system where so many elements operating outside the law. On an island rife with unlicensed taxis, illegal money changers, un-registered tour guides and illegal villa operators - Bali officials are frustrated at every turn whenever they try to improve security protocols on the island.

While Bali's official transportation organizations, registered money changers, Association of Indonesian Travel Agents, and Hotel and Villa Associations are committed to cooperating in every way with local law enforcement in making the island "terror proof" the simple fact that the great number of illegal tourism and accommodation providers operate "off the screen" diminishes any real effectiveness of attempts to tidy up and bring into line the numerous loose ends of Bali's security situation.

This fact is surely not lost on terrorists, who have proven themselves most adept at varying tactics to take full advantage of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Because of this, if Bali suffers future attacks, no one should be overly-surprised to discover that the perpetrators laundered their funding sources through one of the island's many illegal money changers, traveled across Bali's roads scouting targets in illegal taxis, and sought accommodation as "unregistered guests" from illegal private villa operations.

Tourism services secured in this great underground of the Bali's tourism industry won't show up on the screens of local law enforcement; a fact that will suit just fine both terrorists and the gypsy tourism operators seeking to avoid any kind of official regulation.

The need for strict enforcement of tourism licensing rule is a chorus long and frequently heard in Bali. Legitimate tourism operators regularly scream for the government to enforce the "social covenant" and close down illegal money changers, travel agents, transportation providers and villa operators who steadfastly refuse to register their business, be governed by travel industry rules or pay their fair share of the tax burden.

The argument most frequently employed against these illegal operators who are answerable to no one, is that they pose a genuine threat to tourism by engaging in shady activities that destroy Bali's international tourism image.

The crippling effect these scofflaws have on Bali's efforts to improve its security situation and the latest terrorist attacks in Jakarta, have made this great underbelly of illegal Bali tourism operators the "elephant in the room" whose presence can no longer be ignored.

The continuing failure to clean up Bali's tourism regulatory environment is putting much more than the island's image at stake. Indeed, getting the island's travel industry in line has suddenly become a matter of life and death.