Viewpoint : Bali’s Leaders are Asleep at the Wheel

By Harold von Fürstenberg
For The Bali Times

This Christmas season may mark beginning of the end of tourism as we know it for Bali.

Although Bali has been experiencing record tourist arrivals this year – in part as a result of the political turmoil in Thailand – market analysts believe this will soon come to an abrupt halt, not just because of the global financial crisis, which undoubtedly will impact tourism everywhere, but because Bali continues to lose its competitive edge as other destinations have been improving and new ones are popping up.

Currently it is reported that over 17,000 containers filled with the key ingredients necessary to support holidays – namely alcohol and fine food – are lingering in the port of Surabaya. Meanwhile, supplier shelves are empty and finding a bottle of alcohol is rare and expensive.

For the upcoming festive season, it seems unlikely that the containers in the port will get cleared in time. And anyway, all the food and wine and spirits sitting in the hot sun would not be fit for consumption. Meanwhile, tour agents have already reported numerous cancellations.

Visitors arriving to Bali will be disappointed this season when they will find it difficult to get an imported drink or quality meal. Some may leave while others are unlikely to return if their experience is poor.

So who’s responsible, is anyone doing anything and are industry leaders asleep at the wheel?

It’s bad enough that visitors have to stand in long queues when arriving in Bali to pay for their visas, and are then subject to more lines at immigration, with hassles from unwelcoming officers rummaging through their belongings looking to tax items, but then they’re left without the basic international-standard food and beverage services.

For when visitors finally reach their hotels after long plane journeys, it seems this season they are unlikely to find a drink or decent-quality meal.

The industry is already under economic pressure, and the wakeup call for Bali is loud and clear, but is anyone listening? And as a further insult to tourists, not only are food and beverage supplies scarce, but when they are available, they’re taxed at 300 percent higher than in other tourism destinations – places that have more modern and better accommodation and at more competitive rates.

Over the past decade there as been a moratorium on the issue of new hotel licenses in Bali, which has stopped the development of new hotels. Most hotel accommodation in Bali is 15 or more years old.

Although there have been numerous unlicensed accommodation built to fill the gap in market demand, regrettably these projects do not produce tax revenue and have done nothing to subsidize Bali’s deteriorating and overstrained infrastructure.

In contrast, while Bali has been sitting on its hands, other locations, like Thailand, Malaysia, China and Dubai, have been developing top properties at an aggressive pace, with hotels boasting 5-, 6- and even 7-star standards. Competing destinations have learned and improved on the Bali concept over the past decade while bureaucracy and corruption have stunted Bali’s development.

Bali’s once-golden beaches are now brown with pollution and garbage is not acceptable to discerning tourists.

Last December’s UN summit on global warning attracted VIP guests from around the world and many complained about old and outdated accommodation.

Another problem is the international image of Bali, which has been damaged in recent years by events like the Bali bombings, high-profile narcotics cases involving foreigners and the media circus of executing the Bali bombers – as well as the usual stories of corruption and extortion – that combine to create a public relations nightmare for the island that translates into a loss of trillions of rupiah for the tourism industry.

Is there anyone in charge of protecting the image of Bali and the livelihood of the Balinese who rely on tourism for their livelihood?

The government frequently boasts of investors coming to Bali with great enthusiasm to develop and invest. But time and again these would-be investors disappear as they learn of the complex bureaucracy, corruption and unfriendly investment environment that is the reality of this island.

There are many other tourist destinations that offer a fast-track system to invest, tax holidays, import facilitation and various other incentives. Bali offers the opposite. Many Bali investors say that developing in Bali is an uphill battle: it’s a nightmare to import materials; there are too many hidden costs; over-taxation; and a myriad of problems resulting from a system that fosters bureaucracy and corruption

Sadly, due to this, many investors have turned their attentions to other destinations to invest in and develop.

For those who do not frequently travel to destinations other than Bali, perhaps they do not realize there are so many new alternatives to Bali being developed. And perhaps the Bali authorities do not realize how much competition there is.

One thing’s for sure, though: tourism relies on the basics of fine food, drink and quality accommodation. If Bali cannot supply all these, travelers will find them elsewhere.


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2 Responses to “Viewpoint : Bali’s Leaders are Asleep at the Wheel”

  1. Johm Pampangan Says:

    The alcohol tax of 300 % is similar to what islamic countries in the middle east charge their dhimmi populations. There is no imported food or alcohol in Sulawesi and some jakarta hotels. I believe at some point the balinese need to say enough is enough and plot their own future. Visit indonesia 2008 has as a writer put in in the jakarta post ‘a place to smoke and pray’.

  2. James Says:

    Very well put. Sadly this feels like an island in a terminal spin. This week (12 days before Xmas) Bali is deserted, when normally it’s booming. Restaurants have no wine or spirits, and tourists are just not coming.

    Autonomy seems to be the only real answer for Bali to survive as leadership won’t come from Jakarta.

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