How to Make a Strong Tourist Market Very Fragile

A 38-year-old West Australian man who had just returned from Bali struggled for his life last week at his home in Karratha, in the state’s northern Pilbara region. Then he died, of dengue, believed to have been contracted in Bali. The news caused a media flurry throughout the state and as far afield as India when it broke a week ago.

Then, in the middle of the lucrative Western Australia school holiday season in which up to 20,000 West Australians were expected to arrive in Bali on the 60 or so weekly flights that deliver this massive tourism market to the island, the WA Health Department again warned people against deadly diseases in Bali.

Its director of communicable diseases control, Paul Armstrong, said most of WA’s new cases of dengue fever were associated with Bali. Dengue notifications in WA, all imported, had increased from 16 in 2006 to 151 in the first half of 2010.

This blow followed a horrible headline a few days earlier – it was on September 27 – in the state’s daily newspaper, The West Australian: “Bali tourists bring rabies risk home.” Choice breakfast reading indeed: that it was also over the top and self-serving (Western Australia’s tourism industry and its media mouthpieces would like people to holiday at home) is no surprise.

But at the same time the facts speak for themselves. The article reported a doubling in the number of WA tourists returning from Bali in need of treatment for potential exposure to rabies following dog (or monkey) bites. It explained how rabies had spread since 2008 across all of Bali and described a “grossly inadequate public health response” on the part of the Indonesians.”

“They had good advice but just couldn’t implement good policy,” said one senior medical representative.

In July Armstrong told West Australians that many dog bites that had caused rabies deaths in Bali had been sustained in the island’s southern areas popular with tourists. Any mammal in Bali, including dogs, cats, bats and monkeys, should be considered a potential source of rabies infection, he said.

Last week’s article added to these woes, reporting a surge in gastroenteritis and dengue on Bali in the past 18 months. It raised concern about our poor public health standards.

It reminded readers of an earlier health warning against Legionnaires disease (a form of pneumonia) and other infectious diseases, in Bali after three returning Australians went down with Legionnaires. It is spread by badly maintained hot-water systems, especially in showers, spas and fountains, and through air-conditioners.

The Australian Medical Association’s WA president, Dave Mountain, said with the decline in tourists after the Bali bombings, basic infrastructure including plumbing had been left to languish.

Now, with crowds returning thanks to budget airlines and discount fares, public health measures were still catching up and services could not cope with the pressure, he said.

“People have to realise the hazards are real: mosquitoes can spread things like dengue fever; the risks from food and water are there; and the monkeys in the forest are terrible news,” said another senior medic.

“On top of that,” the article reported, “sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea and chlamydia are thought to be rife.”

Clearly, the issue of rabies has brought a range of real health concerns in Bali into sharp focus throughout one of our mainstay tourist markets.

It will be instructive to learn if the expected influx of West Australians over their current school holiday period was eroded by cancellations and no-shows as a result of these stark, official warnings.

While you could argue that some of the reporting and comment has been colourful, it is likely a percentage of the population will heed the warnings of its senior medical specialists.    

Of much more certainty, though, is this: nothing will deplete, sometimes to freezing point, a market’s enthusiasm for a travel destination more than fear for the health and lives of its families. And it may take only one Bali-linked death of a Western Australian from disease to cripple that market.

The particular historic love affair that WA has with Bali sustained the first Bali bombing when collective opinion was that the gross act of terror was beyond Bali’s control and therefore the Balinese should continue to receive the support of WA travellers.

With the second bombing, collective opinion reversed in a flash and West Australians decided if Bali could not protect them, they would stay away. They did, and the island was empty.

Bali is either foolish or complacent beyond belief, or both, to believe its mainstay tourists will not reject the island with the same decisiveness and devastating impact as they did after the second bombing if they continue to be increasingly and unnecessarily exposed to a range of serious health risks.

This time, the risks are within the control of the island’s administration, tourism operators and communities.

The ongoing official health alerts to one of our nearest and biggest tourism markets are an 11th-hour warning to Bali – clean up your act now or the bubble will burst, and you will have pricked the balloon all by yourself.

LC

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