Disasters unhinge Indonesia’s tourism push

Sunda tsunami latest to rock ’10 New Balis’ initiative

TANJUNG LESUNG, Jan 2 — Picture-postcard Tanjung Lesung was a cornerstone of Indonesia’s bid to supercharge its tourism industry, boasting palm-fringed beaches, a towering volcano in the middle of turquoise waters and a rainforest sanctuary for endangered Javan rhinos.

But the beachside town now lies in ruins, pummelled by the recent deadly tsunami that has raised fresh questions about disaster preparedness and the future of a multi-billion-dollar push to replicate Bali’s success across the South-east Asian archipelago.

Tourism minister Arief Yahya, who ordered that the town be rebuilt in six months, brushed aside concerns sparked by the tsunami — which was triggered by a sudden eruption of the Anak Krakatoa volcano.

“Disasters can happen anywhere in Indonesia,” he told AFP during a recent visit there. “We need to have (tsunami) early warning systems, especially in tourist destinations. We’re going to make that happen.” 

About 42 per cent of Indonesia’s 14 million foreign tourists headed to the popular resort island of Bali last year, giving a US$17 billion boost to South-east Asia’s biggest economy.

The government picked Tanjung Lesung and nine other locations as part of its “10 New Balis” strategy, a plan unveiled in 2016 with an eye to courting Chinese, Singaporean and other investors as its pushes to hit 20 million tourists annually.

The list includes ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples, tropical islands near Jakarta, the Mount Bromo volcano in eastern Java, and a national park that is home to Komodo dragons — the world’s biggest lizard.

But the killer tsunami has dealt a blow to plans to pump some US$4 billion into Tanjung Lesung. Other disasters have not helped either. Lombok, next to Bali, was rocked by earthquakes in the summer that killed more than 500 and sparked a mass exodus of foreigners from the tropical paradise.

That was weeks after Lake Toba on Sumatra island — also on the “New Bali” list — was the scene of a ferry accident that left almost 200 people missing or dead.

In May, Indonesia’s second-biggest city Surabaya was hit by suicide bombings carried about by Islamist extremists, while Bali was rocked as the Mount Agung blew its top at the end of 2017. 

The volcano is 75 kilometres away from tourist areas and the eruption posed little danger to visitors, but it still left hundreds of thousands stranded as flights were cancelled.

Indonesia’s upbeat tourism numbers plunged in the second half of 2018 after the Lombok quakes, a quake-tsunami disaster on Sulawesi island that killed thousands, and a Lion Air plane crash in October which killed all 189 people on board.

In the latest disaster in the Sunda Strait, Indonesian monitors initially said there was no tsunami threat at all. They were later forced to issue a correction and an apology, pointing to a lack of early warning systems for the high death toll.

Jakarta’s tourism push may still have a chance, but only if it gets serious about safety, said I Ketut Ardana, head of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies’ Bali office. — AFP

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