Resort venture in Bali runs into controversy

Mr Trump with MNC Group founder Hary Tanoesoedibjo and his wife Liliana at the signing ceremony for the Bali resort in New York in August 2015.
Mr Trump with MNC Group founder Hary Tanoesoedibjo and his wife Liliana at the signing ceremony for the Bali resort in New York in August 2015.PHOTO: TRUMP HOTEL COLLECTION

JAKARTA • On the resort island of Bali, building height is measured by coconut trees. Anything taller could anger the gods, the Hindu residents believe.

So, plans to renovate a decades- old hotel overlooking a 16th-century temple and turn it into a bigger six-star resort, complete with a tower and upgraded golf course, are causing some anxiety.

It will be known as the Trump International Hotel and Tower Bali.

The Trump Organisation has paired with an Indonesian tycoon to build what they say will be the largest resort on the island. With construction targeted to start early next year, it risks making US President Donald Trump a lightning rod for local ire over the project, even as he seeks to divorce himself from his sprawling business empire.

"I would strongly recommend against any new developments that impact the temple," said Dr I Gusti Ngurah Sudiana, the local chief of Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia, the country's top Hindu group. "These things are sensitive in Bali."

The Trump Organisation says the hotel and tower will offer views of the Indian Ocean and Tanah Lot temple, and bring "a new level" of luxury to Bali. The project cements ties between the Trump family and MNC Group founder Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who was on the guest list for Mr Trump's inauguration in Washington and has touted his friendship with the Trump children.

With the new hotel, to be managed by Trump Hotels, still in the design phase, residents say gossip about how it will look makes them uneasy. Some Hindus worry about the references in promotional material to the tower. MNC has said its height is not yet determined.

People have also heard that the hotel will be bigger and could require the purchase of nearby farm land.

Mr Made Sumawa, head of the village that includes the hotel, said there is a standing offer from MNC to buy land within a certain perimeter of the existing Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort.

While parts of Bali are bustling with hotels, shops, bars and massage parlours, the current resort sits among padi fields on the west of the island, with modest homes nearby.

MNC Land vice-president Budi Rustanto said in a phone interview that the resort area would be expanded from 106ha to 140ha, but he did not say how much extra land might need to be bought.

Tabanan regency, where the resort is located, is known as Bali's rice depot due to the expanse of terraced padi fields built into its hills.

Farmer Kadek Sudiasi, 42, has lived in the area for more than 40 years, and says he will not sell his fields to MNC, no matter the price.

"I plan to buy more land to give to my children instead of selling. Money you can make again, but land is finite, let alone fertile land."

Speaking in Jakarta earlier this month, Mr Tanoesoedibjo said there had been issues with residents over the existing property before he bought it two years ago.

"When they started the project in the 90s, yeah, it was because the development was too close to the temple," he said. There is "now nothing to be worried about".

Mr Ida Bagus Wiratmaja, head of the local planning and development board, wants to know the height of the resort.

"They must not exceed the height of a coconut tree, or a maximum of 15m," he said, and "must pay attention to sanctuaries and places of worship''.

Mr Made Sumawa said business that brings income and improves people's lives is welcome, but only if what is built takes the Balinese culture into account.

"If he comes here, then he needs to follow our way of life," he said, referring to Mr Trump. "If he forces his bling-bling decoration here, then it just won't work."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2017, with the headline 'Resort venture in Bali runs into controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe