Tourism afloat in Indonesia amid Mount Agung eruptions

Tourists gather to watch Mount Agung at Amed beach in Karangasem on Indonesia's resort island of Bali, on Nov 30, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Despite continuous reports of Mount Agung's rumblings in Bali, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in the country showed a 21.8 per cent year-on-year increase in 2017 to 14.04 million.

The rise has bolstered the confidence of the government, and industry players over the future of tourism in the country, which lies in the Ring of Fire.

The Central Statistics Agency (BPS) said on Thursday (Feb 1) that despite the increase, the figure fell short of the government's target of welcoming 15 million foreign tourists in 2017.

Mr I Gde Pitana, the Tourism Ministry's assistant for overseas promotion, said the achievement was remarkable considering that Mount Agung's eruptions had greatly affected the country's main tourism gate, Bali.

"If there had been no natural disaster from Mount Agung, we are quite sure we would have achieved the 15 million (foreign visitors) mark," he told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

Mount Agung's activity forced local authorities to close Ngurah Rai International Airport in November. The closure was a severe blow to hotel operators on the resort island, who scrambled to come up with ways to attract visitors, such as by offering tour packages to watch the volcano's rumblings from a safe distance.

Mount Agung, Bali's highest peak, is 75km from the tourist hub of Kuta and 52km from Ubud, an iconic landscape known for its rainforest and terraced rice paddies.

According to BPS data, the number of foreign visitors passing through Ngurah Rai International Airport dropped 29.83 per cent in December alone.

The Tourism Ministry previously estimated the financial damage from Mount Agung's eruption to stand at US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion).

Still, Mr Pitana said the double-digit growth of foreign tourist arrivals underlined the country's potential, especially compared to last year's global tourism growth of just over 6 per cent.

He also seemed undisturbed by the drop in Chinese tourist arrivals in December, which placed them behind visitors from Australia and Singapore.

Chinese tourists are usually at the top of the list as the major contributor of foreign tourists in the archipelago. The drop was reportedly the result of a travel advisory issued by the Chinese government following growing volcanic activity at Mount Agung.

Beijing eased the warning after Indonesian Tourism Minister Arief Yahya visited China to assure its leaders that Indonesia had prepared a mitigation system for tourists in the case of an eruption.

Mr Pitana confirmed that Chinese vacationers returned to Indonesia in January, including through the newly opened route of national flag carrier Garuda Indonesia connecting Denpasar and Xi'an in Shaanxi province.

"This means we are already seeing positive signs at the beginning of the year. If nothing happens in the next one to two months, I think (Chinese tourist arrivals) will recover," he said.

China, which sees more than 100 million outbound tourists annually, remains Indonesia's main target market this year and is expected to contribute 3.2 million vacationing visitors.

The ministry has pinned its hopes on the Chinese New Year celebration, which will fall on Feb 16, having promoted the latest situation in Bali on Chinese national television. It has also set up meetings between travel agents from the two countries.

Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies (Asita) chairman Asnawi Bahar said Asita also viewed the year-end increase as a great feat.

"I think we just have to talk more about developing new destinations apart from Bali, because if we keep relying on one spot, we'll face challenges when an issue arises there," he said.

Association of Air Ticketing Companies in Indonesia (Astindo) vice-president Rudiana said Astindo still expected tourism to rebound in February.

"I hope there will be a rebound this Chinese New Year," he said.

He had concerns, however, over the fact that only three of the 23 booked charter flights, including from Russia, have flown to Bali.

The government has set a target of welcoming 17 million foreign tourists this year and 20 million by 2019.

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