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Opinion

Bali tourism fully recovers
... so what?

Concerted efforts designed to revive Bali's tourism industry, which had been devastated by two violent bomb attacks on the resort island in 2002 and 2005, have born fruit.

The tourism industry in Bali -- an island which is known by many names, including the island of Gods, the island of paradise and the island with thousands of temples -- has recorded steady growth as proven, among other things, by the sharply rising number of foreign tourist arrivals.

The Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) has projected that the total number of foreign tourists to Bali will continue increasing to more than 2 million by the end of this year -- a great contribution to Indonesia's 2008 target to attract about 7 million foreign travelers.

Everyone is happy about the promising progress. Balinese tourism operators and government officials feel upbeat with some of them stating Bali's tourism industry has fully recovered from its near collapse.

Despite the global economic crisis, they are confident that foreign tourists will continue to come at least until the end of the year, thereby pushing the industry's growth rate over its pre-bombings rate.

But even though there is this rosy projection, does the tourism industry greatly contribute to the Balinese people and improve the local people's welfare? Is the industry developing as expected?

The answer will vary, as it depends upon which viewpoint one answers the question from.

But for sure, local observers are of the opinion that, aside from the large amount of contribution to the locals, its tourism industry has been overdeveloped.

Bali is on the brink of destruction due to mismanagement in tapping its local potential, they say. Tourism which initially functioned merely as a supporting sector has been excessively developed, while agriculture, which used to be the backbone of the island's economy, has been neglected and even been sacrificed for the sake of tourism.

There are many instances of this, including the widespread conversion of paddy fields with their beautiful scenery into construction sites for hotels and villas, and the confiscation of a beach by tourism investors, which was home to Hindu religious ceremonies, according to observers.

And not only that, hilly areas which function as water catchment areas have also been altered into tourism facilities, including luxury hotels, villas and restaurants. Forests, which should have been maintained as green areas, have been widely encroached upon for the sake of tourism.

Such a phenomenon is feared to lead Bali to destruction, not only its lands, environment, traditions and cultures but also Hinduism, the religion of most of the island's population.

Its two deadly bombing incidents have actually awakened the awareness among all Balinese that tourism is actually not everything. They realized that the policy of sidelining agriculture was wrong.

It turns out that emphasizing and developing tourism without balancing it with other sectors dooms it to failure. Imbalances take place not only in investment, but also in revenue collection.

Data from the Bali Post daily shows that tourism investment between 1967 and 2001 was Rp 13.9 trillion (US$1.46 billion in current rates) as compared to only Rp 272.8 billion in agriculture during the same period. According to the 2002 figure, up to 550,000 Balinese people relied on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Imbalances in investment have led to disparities in revenues. Despite the fast growth in tourism development, its fruits have not been equally distributed throughout the island. People living near or around the tourist centers enjoy the most, while those residing farther away receive very little and many others can only witness the hustle and bustle of its development.

Such a trend can be seen from the fact that 75 percent of locally generated revenues are contributed by Denpasar municipality and Badung regency -- home to several famous tourist sites such as Kuta, Nusa Dua and Jimbaran beaches -- with the remaining 25 percent coming from the other seven regencies on the island. It is claimed that such imbalances do not reflect the feelings of justice, togetherness and equality.

The imbalances have led to unbalanced growth rate in development programs as well. In 2001 almost 75 percent of low-income earners were from Karangasem, Buleleng and Jembrana regencies.

According to data of the Bali chapter of BPS, about 215.700 Balinese were classified as poor in March 2008, or about 6.17 percent of the total Balinese population of 3.5 million.

In order to avoid destruction and at the same time create an equitable development program with an equitable distribution of its fruits, there must be an awareness among the Balinese themselves about the importance of correcting the mistakes.

What has attracted tourists to Bali is its living heritage -- primarily its people, their traditions and warmth and its landscape.

A comprehensive endeavor has to be made by all stratum of the Balinese people, including the provincial administration, legislature, judiciary and regency governments, to design policies which prioritize the preservation of the local traditions, environment and communities.

Because if all of this is lost simply due to ambitious but poor planning, it is feared that Bali will lose its charm and luster.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.

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