How Bali’s tourism recovered from its own own terrorist attacks

By Uwin Lugoda

Sri Lanka is a country that is heavily dependent on tourism, and has been for several years. Attracting tourists from all over the world, Sri Lanka was named the number one travel destination of 2019 by Lonely Planet last year, and it is noteworthy that the same endorsement was given to Sri Lanka in 2013. Among its many other accolades, the BBC Good Food team named Sri Lankan cuisine the number one trending cuisine in 2019. However, all of this good publicity was undone on 21 April, when the tragic Easter Sunday terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 40 tourists.

The attacks targeted three of Sri Lanka’s largest hotels, and received unprecedented extensive coverage in international media, which painted the country as a virtual war zone. Since then, the Sri Lankan economy, which had been heavily reliant on tourism, has been experiencing significant challenges due to the numerous travel advisories placed on the country by its tourism source markets.

Bali, 2002

However, Sri Lanka isn’t the only country to have faced such adversity. Bali, Indonesia, which is currently one of Asia’s top travel destinations, faced similar attacks in 2002, leading to a sharp decline in tourist arrival numbers. Due to the similarities of the tourism products of the two countries and the parallels between the attacks, Bali offers inspiration to Sri Lanka as it came up with a successful tourism recovery campaign shortly afterwards, to bring about a relatively rapid turnaround in industry fortunes.

Although Sri Lanka is around 11 times the size of Bali, it is the destination Sri Lanka is often compared to, with tourists stating that Sri Lanka reminds them of Bali in the 1980s, due to its beaches and other common attractions.

Bali too has diverse landscapes like Sri Lanka and houses three world heritage sites, while Sri Lanka has around eight. Population wise, Bali is home to about 3.2 million people and the contribution of tourism to Bali’s economy was 48% in 2016.

The bombing that took place on 12 October 2002 claimed the lives of 202 people, of which 164 were tourists visiting the country. This included people from 21 countries; 56 Australians, 17 British, six Germans, five Swedish, six Americans, three Denés, three Swiss, two Japanese, two French, two South Korean, two Canadians, one Ecuadorian, one Dutch, one New Zealander, one Singaporean, one South African, and one Taiwanese.

While three locations were hit, including the US Consulate in Denpasar, the brunt of the impact was borne by Paddy’s Irish Bar and the Sari Club on the main street of Kuta. Both entertainment venues were packed with unsuspecting tourists, staff, and revellers; many others were in the vicinity.

Members of the extremist Islamist group Jemaah Isamiyah were convicted in relation to the bombings, out of which three individuals received the death sentence. The extremist group detonated three bombs, of which two were in a backpack and car.

While international media attention assured emotional and financial support, this attack severely impacted the economy, and caused political instability in the country. This also decreased the number of tourists visiting the country, where the number went from around 1,285,864 that year (2002) to around 993,029 the next year (2003). This was also affected by the several travel advisories placed on Bali by other countries.

Just like most of Sri Lanka in the aftermath of 21/4, many individuals and businesses dependant on income generated through tourist expenditure were impacted as well.

Statistics of formal sector job losses show that by May 2003, out of roughly 50,000 people employed in the hotel sector, around 1,400 hotel workers had been made redundant. This was made worse when three-quarters of those who remained employed in the hotel sector were either temporarily made redundant or their shifts were reduced.

Back in 2002, social media barely existed; there was no YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook, leaving the Indonesian tourism industry to use other forms of traditional media to reach the global market. Despite these handicaps, Bali bounced back stronger than ever during the following year of 2004, with their tourist arrival numbers going up to around 1,457,107.

How did they do it?

This recovery was attributed to a four-step recovery programme launched by the Indonesian Government, along with several marketing and promotional strategies.

The steps of the recovery plan were rescue, rehabilitation, normalisation, and expansion. These strategies had the goal of promoting Bali as a safe, comfortable, and attractive travel destination, in both the international and domestic markets.

The programme started when the Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) provided support to Bali in order to manage the worst impact of the bombing on its economy. The Government then went on to use detailed and careful intelligence for the speedy arrest of suspects linked to the attack, along with assistance and support for medical and security equipment. Concerted and credible policies were placed to restore confidence, including an investigation which was carried out on the attack.

This was followed by several public interfaith purification ceremonies and prayer meetings. Government measures focused on a commitment to security, law enforcement, and tourism promotion.

The Bali Recovery Group (a coordination committee of existing local non-government organisations), was created with the aim to deliver the best services, collect data, and minimise the duplication of effort. The primary focus of the relief efforts was to assist the affected Indonesians. This included the injured and their families, families of the dead and missing, and those economically impacted by the loss of livelihood.

In terms of security, the Government introduced new anti-terrorism laws, and increased the highly visible police and security presence across Bali, more so in particular seaports and airports. This was to further promote a sense of safety to the tourists entering the country.

Several hotels and businesses worked towards a resumption of services and the restoration of Bali’s tourist-friendly image. These efforts led to an increase in arrivals from the domestic market and the regional Asian markets.

International marketing and public relations firms were also employed by various organisations to assist in the promotion and restoration of a positive-destination image for the area. Campaigns and slogans like “Bali for the World” and “Kuta Karnival of Life” were introduced to emphasise the rich natural and cultural assets of the island rather than simply offering details of the numerous tourist facilities and services available. Large-scale events, such as the one-year anniversary memorial, were staged to draw favourable media attention.

Bali’s profile as an ideal tourist destination with safety and security was further promoted by its participation in several international events, hosting tourist operators and journalists, and strengthening international intelligence-sharing arrangements.

Heavy concessions offered by airlines, hotels, and tour operators appear to be the primary incentive in luring potential tourism back to Bali.

Eighteen months after the bombings, the tourism industry’s revitalisation and continuous growth in visitor numbers appeared promising. Direct foreign arrivals reached unprecedented highs while occupancy rates were generally above 80%.

Bali became a more affordable destination due to incentives for visitors, and also opened its doors to a newer tourist market. The newer domestic Asian and budget Australian travellers with shorter visa and reduced daily expenditures well surpassed the traditional long-haul North American and European market segments.

Bali recovered stronger than ever from this attack despite the technological limitations of the time. They left several lessons for Sri Lanka to follow after the Easter Sunday attack, which is only made easier with the existence of social media.

While Sri Lanka Tourism and industry stakeholders have regularly mentioned the recovery from the Bali terrorist attack in discussions on how to emerge from the current economic situation, it remains to be seen as to the extent to which they will try to emulate that or how effectively it will be done.