JIMBARAN, Indonesia (Reuters) — Bali, the lush Indonesian island famous for its sun-kissed beaches, is drawing tourists in droves, and travel warnings that Islamic militants might strike again has done little to dampen the spirit.
Almost five years after 202 people were killed in the bombing of a Bali nightclub, tourists are back enjoying the island’s nightlife and soaking up the sun on Bali’s palm-fringed beaches.
“That was a sad event but Bali is too beautiful to resist. The place is bouncing back,” said 23-year-old Australian Josh Donnelly as he walked past the now razed Sari Club, which was blown up in the 2002 bombing.
After the attack, Bali suffered a dramatic slump in tourism and locals such as taxi driver Gede Widiada found they could barely make ends meet.
“I have been selling my wife’s jewellery in the past four years to run my family. But my income now is much better,” said the taxi driver as he waited for tourists outside a resort.
Like Widiada, many shops, restaurants, and hotels on this island are finally seeing their fortunes revived.
Dubbed the “Island of Gods” for its myriad Hindu temples and religious rituals, Bali suffered another blow in 2005 when suicide bombers blew themselves up at three restaurants, killing 20 people.
The attacks in 2002 and 2005, aimed at Western targets, killed a total of 92 Australians.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued an upgraded travel advisory on July 8, warning Australians that terrorists were actively planning attacks, including on Bali.
But despite these warnings, Australians who make up more than 15 percent of the total foreign tourist arrivals in Bali, are flocking to one of their favorite destinations.
“I am not afraid of coming back to Bali. You could die in a road accident tomorrow,” said Donnelly.
Indonesian police say the security situation in the country at the moment is favorable.
Tourism in Bali, a predominantly Hindu region in Muslim Indonesia, provides a livelihood for 70 percent of the three million people living on this island of surfing beaches.
Shops selling batik clothing, carvings and silverware near the famous Kuta beach reported increased sales since this year, although they have still not reach pre-2002 levels.
“We have probably reached just 60 or 70 percent of that level. Two years ago, it was just 30-40 percent,” said Tina, an assistant at a shop selling paintings to tourists.
Middle-aged women providing foot and shoulder massages on Kuta beach still hurl abuses at the bombers.
Bagus Sudibya, an advisor at the Bali Tourism Board, said the industry and the government had jointly spent nearly $10 million since last year to revive tourism to the island.
The island saw a 34 percent jump in foreign tourist arrivals in the first five months of 2007 compared to the same period last year. Tourism figures show the average hotel occupancy in Bali so far in July was between 70 and 90 percent, compared with 50-70 percent in July 2006.
“It’s the holiday season now and it’s nice to see there that our rooms are fully occupied,” said Made Kardana, resort assistant manager at Intercontinental Bali Resort.
While Jakarta has been aggressively promoting the island by holding major governmental meetings, hotels have been providing attractive packages to private business conference organizers.
“Business delegates are visiting the region and seeing it for themselves,” Sudibya said.
Bali will also host the high profile Kyoto Protocol meeting in December, which will give a boost to arrivals this year.
Last month Indonesian police arrested two alleged top Jemaah Islamiyah leaders. Among them was Abu Dujana, who admitted to heading a military wing of the network and is suspected by police of being involved in the first Bali bomb among other attacks.
“There is stepped-up security everywhere in Bali and the arrest of militants will also add to the region’s confidence,” Sudibya added.
Guards still frisk customers at doors of pubs and cars at the gates of hotels and resorts, but the mood is upbeat.
“The spirit of Bali never dies,” said a discotheque manager Putu Budiasa as tourists bopped to hip-hop music.