Bali braces for cancellations

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Hotels and airlines facing losses as Mount Agung erupts just before start of busy holiday season

As Bali's Mount Agung belched huge columns of ash yesterday, triggering travel chaos for a second straight day, an even darker cloud loomed over the holiday island's tourism sector.

Bali is bracing itself for major cancellations right at the start of the busy December-January holiday season.

Nearly five million of the 11.5 million foreign visitors to Indonesia last year went to Bali.

The island's Ngurah Rai International Airport remained closed yesterday, stranding tens of thousands of travellers.

The airport is tentatively scheduled to reopen at 7am today, but airlines have been telling travellers they might have to wait until the weekend for flights home.

Indonesian Tourism Industry Association (Gipi) Bali said it is offering free accommodation to hundreds of stranded tourists at the airport.

Yesterday, 443 flights were cancelled, affecting up to 59,500 people, an airport spokesman said.

Hotels are already receiving large numbers of cancellations, said Mr Bagus Sudibya, chairman of the board of advisers at the Bali chapter of the Association of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies.

"Huge cancellations. It is going to hurt businesses if it continues for long," he told The Straits Times.

Airlines, too, face losses.

Transport research firm Crucial Perspective's chief executive, Ms Corrine Png, told Reuters that each day the Bali airport was closed meant about US$5 million (S$6.7 million) in combined lost flight revenue for the 42 airlines that fly there.

"This comes at a bad time for the airlines as we are in peak travel season right now, and the Bali route is highly lucrative," she said.

Some are taking the disruption in their stride.

Mr Simon Allan, whose flight to Perth was cancelled, said: "What is to be annoyed about, getting stuck here?"

The local authorities have also been organising bus services to Bali ferry terminals for holiday-makers to travel to airports in Lombok and Surabaya.

Frustration at Bali's airport, the country's second busiest, was starting to boil over, with an estimated 2,000 people attempting to get refunds and reschedule flights.

Gipi Bali head Gus Agung said the association had set aside 2 billion rupiah (S$200,000) to provide hotel accommodation for those stranded at the airport.

The crisis showed no signs of ending, with strong tremors felt just past 1.30pm local time yesterday.

"Larger eruptions can happen any time soon," said Volcanology and Disaster Mitigation Centre chief Gede Suantika.

He added that the centre has detected increased activity at the mouth of the volcano, which was moving into a more dangerous phase.

With the growing threat of larger eruptions, many more residents are being evacuated from the mountain's 10km radius exclusion zone.

About 100,000 people are said to live in over 20 villages located within the exclusion zone and, thus far, about 29,023 evacuees have made it to the 217 shelters.

Bali airport closure extended another day on Tuesday

JAKARTA/CANDIDASA: Bali's rumbling Mount Agung is starting to impact the economy of the holiday island and, if the eruptions and volcanic ash clouds persist, could spark a bigger wave of cancellations by visitors to Indonesia's main tourism destination as peak season beckons.

In January-September, Bali received 4.5 million foreign tourists, nearly half of the 10.5 million arrivals in Indonesia.

Foreign tourist arrivals to the majority-Hindu island rose 26 per cent in the nine-month period on an annual basis, though dropped on a monthly basis in September, when Indonesian authorities first raised the warning alert on Agung.

"Bali is about tourism, nothing else. If (the eruption) is prolonged for around one to three months, it will impact our tourism significantly," said the chairman of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies I Ketut Ardana.

"We can feel a small impact now, the price of staple goods is increasing," he said.

Indonesia closed Bali's airport yesterday for a second day, stranding thousands of visitors.

Chinese tourists have overtaken Australians to become the top visitors to Bali, representing around a quarter of arrivals in January-September.

Australian and Japanese tourists are the second- and third-largest groups.

Foreign tourists spent about US$1,100 (S$1,500) on average during Indonesia holidays last year, according to tourism ministry data.

Mr Wayan Wirjana, 31, the manager of a restaurant in Candidasa, a popular beach town in Bali, said he was getting only five visitors a day, down from 15 to 20, and expects the usually busy Christmas and New Year period to be slow. - REUTERS