There’s only one thing that can stop the number of Australians visiting Indonesia from topping 900,000 this year and exceeding 1,000,000 inside the next five years: another large-scale terrorist bombing targeting Australians.
Despite official warnings of a “high” terrorism threat, the number of Australians visitors to our nearest north-western neighbour has more that tripled in the past decade. Australians are now the biggest single group - 790,000 of the 2.75 million foreign visitors to Bali last year - after becoming gun-shy in the years after the 2002 attack on Australians and others in the Kuta nightclub district.
And I’d say people who are about to leave for the holiday island won’t miss a beat as they find out today that, in two locations in Bali last night, Indonesian anti-terrorism commandos killed five men they’d been tracking for months.
Between 2002 and 2005, you’d have been forgiven for assuming that protecting Westerners in Indonesia wasn’t a top priority. But public attitudes hardened when ordinary people realised that their country had become something of an international pariah sympathetic to terrorism and that their economy was paying the price.
During a 2007 visit to Bali and Java, a hotel manager in Sanur told me about the village patrols operated by young people to keep an ear to the ground about unusual happenings and the presence of strangers in their midst. Outsiders visiting Bali with bad intentions weren’t just taking on the police and the army.
Australian tourists had even heard about a special anti-terrorist operation in Bali at the weekend, according to reports this morning. The Indonesian National Police’s feared Densus 88 anti-terrorism unit reportedly killed three men at the Lhaksmi Hotel on Jalan Danau Poso in Sanur after raiding bungalow number 99 at 9 pm last night, according to the Jakarta Globe. A large crowd gathered outside the hotel, the Globe reported.
During a second raid at an unnamed hotel in Jalan Gunung Soputan, in downtown Denpasar 15 kilometres away from the first scene, another two men were shot dead.
“The five people are part of the group that masterminded the 2010 CIMB Niaga bank robbery in Medan (North Sumatra). We have tailed them for months before we make the raids,” a “field operative”, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Jakarka Post.
“Ask yourself whether, given your own personal circumstances, you're comfortable travelling to Indonesia knowing there is a very high threat from terrorism and you may be caught up in a terrorist attack,” the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs advises. “Ask yourself whether travel could be deferred or an alternative destination chosen. If, having considered these issues, you do decide to travel to Indonesia, you should exercise extreme caution.”
DFAT has offered the same advice, sometimes expressed with different sentences, since 2002. I have been among the commentators joining in the criticism of the department’s unwavering line, in spite of strong pleas from tourism operators in Bali that it was too harsh when the last terrorist attack on the island was in 2005.
I was wrong; the advice is totally appropriate. When you travel outside Australia, you step outside of our own security ring fence and you take your chances.
However, I am now 100 per cent sure the Indonesians are dead-serious about turning back the terrorist threat to their country and all the visitors who venture there. I’ll have no hesitation about returning.
If you are you about to leave for Bali, has the latest news altered your plans? Do you consider Indonesia a safe place to visit? Post a comment below.