In 2016, 1.248 million Australians visited Indonesia. That's an increase of 11 per cent over the previous year, and up by a massive 546 per cent over the decade since 2006, outpacing the growth over the same period for every other destination on the list of the most popular countries among Australian travellers.
For several years Indonesia has been the second most popular destination for Australians travelling overseas after New Zealand. In the case of New Zealand, family reunions feature largely in the figures. That makes Indonesia our number one leisure destination since 2010 when it leapfrogged the USA.
Bali is the pull factor. Compared with the number of Australian residents heading for Bali, the number who visit other parts of Indonesia pales.
Even the Bali bombing of October 2002, which took the lives of 88 Australians, proved only a temporary blip in our long love affair with the Island of the Gods. In November 2002, the month following the bombings, arrivals from Australia shrank by over 50 per cent from the 16,100 who travelled to Bali in November the previous year. By November 2003, a year after the bombing, the figure had swollen to 24,200, a 50 per cent increase over the figure for November 2001.
By these numbers alone we show our affection. People fall in love with Bali. The sound of trickling water in the rice terraces, the mossy temples, the tok-tok noise of bird scarers turning in the wind, the spirit houses in the rice fields with their faded, flapping shreds of yellow cloth, the soaring bamboo penjors that arch above the roadsides, the smell of kretek cigarettes, the banyan trees wrapped in chequerboard cloth, the women heading off to their midday prayers with a pyramid of fruit and flowers piled on their heads, the sound of a gamelan orchestra drifting through a silky night –Bali casts a spell, yet there are plenty who are not enchanted.
Out of 42 comments posted in response to an article on Bali published on the traveller.com.au website in 2015, some were stridently negative.
"The great thing about all the Aussies travelling to Bali is that there are less idiots in Australia. Bali, no thanks."
"I went once and that was more than enough for me."
"There is no way I will ever go to a place called Bali."
"I've never encountered vendors that aggressive"
"Why would anyone spend money to go to an island full of bogan Australians? I just don't understand the appeal."
"Filthy beaches and streets, constant harrasment (sic) by vendors, horrible place. Only good thing is that it is full of the bogans that would otherwise be spoiling other places!"
These are fairly typical responses to any travel article on Bali. Are they seeing the same place as those who sing its praises? Possibly not. If their only experience of Bali is the deplorable mess of Kuta, it's no wonder they're less than enraptured.
Arrests, drug convictions and assaults involving Australians in Bali provide never-ending fodder for some media, and they don't have to look far to find raw material. What looks like a tolerant culture to some visitors who fail to comprehend a set of social norms outside their own can be taken as a licence to unleash their inner (80s) Robert Downey Jr, resulting in some spectacular life crashes.
To the Indonesian government Bali's tourism industry is a cash cow that keeps on giving, a huge employment machine and an important source of foreign exchange. Keen to spread the world's love for Bali more evenly within their archipelago, the Indonesian government has an ambitious program to develop 10 new versions of Bali. The list includes the 9th century Buddhist temple at Borobudur in Central Java, Lake Toba in North Sumatra, which the government hopes to turn into the "Monaco of Asia", Bali's neighbouring island of Lombok and Labuan Bajo, a former fishing village at the western end of the island of Flores.
It's a tough call. Bali's Hindu religion, landscape, architecture and affection for flowers, large-scale religious ceremonies and daily rituals make it a bright star, unique within the Indonesian universe and one that will be hard to replicate. Australians who have fallen under Bali's spell might be tempted to stray into other parts of Indonesia but the Island of the Gods is powerfully addictive. My bet is they'll keep coming back for more.
LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.