Can Bali handle any more tourists?

US President Barack Obama is this year expected to be one of millions of visitors to Indonesia's resort island of Bali, raising hopes of a tourism windfall by reassuring potential travellers.

But despite its image of azure seas and tropical tranquillity, recent visitors could be forgiven for thinking Bali's biggest problem is not too few tourists, but too many.

Polluted beaches, traffic jams and over-development beg the question: Does Bali need more tourists?

Yes, say officials who are planning a second airport and opening more direct flights from Hong Kong to cash in on China's expanding middle class, as more and more holiday accommodation is developed.

"Having all these world leaders here for the East Asia Summit will be a great promotion for Bali," Bali Tourism Board chairman Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya said, referring to the gathering of 20 Asia-Pacific leaders in November.

Tourism industry chiefs say Obama's visit - which the White House has yet to confirm - will help relieve US anxieties about security on Bali, which was hit by deadly terror bombings in 2002 and 2005 targeting Western tourists.

In response to the attacks which killed more than 200 people, the United States, Australia and other countries slapped travel warnings on Indonesia and tourist numbers to Bali have only recently risen back above 2002 levels.

"Having world leaders meet here will show that Bali is safe. And that has an impact because some countries still have a travel warning, like Australia and America," Indonesian Travel Association chairman Aloysius Purwa said.

"If Obama comes to Bali, it will change Americans' perceptions."

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Preparations are already under way to make sure the "island of the gods" looks at its best for the summit, which is also expected to be attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Last year the coral-fringed, mainly Hindu island in the east of the Muslim-majority archipelago received 2.5 million foreign tourist visitors, 25 percent more than two years earlier.

US arrivals were boosted by the movie Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts. Partially set in Bali, it played on the island's reputation as an idyllic, even spiritual respite from the modern world.

But it is catching up, and fast. Bali's image is facing new challenges largely of its own making, in the form of water shortages, crime, pollution and outbreaks of rabies and legionnaires' disease.

The traffic is so bad the government is warning that in just five years Bali could be gridlocked. Vehicle sales are growing by 12.3 per cent a year while road construction grows by only 2.5 per cent.

Even without tourists, the island has too many people: four million now call Bali home, while officials say it can realistically hold only 1.5 million.

When Time magazine recently ran an article titled "Holidays in Hell: Bali's Ongoing Woes", Governor Made Mangku Pastika was forced to concede it was right.

"What are we supposed to do if the facts are undeniably like that?" he told reporters.

"We're judged by other people, not by ourselves, and clearly there has been a failure on the part of the Bali provincial government in maintaining the image of tourism and providing comfortable facilities."

Bali Hotels Association chairman Jean-Charles Le Coz, who has worked on the island for more than 13 years, said the tourism industry was driven only by "growing the number of arrivals" and not by quality.

"If you get more people but you don't have enough roads and the airport is too small to handle them, they will leave with bad memories and we will start getting people who don't spend much money on the island," he said.

To slow development, Governor Pastika has imposed a moratorium on new hotels in parts of the south where most of the island's 50,000 rooms are concentrated. Half of Bali's rooms go unoccupied.

Le Coz said the ban had been ineffective as developers had long-term licences and were still building.

Officials are now looking to open up the north by building a second airport there, as well as a highway linking the area to the south, a 90 kilometre trip that currently takes more than three hours.

But despite Bali's challenges, most believe the island will remain Indonesia's premier tourist destination for a long time to come.

"As long as all sectors work together, it's not too late for Bali, contrary to what many people think," Le Coz said.

AFP

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