Backpacking after Bali

The worst response to the bombings would be to tell young people to stay at home.

Peter Smith

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Topics Politics

There is still much speculation about who was behind the Bali bombings, but there is little doubt about what the target was: young Western tourists.

Many of the victims of the Bali bombs seem to have been travelling independently. This is now common around the world, as young people have increasingly opted to travel on an independent basis over the past 10 years. Young Australians have been at the forefront of this shift in travelling patterns.

The Bali attack will certainly have an impact on the worldwide tourism industry, which hasn’t fully recovered from the downturn in air travel that followed the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington (1). New figures published by the UK travel agent group First Choice show that British bookings to holiday destinations around the world had fallen by 10 percent in the summer of 2002 (2). Post-Bali, this trend is likely to continue.

But will the Bali bomb affect independent travelling? Independent travellers have traditionally been seen by the travel industry as more robust – they travel at times when others decide not to, and to places that traditional travellers fear to tread. Backpackers have been the first to return to destinations that have had Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) warnings against travel – including parts of India, which remains a major destination for independent travellers.

Currently, backpackers due to pass through Bali are being re-routed by their travel agents or airlines to other destinations. Most backpackers have taken this in their stride, continuing to travel but avoiding Indonesia. Many are opting to travel to Australia on a more direct route and many are avoiding the South-East Asian region entirely.

Bali has long been a destination for both package and backpacking holidaymakers. A major factor in Bali’s appeal has been the perception that it is safe. The island has avoided the strife and conflict that has, at various times, affected other parts of Indonesia. In the past, when the FCO issued advice to UK citizens not to travel to Indonesia, Bali was always an exception.

Bali relies on tourism. Over 900,000 of the island’s population of 2.9million work in the tourism sector, servicing 1.5million visitors a year (3). Tourism spending in turn accounts for $7billion in revenues each year for the Indonesian economy (4). So well has Bali been branded that we rarely think of it as being a part of Indonesia at all.

Last year the numbers of tourists to the Asia Pacific region had been steady at 171.3million, despite the downturn to other destinations, notably North America (5). Some countries in the Asia Pacific region even recorded an increase in visitor numbers, as tourists switched from the USA to other parts of the world (6).

Now that the tourists from the top four inbound countries – America, Britain, Australia and Japan – have been advised by their governments to avoid Indonesia in general and Bali in particular, the income from tourists will quickly evaporate. But people should, and do, travel for their own benefit, not for that of the Bali local economy; and the impact upon how people experience their own travels is significant.

In addition to being seen and marketed as safe, Bali had a reputation for tolerance. One common explanation offered, although rarely explicitly emphasised, is that the island is predominately Hindu rather than Muslim, unlike the vast majority of Indonesia. There is an element of truth in this, and unlike other parts of Muslim Indonesia, Bali has been seen as a ‘sun, sea, sand and whatever else’ destination.

In recent years, whenever there was a holiday tragedy and a backpacker was seriously injured or killed, the question of whether independent travel is safe has come to the fore. Many have questioned the wisdom of allowing 18-year-old gap year students to travel for six or 12 months unsupervised. The Bali bomb can only increase the perception that travelling unsupervised is at best unwise and at worst irresponsible.

But the reality is very different. Millions of young people travel independently, with nothing more than a backpack and guidebook. In terms of leisure activities, travelling ranks as one of the safest options. It might not be as safe as staying at home and watching TV, but more people injure themselves playing sport than they do holidaying.

Independent travel may not be the striking out alone in unknown territory that it once was (everyone is now guided through their trip by the not-so-Lonely Planet Guides and tons of advice from travel agents, airlines and everyone else) – but it still gives young people valuable experience in becoming independent. Negotiating different languages and cultures can contribute to young people’s development into confident adults – and provide them with a good time to boot.

One heartening story that emerged from the Bali tragedy involved doctors on holiday rallying around and helping the local medical services. Dr Horashi from Osaka said, ‘I was here on holiday and I reckoned they would need some help, so I rushed to the hospital’ (7). The sad irony is that the independence young people need in order to develop the ability to cope with pressurised situations will be undermined if the response to the Bali bombing is to keep them at home.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

Read on:

Australia’s 10/12, by Jennie Bristow

Flying lows, by Pete Smith

(1) Billions lost as travellers stay at home and cut their spending, Guardian, 10 September 2002

(2) Britons book fewer holidays abroad, BBC News Online, 22 October 2002

(3) ‘Bali blast may hit Indonesian economy’, Financial Times, 14 October 2002

(4) ‘Bali blast may hit Indonesian economy’, Financial Times, 14 October 2002

(5) The risk to tourism, The Economist, 15 October 2002

(6) Tourism industry braces for panic, BBC News Online, 14 October 2002

(7) From doctors to tourists, all do their bit as hospitals overflow, Guardian, 15 October 2002

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