JAKARTA - Mount Agung, an active volcano on the Indonesian island of Bali, appears ready to erupt after months of ominous steaming.
Indonesia's Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) upgraded the alert to the highest level on Monday when the volcano shifted into what geologists say is the magmatic phase before an eruption. A thick cloud of ash hangs above the volcano and Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport was completely shut for a second day.
The last volcanic eruption occurred in 1963 and killed about 1,100 people. This year, the volcano has been taking its time, expelling smoke and rumbling steadily since September. Indonesian disaster officials had evacuated thousands of Balinese villagers but made most of them move back to their homes because the volcano was at such a slow boil.
That has now changed.
About 100,000 people have been ordered to evacuate the volcano this week. Reddish magma is now visible and, it appears certain to scientists, officials and residents alike that the volcano will blow soon. The expectation is that there will be far fewer casualties than in 1963, as Indonesia’s response to volcanic eruptions has substantially improved, especially since the eruption of Mt. Merapi near Yogyakarta in 2010.
Indonesia's experience is long and vast. The archipelago sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world. On Sumatra island, Mt. Sinabung erupted several times in recent months as international observers monitored Bali.
Because of the extended timeline of the eruption and the massive resources dedicated to Bali, Indonesia’s biggest tourist destination, observers expect disaster management to go smoothly once Agung finally blows.
The impact on its tourism industry, however, is less clear.
Bali accounts for more than half of all foreign visitors to Indonesia. It is the only Hindu-majority island in Indonesia, which is 88 percent Muslim, and has long attracted artists, surfers, spring breakers, yogis, and sunseekers of all stripes. In the last three months, parts of Bali have become ghost towns as Agung's threat prompted many would-be visitors to cancel their trips.
Some Balinese locals say the impact of Agung has been worse than the 2002 Bali bombings, a terrorist attack that killed 200 people in downtown Kuta.
Although the tourism situation has come to a head this week with about 60,000 travelers stranded at the airport, the volcano has been impacting major events in Bali for months. Organizers and attendees of Bestival, a music festival in Badung, Bali and the Ubud Writer’s Festival, both of which took place last month, said attendance was much lower than expected.
Cafes and hotels in the radius of the volcano, which is in the heart of northwestern Bali and whose slopes include the holy Pura Besakih temple complex, have been empty for weeks.
“The impact of the explosion abroad is becoming increasingly apparent,” said Ayang Utriza, an Indonesian researcher based in Belgium. “Major newspapers and television stations in Europe run broadcasts about the explosion of Mount Agung. It will make foreign tourists think twice or cancel their trips to Indonesia. It will certainly affect occupancy rates, the attendance at tourist attractions, and net revenue,” he said.
“Since the government announced the alert status on the mountain last month, many tourists have canceled their plans to come to Bali,” said Ketut Panjul, a driver who is based in Ubud. He said he has had much less business than usual in recent weeks.
“But I don’t think people are scared about the volcano in general,” he said, “Just about the airport problem,” as thousands of tourists are stranded in Denpasar. “When it opens again, I believe that it will be fine for us.”
“Of course,” he said, “it depends on the size of the explosion as well.”
International airlines are also scrambling to minimize losses as people cancel bookings to Bali. Many are offering alternate routes for travelers whose journeys are affected.
Still untapped Indonesian tourism market
The outsized impact of Mount Agung’s activity in a country of around 130 active volcanoes speaks to Bali’s central role in Indonesia's tourism industry, which is still smaller in terms of net revenue than that of neighboring countries like Thailand.
“For too long, tourism to Indonesia has just meant Bali,” said Tourism Minister Arief Yahya, in Jakarta. Yahya and the Tourism Ministry have been trying to expand travel infrastructure in Indonesia’s other islands, like Sumatra and Lombok, which also have beaches, volcanoes and forests, but much less tourism infrastructure.
In particular, the ministry is trying to boost the “halal” travel credentials of Muslim-majority regions like Aceh, where it hopes to draw affluent Muslim travelers who will see its plentiful mosques and halal food options as a unique draw.
Meanwhile, to minimize the impact of Mt. Agung in Bali, said Utriza, the government must “preach and preach all the time” to get in front of the issue.
“Through social media networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Internet, newspapers and television. For residents who live around Mount Agung, their evacuations are already taken care of. But this is not enough. Relevant agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, should intervene as well," he said.
The smoother the recovery goes, said Utriza, the sooner tourists will come back to the “island of the gods.”