'Bali is safe': Indonesian president urges tourists to holiday in Bali

A Snowman at a local restaurant in Ubud. Ubud-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017
A Snowman at a local restaurant in Ubud. Ubud-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017
Abraham A Noya (R) and Shadikin Akbar (L) at Kuta beach where they offers surf lesson and rented surfboard to tourists. Business has been slightly picking up in recent days after a very slow couple weeks. Kuta beach-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Abraham A Noya (R) and Shadikin Akbar (L) at Kuta beach where they offers surf lesson and rented surfboard to tourists. Business has been slightly picking up in recent days after a very slow couple weeks. Kuta beach-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Wayan Sadri a street hawker in Kuta. For over a month she barely make a sale because tourists number was down to mount Agugn eruption. Kuta-Bali, December 22nd 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Wayan Sadri a street hawker in Kuta. For over a month she barely make a sale because tourists number was down to mount Agugn eruption. Kuta-Bali, December 22nd 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

I Gede Agus Setiawan a staff at a tattoo parlour in popies lane 1. Business been so quiet because of mount Agung Eruption not a singgle customer for over 2 weeks. Kuta-Bali, December 22nd 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

I Gede Agus Setiawan a staff at a tattoo parlour in popies lane 1. Business been so quiet because of mount Agung Eruption not a singgle customer for over 2 weeks. Kuta-Bali, December 22nd 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Janet De Neefe at one of her restaurant Casa Luna in Ubud-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Janet De Neefe at one of her restaurant Casa Luna in Ubud-Bali. December 22nd, 2017. Photo : Alan Putra Amount Agung effects, Bali PHOTO by Amelia Rosa SUPPLIED by Jewel Topsfield THE AGE WORLD 23rd December 2017

Bali: It's been two weeks since an Australian (or anyone else) has been inked at Low Rider tattoo studio in Kuta's iconic Poppies I, a laneway of bars and cheap guest houses usually choked with backpackers juggling surfboards and hawkers peddling fans and bracelets.

It takes two days to create a full sleeve of the popular realist tattoos - apprentice tattooist I Gede Agus Sutiawan shows us an incredibly detailed black-and-white lion on his leg - and Australian tourists often book before they arrive in Bali to lock-in an appointment with an artist.

But Agus says Australians have cancelled appointments, explaining they couldn't get volcano insurance cover after Mount Agung, Bali's largest and most sacred mountain, awoke for the first time since 1964 and began belching steam and ash.

Walk-ins, accounting for about 50 per cent of Low Rider's business, have also evaporated.

The erupting Mt Agung does not pose a safety threat beyond a 10 kilometre evacuation zone around the volcano: the tourist playground of Kuta is 75 kilometres away.

But volcanic ash, made of tiny fragments of jagged rock, minerals and glass, can cause plane engines to seize: in 1982 all four engines of a British Airways Boeing 747 failed after it flew through an ash cloud from Indonesia's erupting Mt Galunggung.

Last month Bali's international airport was forced to close for two days, stranding thousands of travellers and throwing Bali's tourism industry into turmoil.

"This December has been the quietest ever. We have never not had a customer for two weeks," says Agus, who kills time playing cards on the tiles of Low Rider's entrance.

Bali is spluttering back to life for the peak holiday season between Christmas and New Year but the whole island is hurting.

About 70,000 Balinese who lived within Mt Agung's 10km red zone will see in the new year in cramped refugee camps.

The Australian Government this month announced it would contribute $600,000 to help provide evacuees with clean drinking water, shelter, sanitation services and medical care.

The resort island's tourism industry - Bali contributes about 40 percent of Indonesia's total tourism revenue - has been devastated.

China, the biggest source of tourists to Bali (Australia is second), has issued travel warnings, telling its people not to go to Bali until January 4. Flights have been suspended from China.

Whilst not quite as drastic, other countries, including Australia, have also issued travel alerts. "Since 21 November 2017, eruptions at Mount Agung have caused disruptions to flights and airport operations," the Australian government warns in its latest update on December 20.

The Indonesian Tourism Ministry estimates $US1.2 billion in potential losses.

On Friday President Joko Widodo held his cabinet meeting in Bali, tweeting photos of himself strolling barefoot along Kuta beach (which had been scrubbed of rubbish ahead of his visit) and posing in selfies with crowds of people.

"Bali is safe, please holiday in Bali. This afternoon Kuta beach is busy, try and see, busy, very busy," tweeted President Jokowi, as he is popularly known.

It is always highly significant when cabinet meets anywhere other than in Jakarta or Bogor. In June last year a cabinet meeting was held on a warship in the Natuna Islands in a defiant gesture to China indicating Indonesia had sovereign rights over disputed waters in the far north of the archipelago.

Tourism Minister Arief Yahya said the president's presence in Bali spoke volumes.

"Bali is normal," he said. Arief said Bali had an average of 15,000 tourists a day in 2017. At its lowest point after Mount Agung erupted there were only 2000, but now numbers had returned to 12,200 a day, 80 per cent of the average figure.

In the cultural hub of Ubud, winding roads, eerily deserted for a couple of weeks, are beginning to fill up with motorbikes and tourists.

Ubud Permai sells wooden penis bottle openers, frangipani hairclips and miniature statues of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.

It is the sort of old-school Bali souvenir shop that has almost, but not quite, been entirely replaced by shops selling yoga pants, Havianas and gourmet gelato.

Years ago Ketut Nadi could sell five wooden penises a day - "At first I was embarrassed to sell that stuff, but then it caught on".

It's been a while since the heyday of wooden penises but after the airport closed Ketut said there were no buyers of souvenirs, period.

"It was more quiet than after the Bali bombings," she says, swatting away a monkey, the only thing showing much interest in her wares.

Ketut is starting to make a few sales again but says there are fears there will be another big eruption of Mount Agung and the airport will close again.

"Usually the big crowd comes after December 25th but we have no idea what will happen this year," she says.

On December 17, Janet De Neefe, the founder of Ubud Writers' Festival and owner of Ubud restaurants Casa Luna and Indus, the Casa Luna cooking school and Honeymoon guesthouse, posted a photo of herself sipping a coconut on Facebook.

"Stay with me and receive 50 percent discount and if you are stranded we will throw in two free nights, a green coconut and a chance to play Mahjong with me," she wrote.

The posting was humorous - the photo was a pisstake of the iconic image of Barack Obama sipping a coconut which many falsely believed had been taken in Bali - but reflects the dire predicament of those in the tourism industry in Bali.

"We need Obama now to save us," De Neefe jokes.

Honeymoon Guesthouse is almost always full in the week between Christmas and New Year - now just 15 of its 40 rooms are booked. There were no cooking classes for two weeks: "They cancelled themselves".

Dinner at Indus on New Year's Eve is usually so popular the restaurant sometimes has two sittings. "This year there are two bookings. That is what we are up against," De Neefe says.

"When there are a lot more staff to customers you know you are in the red. This month we have not made enough to cover wages."

De Neefe says they rode out tough times following the Bali bombings, reasoning the hospitality industry was a bit like a marriage, there are good times and bad.

"This one is a bit different because we don't know how long it is going to go for," she says.

When Mount Agung woke up last time in 1963, it erupted for a year.

"This is our problem, how long can you ride this sort of thing?"

This story 'Bali is safe': Indonesian president urges tourists to holiday in Bali first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.