BALI, Indonesia—A decade ago, Bali’s famed white sand beaches and popular shopping areas were deserted as visitors scared off by terrorism shunned the “island of the Gods.”
The dark cloud of the suicide bombings that killed 202 mostly foreign tourists in 2002 lingered for years, decimating one of Asia’s top tourist destinations. But the Hindu-dominated resort island has worked to overcome that image and is sending a message to the world this week that it’s now on a Bali high by hosting leaders and more than 8,000 delegates, business people and journalists at the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
“We have to move on,” said Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika. “Many international events in Bali have restored confidence of the Balinese.”
Tourism has bounded back. More than 1.8 million foreigners arrived in Bali each year prior to the attacks, which caused the numbers to dive. But last year nearly 3 million visited the island, which was also boosted after Julia Roberts filmed on location for the movie “Eat, Pray, Love.”
The tourism recovery also has a downside, with the rapid development of hotels and massive golf courses sapping natural resources and water supplies. The quaint Bali beloved by travellers who came here years ago has also been overtaken by massive commercialism, a lack of planning and frustrating traffic jams.
For APEC, in a sign of the island’s growth, visitors were welcomed at a new international airport terminal and driven on a just-opened toll road that runs 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) over the ocean to the exclusive resort enclave where the meetings are being held in Nusa Dua. A World Trade Organization meeting will also be held in December on Bali.
But the threat of terrorism has not vanished entirely. Just a week before the forum opened, Bali hosted the Miss World finale after the government moved the event at the last minute from the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta, following weeks of protests from hard-line Muslim groups.
Miss Philippines was crowned Miss World without incident, but security was tight after members of the group threatened to disrupt the event and travel warnings were issued by the U.S., Australian and British embassies for citizens travelling to the island.
And security has remained on high alert as leaders arrived for the economic summit with some 11,000 military, police and other security personnel working to maintain safety. Soldiers holding automatic weapons greeted cars at the enclave’s gates and could be seen patrolling the manicured grounds near the event.
“It’s probably the safest time to be here,” said Lorrin Mathews, of Auckland, New Zealand, who works in security and was on vacation and staying in the heavily guarded enclave with his wife and two daughters.
But he said their bags hadn’t been checked and there were no metal detectors at the hotel entrances.
“Security is a bit of a joke,” he said. “They were checking under our car, but only looking under one side.”
The 2002 terrorist attack in Bali, carried out by suicide bombers from the al-Qaida-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah, started a wave of violence in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, hitting an embassy, hotels and restaurants. Three years later, another bomb on Bali attack killed 20 people.
Indonesia has been largely successful in rooting out militants, arresting hundreds since the bombings and killing dozens more. Terrorist attacks aimed at foreigners have been largely replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes mostly targeting police and anti-terrorism forces.
APEC organizers took the extraordinary step of shutting down Bali’s airport for long stretches over several days, cancelling nearly 700 flights and forcing other passengers to endure long delays, said Efferson Siregar, who heads the company that runs the airport. He declined to say how much the closures will cost, but tourism is the island’s main source of income and the cancellations will result in millions of dollars in losses.
But officials said maintaining the highest level of security is vital for the meeting, regardless of the cost.
“For the long-term impact, hosting an international event will present our country in the eyes of the world as a place that is safe and comfortable,” said Tourism Minister Mari Elka Pangestu.
Associated Press writer Margie Mason contributed.