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The Future of Bali

"Everyone is concerned with security," says Bagus Sudibya, chairman of the Bali Tourism Board. "More or less, everyone in Bali is a policeman. Enough is enough."

The Bali Hotels Association sponsored an island-wide security assessment of hotels, restaurants, and key infrastructure. The hotels have since formulated safety plans, which will be extended into the surrounding banjar to establish secure zones. BHA chairman Michael Burchett likens the initiative, which hotels will underwrite, to a giant Neighborhood Watch program. "The Balinese know they will not regain tourists’ confidence by sitting back," says the Perth native. "Action must be taken."

Many hotels have already increased their security measures. The Four Seasons, for instance, has strengthened its main-entrance checkpoint with a heavy-duty gate, explosives-sniffing dogs, and armed police who inspect every vehicle; the resort also hired three dozen extra security guards and sent them for two weeks’ military training.

Although foreign arrivals dipped noticeably after the most recent assaults, the decline wasn’t as severe as the drop-off after the 2002 bombings. Numbers for the first half of 2003 were down 41 percent compared with those of 2002; from January to June of 2006, the figures were only 20 percent below the 2005 levels. This leveling off suggests travelers may be less likely to change their plans following terrorist incidents. Since the first Kuta Square attack, terrorists have struck in London, Madrid, and Turkey, and plots have been uncovered in Britain, Denmark, and Morocco.

"There is a growing sense that no place is necessarily a priori safe anymore," says Don George, an editor for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet. "People recognize that after disasters like the Bali bombings, in a place that relies on tourism income for much of its collective livelihood, they can do a lot of good by traveling and spending their money there."

O’Sullivan at the Four Seasons also senses a more visceral reason: "There’s an element of resistance to being held ransom by terrorists. This is the island of the gods…there’s a certain feeling of total violation. People are still going to come back to the bosom of spirituality, which is Bali."

He isn’t the only hotelier who is still betting on Bali. Como has revamped its Begawan property into a holistic spa, and Pansea opened Ubud Hanging Gardens last summer, in a dramatic Ayung River gorge. Bulgari Hotels’ clifftop, all-villa resort near Ulu Watu debuts this October, and St. Regis is building a hotel and residence development that will open in 2007.

"We are very confident in Bali," says Hanging Gardens general manager Nicolas Pillet. "We are convinced the business will come back."

Less than two weeks after last October’s attacks, the second annual Ubud Writer’s Festival went off without a hitch, and the Pacific Asia Travel Association will hold its Travel Mart on Bali in 2007. In May, Quest for Global Healing held its second conference here; speakers included Bishop Desmond Tutu. Coincidentally, the event took place during Galungan, a major festival celebrating the death of a mythical tyrant. In Bali, good invariably trumps evil.

"To look at the world from a global perspective—I can’t think of any greater place to do it than Bali," says conference codirector Marcia Jaffe. "You get a chance to witness every single day how people try to live in harmony with the natural world and with each other."

That grace is evident across this island: in sarong-clad men carrying an elaborate cremation tower down a busy Kuta street; in children practicing intricate dance movements along a rural road; and, everywhere, in the delicate, flower-filled canang sari baskets the Balinese offer to their gods.

One morning at sunrise, Agung Rai drives me east from Ubud into a dreamscape that would have moved Walter Spies, an artist whose paintings celebrated everyday Balinese life. Beyond untouristed villages bristling with pendulous penjor poles for an upcoming festival, the narrow road winds into the foothills of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest and holiest peak. Every serene, terraced rice paddy beneath the two-mile-high volcano holds a shrine; the fatal mountain, which killed more than 1,000 people in a 1963 eruption, is also prodigiously fertile. Here, the promise of both nurture and annihilation is never far away. It is Bali’s special curse to live in that tenuous balance between two opposing forces.

"We are in the middle," Agung Rai says. "We have to worship the good as well as the bad spirits. In harmony, good and bad work together. And that can be powerful."

Christopher R. Cox is a frequent T+L contributor. His story "Pol Pot’s Toilet" appears in the new Lonely Planet anthology Tales from Nowhere.

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