Bali’s cruise tourism market is showing signs of significant growth in the last decade. In 2002, the number of cruise ships arriving in Bali was 20. This year, it has hit 90 and rising. As usual, the hype surrounding this sector of the tourism market is relentlessly upbeat, focusing as it does on the expected flood of money into Bali, based on projections assuming untold thousands of free-spending passengers deliriously spending vast amounts of cash.
It would be wonderful if this was to actually happen, but the combination of appallingly bad planning, sub-standard construction, lack of proper cruise industry infrastructure, and the venality of the central government could well turn the hoped-for cruise bonanza into a pipe-dream. Another triumph of greed over practicality.
The much-vaunted Tanah Ampo International Cruise Terminal in Karangasem, East Bali has proved to be a massive embarrassment. Apart from being situated so far from the main tourist and shopping precinct in South Bali that a shopping trip is impossible during a 12-hour layover, it was not even designed or constructed properly. No-one seems to know why the pier, originally planned to be 308 metres long, mysteriously shrank to only 154 metres during the final construction phases – way too short to accommodate most cruise ships. And the attached passenger pontoon was of such shoddy construction that it disintegrated a few weeks after being built. One consequence was that in 2011, the Sun Princess, carrying 1,950 passengers, had to divert to Benoa because of the potentially dangerous disembarkation situation.
In February of this year, the MV Aurora, carrying 2,800 passengers and crew, could not pick up its passengers after their day visit because the new, improved, ‘re-built’ pontoon collapsed again. Passengers were stranded on the pier for over 6 hours. The ‘International’ cruise terminal was not equipped to provide any food, water or shelter while an inevitable rainy-season storm drenched the unhappy passengers. This is not good PR, and needless to say, many visitors left with a very negative image of Bali.
But let’s assume that all these problems are miraculously fixed, and that cruise ship passengers are somehow presented with a truly professional experience at both of Bali’s main cruise ports of Tanah Ampo and Benoa. Would the expected economic benefits then manifest themselves? Will 2,000-odd passengers disembark in the morning and go on a massive spending spree for 8 hours before returning to ship-board life?
It doesn’t look like it. The data from the Benoa Port Office show that only 20% of passengers disembark for a typical one-day stop, and that they spend an average of $45 USD each. That’s not what you call big money. By comparison, Wellington, New Zealand, reports an average daily spend of $141 per day per passenger when in port, and a lot more people. Even Jamaica claims $90 USD. Of course, with cruise lines promoting a self-contained experience on-board, nobody expects all passengers to take the opportunity to make landfall, yet the number actually getting off the ship here, and their daily spend, seems very low.
I spent a day recently with a cruise ship passenger who arrived at Benoa at 6.30am. Because the Benoa pier is another one that is too short for major liners, passengers are brought to shore by ship’s tender, a process requiring advance booking and a lot of waiting. They are dropped off in an area which is confusing for first-time visitors, who are immediately surrounded by hordes of insistent taxi touts demanding outrageous fares for the relatively short trip to the shopping hot-spots. I had sent a driver to pick her up, but even so, pre-booked drivers were restricted to waving their signs from behind a high fence. From her description, the chaos in the port arrivals area made Denpasar airport look like Changi by comparison.
She said that few of her fellow passengers opted to come ashore, many baulking at paying the $25 USD Visa On Arrival fee. For 6 or 7 hours in Bali, it’s simply not worth it. The standard VOA is valid for 30 days. You can enter Bali for half-an-hour if you like, but you will pay the inflexible, one-size-fits-all visa fee of $25 USD. Why? Well, just look at the revenues. In the first nine months of last year, VOA fees for entry to Bali (mainly through the airport) amounted to more than $42 million USD. How much of that stays in Bali, to provide for tourism infrastructure? None of it. It all goes straight to Jakarta. Don’t expect cheap one-day cruise ship visas any time soon – I don’t believe Jakarta officials would sacrifice a single dollar of their VOA revenue to grow this sector of Bali’s tourism industry, because there would be nothing in it for them.
Another passenger reports that on arriving back at the port for departure , a helpful chap offered to help him find his way back to the correct tender – for free! Naturally, he was delighted, until he was led to a small shack where yet another helpful chap (no doubt a cousin) relieved him of 150,000 rupiah ‘Departure Tax’ and took him to his boat. Only later did he realise that there is no ‘departure tax’ payable at ports …
Of course, back at the airport, the VOA scams are still alive and well. The officials who embezzled over $300,000 USD by misreporting $25, 30-day visa fees as $10, 10-day visas (and pocketing the difference) were rapped on the knuckles and sent back to work. The government’s solution to their corrupt behaviour was to charge us all $25 now, regardless of length of stay. Now reports are coming in of a new wrinkle, where tired passengers arriving after long-haul flight are told, “You are from Europe. You must pay 25 Euro.” Those who protest that it should be $25 USD are told, “That is only for Americans.”
Oh yes, there is the transit mess as well. If you think you are ‘transiting’ through Bali, say from Darwin to Kuala Lumpur, make sure that you have a ‘fly-through’ ticket. If you travel on a cheap point-to-point carrier, you actually have two journeys. On arrival at Bali, you will have to purchase a $25 VOA for your proposed one-hour stay in Bali, clear immigration, collect your bags, clear customs, exit the airport and walk 200 metres to the departures area, where you will have to check in, pay 150,000 departure tax, clear immigration and board your connecting flight. That’s if it hasn’t left during this lengthy process. That’s because you are not ‘transiting’, you are ‘transferring’, which involves a world of pain.
If you are genuinely ‘transiting’ – that is, your bags are checked through and you have a boarding pass for the second leg, you should be right. Just get off the plane and go to the transit lounge to wait for the connecting flight. However, rumour has it (unsubstantiated, I hasten to add) that the Bali transit lounge has been closed during airport renovations. If this is true, you will need to purchase a $25 VOA … get the picture? Just skip back one paragraph for the full saga if you need to be reminded.
Anyway, that’s the airport. We all know what a disaster area that is. But back to my main thread about the way cruise visitors are being treated – which is with an incredible lack of vision for the future. It is without a doubt, a potentially lucrative sector of the tourist industry for Bali. So why are the local authorities being so completely amateurish about growing it? Why didn’t they build a proper, professional-standard cruise terminal in East Bali? Why are they not lobbying Jakarta for the immediate introduction of a cheap one-day entry permit for cruise passengers?
Why do I even hope that things will ever change in the torturous labyrinth of Indonesian officialdom?