Mount Agung volcano erupts near Kubu in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, on November 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
Mount Agung volcano erupts near Kubu in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, on November 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

If inconvenient fault lines are appearing in the Indonesian economy ahead of an election season, the 18,000 delegates and their families converging on Bali for next month’s World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) annual conference can literally point to more down-to-earth concerns.

It wasn’t so long ago that the organizers were having to contend with the prospect of the island’s Mt Agung volcano misbehaving again, as it has done from time to time since it erupted in a towering ash cloud in November 2017.

Now, after the July-August earthquakes that killed 564 people on the neighboring island of Lombok, the Indonesia Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BMKG) is having to reassure the moneyed moguls that the fault line which triggered them is well off Bali’s northeast coast.

Bringing the threat into even sharper focus has been the Sept. 28 7.5 quake and tsunami which battered the Central Sulawesi coastal city of Palu, population 340,000, and the neighboring Donggala community to the north, collapsing buildings, sweeping away houses and killing at least 400 people.

The initial 6.4 and 7.0 tremors that hit Lombok occurred a week apart and were felt at the upcoming conference’s site in southern Bali’s Nusa Dua tourist enclave, and there have been a continuing series of after-shocks, the latest on Sept. 10-11.

But that’s a fact of geological life in the shaky archipelago. The last significant temblor to hit Bali was a 5.8 in January 2004, which caused only one death. The island’s worst recorded event was a 7.0 quake and tsunami that killed 10,253 people in November 1815, followed by a 6.6 in early 1917 which claimed 1,500 lives on Bali and Lombok.

A minaret of a fallen mosque is seen in an earthquake-hit area in Gangga on August 12, 2018.An earthquake on the Indonesian island of Lombok has killed 387 people, authorities said on August 11, adding hundreds of thousands of displaced people were still short of clean water, food and medicine nearly a week on. / AFP PHOTO / ADEK BERRY
A minaret of a fallen mosque in an earthquake-hit area in Gangga, Lombok, on August 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Like the recent Lombok quake, both the 1815 disaster and a 6.5 tremor in 1976 had their origins in what is known as the Flores Back Arc – a fault line stretching from northeast Bali eastwards as far as the north coast of the island of Flores, where 2,500 people died in a 7.8 quake and tsunami in 1992.

While seismologists have yet to master the art of actually predicting a quake, there has been no evidence of any serious stresses along a second, more active fault line running to the south of Bali and the Nusa Tenggara island chain, which caused the Aceh, Nias and Central Java earthquake disasters in 2004-2006.

For now, however, Lombok is the focus, with BMKG general director Dwikorita Karnawati, a former university rector and an expert in quake-related soil vulnerability, being called in earlier this month to explain a few seismic facts of life to the conference organizers.

“She wasn’t selling anything,” says one impressed official, who is part of the team planning the security for the financial gathering. “She was very professional and factual. That alone was reassuring.”

Despite that boost of confidence, evacuation plans are being readied just in case, with four naval vessels, 20 inter-island ferries, 20 helicopters and 600 buses on stand-by as part of an emergency sea-lift which will initially prioritize about 16 heads of state and their entourages.

It is not clear what impact the cumulative effects of Mt Agung and Lombok have had on tourists flocking to Indonesia’s most popular destination. Flights into and out of Lombok are reported to be fully booked, but that may have more to do with the movement of relief workers.

KARANGASEM, BALI, INDONESIA - NOVEMBER 28: A tourist takes pictures of Mount Agung during an eruption while spewing volcanic ash into the sky, from Kubu on November on November 28, 2017 in Karangasem, Island of Bali, Indonesia. Indonesian authorities raised the state of alert to its highest level for the volcano, Mount Agung, after thick ash started shooting thousands of meters into the air with increasing intensity. Based on reports, as many as 100,000 villagers will need to leave the expanded danger zone while tens of thousands of tourists have been stranded due to airport closures. Dasril Roszandi / Anadolu Agency
A tourist takes pictures of Bali’s Mount Agung during an eruption on November 28, 2017. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Dasril Roszandi

Bali’s tourist numbers for the first quarter of 2018 were only slightly up on last year, perhaps the result of the Mt Agung eruption. Authorities have yet to release the results of the second quarter, which would show whether the island is still on track for a targeted 6.5 million tourists this year.

Officials claim most foreign visitors, topped by Chinese and Australians, are not so much worried about eruptions and earthquakes as they are about the possible closure of the tourist island’s Ngurah Rai international airport, causing a disruption to their travel plans.

That may well be true. Last November the airport was closed for three days, disrupting 400 flights and delaying 40,000 passengers because of ash clouds from the Mt Agung eruption, which also displaced 75,000 villagers. During another smaller eruption in June, it was shut for a further 12 hours.

Other volcanoes are also an issue. In March 2015, Ngurah Rai was closed to all flights for several days at the height of the tourism season because of the prevailing winds carrying ash from the eruption of Mt Raung on neighboring Java, 120 kilometers to the west.

In October, it won’t be a volcano that’s the problem but the World Bank-IMF talk fest itself. If standard practice is followed, the airspace around the single-runway airport will be closed for the arrival and departure of President Joko Widodo and all heads of state, 10 of them from the Association of Southeast Asian Nation member states.

This handout photograph taken and released on July 30, 2018 by the Presidential Palace shows Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C in white) visiting earthquake-affected people at a shelter in Lombok. More than 500 hikers and their guides remain stranded by landslides on an active volcano on Lombok, a day after a powerful earthquake struck the Indonesian holiday island, a national park official said on July 30. / AFP PHOTO / INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / AGUS SUPARTO / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / AGUS SUPARTO / PRESIDENTIAL PALACE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) visiting earthquake-affected people at a shelter in Lombok. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace

In the meantime, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the livewire head of public relations for the National Board for Disaster Management, believes Indonesia should start to take advantage of its seismic misfortunes by promoting what he likes to call “disaster tourism.”

With the country and its 260 million population sitting on three active tectonic plates and shaken to various degrees of severity by 4,500 to 6,000 quakes a year, authorities have come to expect tourists to stay away in droves.

Last year’s Mt Agung eruption, for example, cost the industry an estimated one million would-be tourists and 11 billion rupiah (US$750 million) in lost income. Lombok saw a 100,000 reduction in visitors, particularly to its famous Gili islands, and a 1.5 billion rupiah loss.

More than 8,000 tourists and local people were evacuated from the Gilis in the aftermath of the quake, using a fleet of 13 ferries and other ships. Many fled because of unfounded stories of a pending tsunami, unlikely when the epicenter was on land.

Why simply accept the deterrent effect, Nugroho asks. “A tourist destination which has experienced a disaster can also become an exotic destination,” he says. “There are opportunities and challenges in managing tourism, as well as disaster risk management.”

A volunteer hands out a mask to a motorist due to ash in the air from Mt. Agung volcano, at a traditional market in the Rendang sub-district of Karangasem Regency on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on November 23, 2017.Thousands living in the shadow of the rumbling volcano on Indonesia's resort island of Bali fled on November 22 as fears grow that it could erupt for the first time in more than 50 years. / AFP PHOTO / SONNY TUMBELAKA
A volunteer hands out a mask to a motorist due to ash in the air from Mt Agung volcano. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Many foreigners literally took him at his word that crisis tourism planning should be integrated with a national strategy of disaster mitigation, adding a whole new experience to their holidays by taking part in the ongoing relief effort.

As Nugroho notes, the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial in New York, Cambodia’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison and preserved Nazi concentration camps are all good examples of where evil acts have been turned into popular tourist attractions.

Why not disasters, too, he says, pointing to lava tours of Java’s ever-active Mt Merapi, a ship still sitting atop a house in tsunami-wracked Aceh, East Java’s unique mud volcano disaster and the colorful bubble houses built after the 2006 Jogjakarta earthquake.

Ever the optimist, Nugroho insisted through the entire Mt Agung episode that Bali was safe, even posting romantic pictures on his website of married couples posing in front of the belching volcano. Now wouldn’t that be something to show the kids when they get older?