Back to Bali?

After a fatal nightclub bombing, the once-bustling Bali seemed like a paradise lost. But a year later, Bali has proved itself as fiercely resilient and utterly magical.

Bali is perhaps the richest cultural milieu that even Southeast Asia has to offer, with some of the finest hotels and restaurants, set in a sculpted landscape divided between beaches and hills. I have been visiting it now for some twenty years and covering it as both travel writer and anthropologist. Recently, I set out to report on Bali in the wake of last October's terrorist bombing in downtown Kuta.

"The end of May and early June were great," says Ketut, smiling. "The highest occupancy rates all year." He watches his rates with a religious fervor. Ketut is manager of one of the better hotels in Seminyak, the region of Bali just up the coast from the now-famous tourist hub of Kuta. Suddenly, he looks crestfallen. "But it wasn't the tourists coming back. It was just all the journalists and security people flying in for Amrozi's trial." The handsome face of Amrozi, "the laughing bomber," sentenced to death for the bomb blasts, has been spread all over the newspapers and TV.

It's the start of a series of prosecutions intended to reassure the tourist industry and the world that Indonesia is a safe place, one where such outrages will not be tolerated. But the trial brought only a brief respite from economic chaos and simply reopened old wounds. The explosions set off a year ago by Islamic militants killed 202 people, many of them Australian visitors, and also destroyed, once and for all, the myth of Bali as a special paradise where the conflicts of the wider world do not reach. But the more recent August bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, to mark the sentencing of Amrozi, must be seen as a declaration that the emergency is far from over.

Paradise, it would seem, is a hard place to find these days.

In the months after the attacks, Jakarta has maintained a steady flow of optimistic statistics and a confident assurance that all will rapidly return to normal. Since the tourist industry accounts for some 80 percent of Bali's economy and involves 1.5 million visitors a year, its importance cannot be overstated. The government's initial response was to flood the island with security forces, arrange several visits for president Megawati Sukarnoputri, and impose rigorous visa requirements (and higher fees) on already-nervous foreigners. Most of the real security work was done out of sight: checking incomers from the rest of Indonesia who mostly arrive, as the bombers did, by ferry. The latest optimistic spin is that the tighter security in Bali has worked and is driving the terrorists elsewhere.

After the Bali outrage, U.N. and foreign aid agencies scrambled to set up stabilization programs for the island. "We have been through what were officially the 'rescue and rehabilitation' phases. Now we are entering 'normalization,' " says Ade, a young administrator from the World Bank. A friend of mine who is a sociologist at the university was decidedly upbeat. "We've all been hired to do surveys," he beamed. "Bad news is good news." The open signs of a military presence are now being scaled back and, following howls of protest from the tourist ministry, the changes in visa requirements have been quietly abandoned.

There is no doubt that Bali will recover; it is too magical a place to be shunned for long. While some Western governments like Canada, Australia, and the U.K. still advise their citizens to avoid nonessential visits, this time of hardship for Bali is, frankly, a guilty pleasure for intrepid tourists and long-term foreign residents. The crowds have disappeared. Hotel prices have tumbled; free extra nights and upgrades proliferate. The best restaurants beckon diners, having dispensed with reservations. A sunset walk on the beach is like it was 30 years ago, before the advent of mass tourism, a golden time of empty sand and sea. The island is calm. And the traditional grace and smiles of the Balinese are, if anything, even more intense; there is no doubt that the warm welcome you find everywhere is absolutely genuine.

What's more, despite those dismal occupation rates, new hotels are moving forward. One project in Ubud, in the central foothills, is the nearly completed Uma Ubud, the latest venture of hotelier Christina Ong, and her first in Bali. For Ong, who transformed Parrot Cay in the Caribbean and Cocoa Island in the Maldives into sybaritic resorts with a modern, largely Balinese aesthetic, this hotel will be a simpler affair, more traditionally Balinese: 40 rooms with outdoor rose-head showers and sunken baths, verandas, and private gardens.

The resort's spa and yoga retreat Shambhala Bali, a joint development with designer Donna Karan, reinvents the spa, taking it back to its very Eastern roots of harmony and balance, offering the kind of luxury that emphasizes an almost primordial simplicity. Consultations with the world's foremost yoga teachers in a spectacular natural setting, a lush bowl of rice paddies with a sweeping 180-degree view, are a key ingredient. Might this be an unfortunate moment to launch such a project? "Not at all," said a spokesman for Ong's company, Como Hotels and Resorts. "We have huge confidence in the future of Bali."

Another major venture set to open in December is The Mansion, a gated private estate in Sayan that consists of a movie star-style main house with three suites and three other villas set amid sumptuous gardens. Learning the lesson of the bombing, it stresses both 24-hour security and absolute privacy. The media-shy are promised the ultimate level of personal service and protection and can fly in by helicopter directly from the main airport to the estate.

In Bali, Nyepi is a major festival falling at the beginning of the lunar New Year (usually in late-March or early April). Here, the complex ceremonial cycle that structures Bali's ritual life starts up once again. Temples organize traditional processions to the sea for ritual cleansing and ogoh-ogoh, huge bamboo and paper images of demons, are constructed and burned to chase evil from the community. They explode in flames and collapse on themselves, reducing guilt and sin to formless ash. Part of the special beauty of Bali is that "tradition" is not static but constantly changing, adapting, and renewing itself, which is how it remains relevant and real. This year a new visage appeared at the ceremony among the usual demons and was paraded and consigned to the flames amid loud rejoicing. It had a handsome, smiling face and the little goatee associated with Javanese Muslims. They called it "Amrozi." Ritual and commerce, emotion and politics came together in harmony to express the same message in very different languages.

Perhaps the magic is already working. Eddie, a Chinese friend who goes to Bali for business every few months, recently returned greatly cheered. "Bali is back!" he says. "The bars in Kuta and Tuban are crowded and it's good to see people in the streets again at night. But they're all Asian and they don't spend like the Australians and Americans. Bali is a different scene from before, quieter—maybe even better for me."

Bali is a special place and deals with its problems in its own special way. So while the Jakarta ministries and NGOs continue to plan and survey and measure, the Balinese themselves turn to ceremony and look for omens. The flowers around Besakih Temple are unnaturally prolific this year, the rains have come early or late—all signs are anxiously read (as Ketut reads his occupancy rates) as the measure of where Bali currently stands in divine favor. And the fact that the last bombing was in Java, not Bali, is seen as simply pointing to the difference between these two neighboring islands.

So as Eddie made his way through the security and X-ray machines at the airport, the hot news among the guards was the sighting of a huge school of whales off the north coast. "Now that," they said, "must mean something." Bali, as ever, remains true to itself, and is renewed.