In Bali, empty rooms and idle cabs worry locals

Bali's culture survived an onslaught of tourists, but can its economy now survive a tourism drought?

Floating on a surfboard a few hundred yards off Kuta an hour after dawn, it's easy to see why Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, called Bali "the morning of the world."

Volcanoes soar above the broad swath of beach, and the light sparkles.

But while many foreigners have been drawn to Bali for its lush rice terraces or the promise of the perfect wave, just as many stayed because they fell in love with its culture.

On this island, in the midst of the world's largest Muslim country, a tolerant blend of Hinduism and older beliefs informs every part of the day. It's a way of life that has remarkably survived the onslaught of tourists: Cheek by jowl with the nightclubs and shops are small shrines to the gods. Streets are lined with offerings of rice and flowers that Balinese make each day. And every week temple festivals take place with processions of food and flowers, and the metallic, percussive music of the island's traditional gamelan orchestras.

Stephen Palmer, a semiretired representative for Quicksilver, the world's largest surfboard and apparel company, left Australia for Bali 28 years ago – when Kuta was just a fishing village – and never went back.

Broad-shouldered and gently spoken, Mr. Palmer says he's convinced that Bali's enduring culture will ultimately help the island through its latest crisis, a terrorist attack that killed at least 190 people.

"The Balinese will survive,'' he says.

But for now, the bombing last week of two popular nightclubs has shattered Bali's reputation as a haven from Indonesia's ills and, with it, the tourist industry that has made this the archipelago's most prosperous island.

As the aftermath of terror begins to bite, many Balinese are worrying about economic survival.

Tourists are abandoning the island like never before. In the water, competition for waves is already down, and local officials confirm the anecdotal evidence: Hotel room occupancies have plunged to 30 percent from 70 percent the week before. Hotel owners say they can hang on for two months at most before laying off some of the island's 150,000 hotel workers.

The problem is potentially serious for an island that employs 80 percent of its 2.5 million people in tourism – from the expatriates who run $500-a-night hotels like the Four Seasons to the farmers who supply their kitchens and the street-side food stalls that cater to the shop-workers, laundresses, and drivers that keep Bali moving.

Those most at risk are the Indonesians who work at the bottom of the tourist chain. While New Yorkers worried about job security and lifestyle after the Sept. 11 attack, for many Balinese the concerns are more basic: Will my family get enough to eat? Will I be able to afford to send my children to school?

Ketut Sukadana has already caught a glimpse of the gathering storm. It's almost noon, and the taxi driver has just picked up his second fare of the day.

"I've been driving in circles since 7 – this can't go on, can it?" So far, he's made about $1 and expects today to be the first time in nine years of driving that he loses money on his daily taxi rental of $16.50

"After the WTC [World Trade Center attack], it was quiet for a while, but nothing like this. I think maybe I'm going to stop working and just hang out at home for a while."

Made Roda, a perpetually smiling 63-year-old with a potbelly hanging over his tattered board shorts, wades into the gentle surf with his net just after sunset on Kuta beach.

He says fishing is a cross between a hobby and a necessity, as he begins to drag the net in the shallows along the shore, coming up with a few pale, hand-sized fish.

"If I'm lucky, I'll get enough for the family's breakfast tomorrow – if not, we have rice." His wife brings in money offering massages to tourists on the beach; he and one of his sons sell drinks and fruit.

Mr. Roda looks out at the last threads of sunset, fading from peach on the horizon to greens and blues, with Venus rising. He then points at a jet coming in for a landing at the southern extremity of the bay. "We'll be fine as long as the guests come back."

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