Empty Beaches as Mt. Agung Threatens to Explode Over Bali
All photos by author
Bali

Empty Beaches as Mt. Agung Threatens to Explode Over Bali

The island's tourism sector is in a slump as the threat of a volcanic eruption drags into its second month.

At this beachfront resort, a lone groundskeeper was sweeping leaves off the patio of an empty bungalow. It was quiet. There hasn't been guests for weeks.

Amed, a tourist village on the eastern coast of Bali, has turned into a ghost town. When the local government warned on 22 Sept. that the nearby Mount Agung could erupt at any moment, guests ran. The volcano still hasn't erupted. But the tourists haven't come back.

Advertisement

Island-wide tourism numbers were down an estimated 20-30 percent as some 70,000 potential tourists put their holiday plans on hold once Mount Agung rumbled back to life. Hotel reservations are down too, despite repeated efforts by Bali's elected officials to assure tourists that the island was still safe. The vast majority of Bali's tourism neighborhoods are far outside the danger zone. Still, many of the island's resorts have been empty for weeks.

As I drove my motorbike on the single road stretching along Amed's beaches one week ago, hotel and restaurant staff were squatting by the road, fanning themselves in the heat. Dogs roamed through empty parking lots. Storefronts were locked. Vacancy signs were everywhere. Others have given up and closed up shop.

Uyah Amed & Spa Resort was one of the many establishments recently forced to close. When I arrived, the seaside property looked deserted except for the groundskeeper. The hotel pools had been covered up with bright blue tarp.

Walking through its eerily empty gardens, I found Madeleine Louise Kadjeng Amarta, the resort's diving operations manager. Although the rest of the hotel is shut down, she has refused to leave. "Even without tourists I'll keep diving," she told me.

The hotel closed on 1 October, Madeleine said, a week after the government's eruption alert sent tourists packing. Although October would have been the start of the low season, the resort usually has bookings throughout the year, Madeleine told me.

Advertisement

Since then, she had only opened the property once, when a friend had come to check out the eruption crisis. "A friend came to take photos. And then she went home. And then we closed again," Madeleine said.

The management placed a handful of staff on part-time rotation to keep the grounds tidy. "Of course the plan is to reopen," Madeleine said, though no one knows when that would be.

Before it became popular with backpackers, divers, and spa-goers, Amed was a sleepy salt-producing village. Then divers heard about its pebbly beaches and vibrant corals around the 1980s. It boomed as a tourist destination in the 2000s.

"Foreign tourists like snorkeling and diving. They look for a quiet place," Madeleine said, comparing Amed's laid back vibe to the insufferable bustle of spots like Kuta or Sanur. Indonesian tourists tend to come around December, she added.

Now, the vast majority of local residents depend on tourism, working in hospitality or retail. Even fishermen run a side hustle by renting their boats to diving groups.

In the last few weeks, the vibe of the town had completely changed, Madeleine said. "The atmosphere is totally different. There is an uncertainty. From a positive energy, it suddenly became negative," she said.

Locals are worried about this massive blow to their livelihoods. Further down the beach, Wayan Dana is sitting at one of the many empty tables at his beachside restaurant.

Advertisement

The 50-year-old father of four had traded his life as an angkot driver to start his own restaurant. As a driver, he was making about Rp 20,000 ($1.47 USD) per day. "It was a struggle to send the kids to school, to have some savings in case someone gets sick," he said.

Watching the tourism boom, Wayan wanted to cash in. He took out a loan from the bank. He built a kitchen and an open-air dining area. His wife learned to make Western foods like pancakes and sandwiches.

Four years later, their "Warung Srikandi" was drawing steady customers, and Wayan expanded his business to include organizing ferry tickets to the backpackers haven Gili islands. But he still owes the bank for the capital he took out.

"If it's quiet, my concern is finding money to repay the loan each month," he said. "We are trailing behind on our payments."

Many people living here have their homes, motorbikes, or cars on credit and the banks don't seem to care for their situation, he said. As for the trips to Gili?

"The boats are just hanging out there," he said.

But Amed isn't completely deserted. I ran into a few Western tourists braving the volcano warning. One of them is Monika Velechovska, who had just arrived the day before with a group from the Czech Republic.

"We would go, no matter what happens," she told me. It's her fourth time to Bali. She had fallen in love with Amed on a trip last year, and insisted on coming back.

Advertisement

"Why aren't you afraid?" I asked. The elder. She then told me about the old man, believed to be the gatekeeper of the volcano, who climbed to the summit of Mount Agung.

"The shaman closed the mountain. I believe in his power," she said. "We are spiritual. We believe in these things."

She wasn't afraid. "We are praying. All of Bali is praying," she said. And besides, even if the volcano blows up, "What can you do? Nothing."

She told me her group planned on visiting the many temples around the area. As she moved to continue on her stroll, she pointed me to a pathway down to the beach. "You should go snorkeling there. It's amazing."