Bali is back, almost, reports ROB TAYLOR from Jakarta,
Nearly two years after terrorist bombs ripped apart two nightclubs in Kuta, killing 202 mostly-Australian holidaymakers and dozens of locals, authorities say tourism numbers have recovered to pre-bomb levels.
Since the start of this year, more than 796,000 people braved tough travel warnings on the continued terror threat in Indonesia and flocked to Bali to take advantage of still-discounted prices on hotels and tours.
Immigration authorities at Denpasar's Ngurah Rai Airport said before the blasts, 793,000 people arrived in the opening months of 2002. That figure plummeted to only 550,000 last year.
"The average number of tourist arrivals in the period between January and July has already reached 113,748 per month, or about the same as the level before the bombings," immigration office head I Gede Widiartha told the official Antara news agency.
Tourists from Japan, Australia and Taiwan were coming back in force.
Almost 148,000 Australians walked through the airport's doors in the first half of this year, along with 164,000 Japanese holidaymakers and 112,000 Taiwanese, Widiartha said.
And overseas numbers could be boosted further by Britain's recent decision to drop travel warnings for Bali, opening the door for more arrivals from the UK.
But Australian memories of the terror in Kuta are still raw.
Many Aussie tourists now opt to stay clear of the city that used to be the heart of Bali's nightlife and stay less obtrusively in villas and cottages at trendy beachside Seminyak or the terraced hills of Ubud.
The chairman of the local restaurant and hotels association, Gede Wiratha, said that despite the arrivals surge, Bali's tourist-reliant economy was still sluggish.
"It's not recovered yet," he said.
"People are saying it's recovered, but the people of Bali don't feel it."
Wiratha said he had been talking to shopkeepers in Kuta about the current holiday season and most agreed business was wallowing.
"They say it's only about 60 per cent recovered since the bombing, largely thanks to Australian tourists who have treated Bali as their second home," he said.
Part of the problem was that many newer Asian visitors to Bali stayed less time and spent less money than western tourists used to.
A new $A35 visa fee for tourists by Indonesia's cash-strapped government was also not helping.
Wiratha said Indonesia's government and President Megawati Sukarnoputri were not working hard enough to bring back the confidence most Australians used to have in Bali, where an estimated one in 10 have holidayed.
"She should visit Australia, because Australians have been friends, been family, for Bali," he said.