Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Asia-Pacific leaders meeting at the weekend agreed to cooperate in the drive against terrorism, but a dispute over travel advisories - and their effect on struggling economies - highlighted the harsh reality of differing priorities.
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri urged Western countries to lift restrictions on their citizens visiting her country. Those restrictions have either been imposed or tightened since a deadly terrorist attack in Bali on Oct. 12.
Speaking in Mexico where she was attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, Megawati urged against "policies that would at the end upset the lives of our people and harm their welfare."
Since the Bali bombing - which killed more than 180 people, almost half of them Australians - Australia and a number of other Western countries have warned their citizens to weigh carefully the need to travel to or remain in Indonesia.
Some of the advisories were updated and strengthened on several occasions, as new developments - the arrest of a radical Muslim cleric, the listing by the U.N. of a new terrorist group - were thought likely to increase the possibility of a backlash against foreigners.
In a country struggling to overcome the devastating effects of the 1997 economic crisis in Southeast Asia, the prospect of investment flight is alarming.
According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), as much as a full percentage point could be wiped off Indonesia's GDP in the coming year as a result of the Bali bombing.
Instead of a government projected GDP growth of five percent - considered over-optimistic - in the end annual growth could be closer to 3.3 percent, according to Hong Kong-based Standard Chartered Bank.
The most serious damage is likely to be suffered by the tourism industry, worth some $5 billion a year to Indonesia.
When al-Qaeda-linked terrorists killed 58 foreigners in Luxor, Egypt in 1997, tourists began to return within six months, the ICG noted.
'Security is first responsibility'
Indonesia will be especially hard hit by the travel advisories issued by Australia's government.
During the first eight months of 2002, Indonesia was the fourth most-visited country for Australians (after New Zealand, Britain and the U.S.), according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Despite Megawati's pleas, however, Australian Prime Minister John Howard made it clear at the weekend he would not budge.
"The first responsibility of the Australian government is to protect its citizens," he said at the APEC gathering.
"We will not resile from issuing travel advice which reflects the security assessment that we receive."
Howard said it was the attack in Bali - a resort island especially popular with young travelers - rather than the subsequent travel advisories that was responsible for the drop in tourism numbers.
"It is unimaginable that a government in our position would do anything other than reflect current advice in travel warnings and issues," he said.
"I am not going to take risks with Australian lives and I don't think anybody in Australia would expect me to."
Howard's warnings were echoed at home by his tourism minister, Joe Hockey, who told Australian television he understood Megawati's concerns, "but we all recognize now that terrorism is the enemy of tourism."
"For so long as Australian lives may be endangered in traveling to anyone particular spot anywhere in the world, the Australian government has an obligation and will properly warn its people."
The government is considering proposals including requiring travel agents to inform customers of travel warnings at the time they make their travel reservations.
Howard's government came under fire after the Bali bombing by citizens who felt it had not been clear enough in warning about potential terror risks in the region.
Late last week the British Embassy in Jakarta warned UK nationals to "consider leaving" the country if their presence their was not essential.
"We assess that the threat to British nationals and British interests from terrorism throughout Indonesia remains high," it said.
The U.S. also warned citizens and ordered non-essential diplomatic staff and dependants home after the Bali bombing.
In the past, the U.S. has borne the brunt of Indonesian unhappiness about diplomatic response to security concerns.
On several occasions since October 2000, security concerns have prompted the temporary closure of the U.S. Embassy, a move criticized by government ministers who said it would damage Indonesia's economy and reputation abroad.
Around the first anniversary last month of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Jakarta embassy was the first of a handful in Southeast Asia to be closed, again sparking local criticism.
One of the keenest critics has been Vice-President Hamzah Haz, who held talks last month with U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce and said the embassy closure would give Indonesian an unfavorable image.
Speaking in Yogyakarta on Friday, Haz again painted a gloomy picture of Indonesia's economic plight.
"The government is now trying to keep a sinking ship afloat," he said. "If we say this nation is a ship, it is almost shipwrecked by the economic crisis and the Bali tragedy."
Indonesia has not been the only one affected by the advisories, as Western governments leery of being accused later of not doing enough, are erring on the side of caution.
Australian travel warnings relating to Malaysia and the Philippines have all been upgraded recently.
In recent days, Australia and several European Union countries, including current EU president Denmark, have warned about security risks at another popular southeast Asian resort - Phuket island in southern Thailand.
More than 2.7 million foreign tourists visited Phuket last year, according to the Tourist Authority of Thailand.
Thai media have been reporting in recent days that many travel companies were selecting Phuket as an alternative destination to Bali after the bombing there.
After the warnings, Thai Tourism Minister Sontaya Kunplome said the presence of plainclothes policemen had been increased in tourist areas.
See earlier story:
U.S. Embassy Closure Sparks Row In Indonesia (Sept. 10, 2002)
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