Indonesia has been battling horrific natural disasters over the past month. Just as a 7.7-magnitude earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, Mount Merapi began erupting in Central Java. At current count, the tsunami has killed more than 400 people, and the volcano has killed at least 259 people since it began erupting on October 26.
The US State Department has issued a travel alert for Indonesia, warning travelers to avoid the areas around Mount Merapi. The nearby airport in Yogyakarta has been closed due to ash from the volcano and there are still disruptions to flights in and out of the international airport in Jakarta.
Even when natural disasters are not rearing their ugly heads, safety is a common concern for people traveling to Indonesia. To assess the situation, especially for travellers currently in the area and those planning trips in the coming weeks, Travelwise spoke with travel security expert Craig Bidois. A former security advisor for the United Nations, Bidois has trained peacekeeping troops in the Middle East and North Africa. He now heads up a New Zealand-based safety and security management firm called Fear Free.
Travelwise: Some governments have issued advisories warning against all but essential travel to anywhere in Indonesia. What's your take on that?
Bidois: I wouldn't go that extreme - and we have been keeping close tabs on the area. I would say to avoid all but essential travel to Yogyakarta and Mount Merapi. But the biggest question people are asking us down here is: "Can I go to Bali?" And always, you think of the person asking for the advice as if they were your family member. Right now, I would say, go ahead, but use your good common sense and definitely keep a vigilant watch on the situation regarding natural disaster potential.
It is likely that there will be hundreds of aftershocks from the earthquake in Indonesia. If you are planning a trip to Jakarta, don't be surprised if you feel a tremor or two... If somebody asked me, is it safe to go to Jakarta right now, I would say yes, but you need to definitely stay aware of the situation.
T: How do you suggest folks plan around flight disruptions, especially in and out of the country via Jakarta?
B: Keep in touch with airlines and monitor airlines' websites. The biggest thing is to have Plan B ready. What if you are stuck in Singapore and the flight from Jakarta is delayed? Do you need to go specifically to Indonesia at that time or can you put it off for another week or month? What is your Plan B if, heaven forbid, the flights are stuck there? Do you have enough cash and resources? Can you communicate to folks back home? If you're going on a business trip, is it absolutely essential to travel right now? If you can put off travelling there, do so.
Travel insurance and registering
T: Obviously, travel insurance would be a good idea right now. During safer travel times, should folks still purchase travel insurance?
B: Oh, absolutely, 100%. Even for short trips. It doesn't cost much, but it can take some of the pain and headache away if something does happen.
The other thing I recommend people to do is actually register with their governments' websites. So, if there's another situation, the embassy there can know roughly how many people are around and start accounting for people.
T: Generally speaking, many people worry about travelling to Indonesia due to concerns about terrorism. Which areas should be avoided?
B: Papua - especially if you wanted to go trekking there - is certainly a contentious area. And Aceh, which of course suffered from the tsunami. There are many UN and international organizations working there. The people are very resilient, but they're still recovering, so if it was me, I wouldn't go backpacking there just yet.
There's also Maluku province, where some civil unrest has occurred. And Central Sulawesi. But it is much calmer in these regions now. If you are an experienced traveller who has an urgent need to go to some of these places, and you go in a group, you possibly could be okay. But if you are a brand new backpacker on your fist big adventure, these are places you should avoid.
Women travelling alone
T: Many backpackers, especially women, wonder how safe it is to travel alone. What advice do you have for them?
B: The advice I would give my sister if she was going to Indonesia alone is that she would need to have experience travelling alone in other locations first. You don't want to get caught unawares in common traps for female travelers, such as going out alone in the evening to crowded areas or remote locations. It's also important to be culturally aware. Women are often expected to have a standard of dress, a standard of being polite. It is not good form for a female traveler to become intoxicated in some establishment - it's not tolerated in some places.
For a virgin backpacker, [female or male,] I might suggest doing a tour of duty in another place to learn the trade first.
Use common sense
T: Any last bits of advice?
B: The main thing is good old common sense. Some people, when they travel, they leave it at home. Even little things, like, at home, you would lock your car doors; so, do the same with a rental car.
T: Anything else to add?
B: Don't be frightened to travel around the world. Don't let the bad [guys] win.