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Monday, October 1, 2007

Bali industry wants end of tourist extortion

Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post, Denpasar

The Bali Tourism Board (BTB) urged the government to take serious action to eliminate the extortion of foreign tourists, especially by the immigration service, saying the practice had long undermined the island's sensitive tourism industry.

"We often receive complaints from tourists (about extortion by the immigration service).

"We have already forwarded those complaints to the province's tourism agency, but this kind of thing just keeps happening," BTB chairman Cok Oka Ardhana told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

"The government should impose severe sanctions on officials who extort tourists. If they don't do it, the problem will never end," he said, adding that he was extremely disturbed by the latest extortion incident involving an Australian couple at Ngurah Rai airport.

Australian nationals Geoff and Dorothy Longhurst arrived on Bali on Sept. 16 to spend a 12-day holiday on the island, but instead of being greeted with smiles, they encountered a frowning immigration officer who attempted to get US$4,000 from them, and then ordered them home for refusing to pay the "special fee".

Upset, the retired couple wrote a letter to Budiarman Bahar, the consul general of Indonesia in Melbourne, relating the unpleasant incident in detail. The consul general forwarded the letter to Indonesian scholar Arief Budiman, who made it accessible to Balinese bloggers.

"This sort of official stained the image of Bali," said Nyoman Winardi Ribeka, a Balinese blogger from Gianyar regency.

"Bring him to court," a visitor to the Bale Bengong site -- a Balinese blog portal -- commented after reading the letter.

Geoff Longhurst wrote that his wife was refused admission by immigration as her passport was due to expire on March 5, 2008, meaning that it still had five months and two weeks to run.

"Following that, we were taken to an immigration office, where we were 'interviewed' by Mr. Nanang Yunanto, who suggested that, in order to clear Dorothy, we should pay a special fee. When we asked Mr. Yunanto how much this fee was, he led us outside his office and told us US$4,000," he said.

Longhurst strongly objected to the request and offered the official US$500, pleading with him to allow his wife to stay as he was bringing her to the Bali to assist with her recovery from cancer. The official refused the offer, saying that it was "an insult".

"I told him of her cancer struggle. However, he just walked away and refused to discuss it any further, simply shouting, 'go back where you come from' and ordered that we be sent back on the next plane," he wrote.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla during an impromptu visit to Ngurah Rai airport ordered the Justice and Human Rights Ministry to dismiss the official.

"He is still under investigation, but it is likely thathe will be dismissed," the immigration service's spokesperson Cecep Supriyatna told the Post.

Cecep admitted that the practice of extorting "special fees" from foreign citizens was once rampant, but the incidence had significantly declined after orders were issued for it to stop.

"It is now practiced by a small number of officials who do not understand," he said.

He said Nanang should have discussed the matter with the head of the Ngurah Rai immigration office to see if an exemption could be made in the case of the Longhursts. However, he also said that Mrs. Longhurst should have extended her passport before leaving Australia.

"They should have known about it. It's an international rule," he said.

Antigraft activists in Bali have demanded that supervision at the airport's immigration office be tightened up as lack of supervision was the root of the problem. A number of commentators also voiced concerns that extortion and intimidation of tourists also occurred at tourist attractions by unofficial guides.

Cok Oka said that the tourism industry had taken steps to reduce the levying of illegal charges on foreign tourists at the Besakih temple.

He added, however, that most of the formal complaints received by his agency were about illegal charges by the immigration service.

"The number of such cases is increasing in line with the increasing number of tourists visiting here," he said.

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