The love affair Australia shares with Indonesia’s Bali stretches back decades to when the island first started registering on surfer, and then tourist, radars. Palm-lined Kuta Beach, now the bustling epicentre of tourism on the island, was a tranquil spot with simple huts for sleeping, warungs for eating, and not much else besides.

Like any romance, the Australia-Bali affair has been a rollercoaster ride, but now the relationship is in full, beautiful bloom. As of 2009, more Australians are travelling to the island than any other nationality, while Indonesia is now Australia’s number two travel destination, with most arrivals landing directly on the Island of the Gods.

Bali’s breathtaking beauty is the stuff of legend. The scenery inspires awe, with terraced green rice paddies cascading down to azure oceans, majestic volcanoes studding the soil and endless beaches beckoning to sun-lovers. Bali’s culture is intricate and all-pervading, and, given outside influences over the last few centuries, resilient too. The Balinese are welcoming, the cuisine seductive and these days the list of must-do activities on the island is so long that one holiday is simply not enough.

So what took Australians so long?

Robert Kelsall, general manager of Kuta’s Bali Dynasty Resort, which counts many Australian families among its clientele, says that a key factor in booming numbers has been an increase in the number of flights from Australia to Bali, particularly with low cost carriers, which has stoked greater demand.

“Perth-Denpasar now has in excess of 52 flights a week, whereas back in 2007, this was probably around 12 per week,” says Kelsall.

Australian tourist arrivals, along with those from many other countries, plunged after the 2002 bombings on the island, but bounced back to record levels in 2004.

“They then fell again following the 2005 bombing, recovering again in 2008 to record levels once again. And in 2009, in terms of total arrivals to Bali, Australians took the number one spot, which had been held by Japan for many years,” Kelsall explains.

Australia sent 446,042 visitors to Bali in 2009, up 45 percent on a year earlier and elbowing the crisis-hit Japanese, who sent a trailing 319,473 tourists, from the top spot.

With the rise in numbers has come something of a shift in the type of traveller coming to Bali, some industry players say.

Once the vast majority of Australians could be found around Kuta and Legian, lapping up the surf, eclectic shopping, cheap Bintang beer and tasty streetside food. Now, they’re spreading their wings.

“There are a lot of Aussies in Kuta, Tuban, Seminyak hotels, the usual Australian playground. But there’s also been a slow improvement in numbers of Australian tourists in other areas: Nusa Dua, Sanur and Ubud,” says Jean-Charles Le Coz, chairman of the Bali Hotels Association.

“More needs to be done to promote those areas, which all have something special to offer.”

Indeed the rapid growth in the Australian market amid a global economic downturn has led to some high-end Bali resorts shifting their marketing focus in a bid to attract some of the wealthier jetsetting Australians to their chic surrounds.

Ayana Resort and Spa’s general manager Charles de Foucault said that the global downturn triggered a reassessment by the resort late last year of where they were focusing their marketing attention—and they realised that they hadn’t been paying enough attention to Indonesia’s nearby neighbour.

“We saw very interesting Australian customers. A lot were utilising villas, so were a completely different demographic out of Australia compared to those in Kuta,” Foucault says. Since their marketing strategy shifted, Australian arrivals at Ayana have doubled.

“These are the Kuta people who maybe came 15 years ago, who have come to their senses!” he quips. “They want something, I won’t say quiet, they don’t like quiet too much, but they want something a little bit more sophisticated. They want to have fun, but not go to Kuta every night of the week.”

Ayana sees mainly Australians who simply want to get away to recharge, rather than tour the island, and many are now repeat clients who come a few times a year, with Bali’s proximity to Australia a big lure, Foucault says.

“A lot of people coming from Perth say it took me longer to get to the airport than to fly here. So for them it’s a real nice break. And of course the change of season is excellent,” he adds, referring to Bali’s inviting tropical climate. “When it starts freezing in Australia you jump on a plane for three hours and you’re in a tropical location.”

The Bali Hotels Association’s Le Coz adds that the island represents great value for money and is safe.

“Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it in Bali: good accommodation, a variety of food, sightseeing, culture, nightlife, shopping, water sports and so on. Australians have clearly seen that and keep coming back,” he says.

Linda and Gary Yeats, both 53, are among the Australians who keep coming back to Bali. Their first trip was in 1980, when they brought their now-grown children, and now they come about once a year themselves aiming to relax and not do too much else.

“It’s the laidback lifestyle,” says Gary of what keeps luring the couple back, adding that affordability is also a big factor, as well as the hospitality of the Balinese people.

“We can go out for a meal whenever we want and it’s not going to cost a lot of money. And it’s the friendliness of the Balinese people: Everyone’s got a smile and they always say hello to you.”

And it’s not just the holiday-makers who are on the increase. Dominique Gallmann, founder of Exotiq Real Estate, says the past three to four years have seen more Australians snapping up properties in Bali, particularly from Western Australia.

He mainly sees two types of buyers.

“There are people who have been in holiday in Bali for many, many years and now have the available funds to buy a second home here,” he says. “Then there are the spontaneous buyers. They come here for the first time, they rent a villa and they love it so much they say, ‘Can’t I buy something like this?’ And they buy on the same trip.”

Gallmann says people are seduced by the way of life on Bali. “You don’t get that island feeling after a few days, where you need to move and go away.”

It’s a feeling bringing ever-more holidaying Australians back again and again.

/ Travel