Is It Safe to Travel to Bali with the Volcano Erupting?
Last Updated 22 November 2017.
In mid-September, Agung, Bali’s sacred volcano, which has effectively been sleeping for the last half century or so, woke up. On 22 September, authorities raised its status to the highest alert level, red (or level 4), and began evacuating tens of thousands of locals who lived within 7 to 12 kilometres of the volcano. A range of governments issued travel advisories advising caution and implying that it was not safe to travel to Bali. And everyone on Bali began the process of adapting to life with a volcano that’s a lot more active than we’d thought.
Australia’s finest foreign correspondents arrived en masse from Jakarta, in the hope of covering an eruption that looked set to reach the scale of 1963’s cataclysm, AKA a very big story. Under pressure to deliver, and with Agung suffering performance anxiety, they churned out story after story; media organisations from around the world joined in (you can read my small contribution here). A degree of mass hysteria followed, segueing seamlessly into a sense of anticlimax.
After a period of calm, when the alert status returned to amber (level 3), and the foreign correspondents headed back to Jakarta, Agung sprang into action on 21 November with a small, phreatic eruption. That means that, rather than being caused by magma breaking through from below, the eruption was caused by water from above meeting hot stuff down below and creating a cloud of super-heated steam that burst out.
The alert level remains at amber, the evacuation zones remain at 6-7.5km from the volcano, but the aviation threat level has been raised to orange as there was ash in the cloud of steam. The airport, however, remains open, as the ash cloud was low in the atmosphere and blowing away from the airport.
Do note that, as the gif below from Indonesia’s excellent Magma website shows, Agung is just one of many volcanoes across the archipelago: the nation’s volcanologists are really good at their jobs.
Does the eruption mean it’s no longer safe to travel to Bali? No. But it doesn’t mean that it’s safe to travel, either. Agung is a famously unpredictable volcano and it could now simmer down, or it could build to a large magmatic eruption over days, weeks, or months: this great post outlines some possibilities.
At the time of writing, graphs of earthquakes around the volcano continue to show a striking decline in activity (as does the live seismograph feed on Stuart McDonald’s handy hasagungeruptedyet.com: he also has live video of Agung). But it’s worth noting that earthquakes are just one measure volcanologists use to assess the likelihood of an eruption – and a 4.9-magnitude earthquake on 8 November probably indicated a movement of large magma volumes within the volcano.
To summarise: will Agung have a large eruption? Nobody knows. My personal feeling is that it probably will, but not for a couple of months or longer. Expert opinion seems to be that it’s likely to be a smallish eruption at first, followed by something larger, which also matches anecdotal recollections of the last big eruption – but this is not a predictable volcano. Agung is one of only seven volcanoes in the world to have consistently hit 5 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (the volcano Richter Scale), which is why experts remain concerned.
As you may well have seen on social media, thanks to the “I am in Bali now” campaign, plenty of people ARE travelling to Bali, are safe, and are having a great time. With visitor numbers dropping, you’ll likely find some excellent deals on accommodation (Agoda has some great offers right now), particularly in areas like Ubud that are closer to Agung. You’ll also see fewer crowds at the tourist sites, and find hot tables easier to secure than they were.
Oh, yes, and you’ll make a vital contribution to the island’s economy, helping everyone, including the evacuees. (No, you are not taking food out of their mouths, you are putting money in their pockets: almost all evacuees have family members who work in the tourist trade.)
So if you’re wondering whether it’s safe to travel to Bali, here’s what to consider:
1: Where Are You in Relation to the Volcano Danger Zones?
Above is a map showing Mount Agung and Bali’s best known tourist areas. Below is a map showing the areas of Bali that are considered unsafe in the event of an eruption like that of 1963. The circles indicate the risk of falling particles of different sizes; the flow patterns indicate the risk of the mudflows known as lahars and the blazing clouds of volcanic materials known as pyroclastic flows.
As you can see, essentially, unless you’re within 15km of the volcano, or in a valley that starts near the top of the volcano, it’s safe to travel to that bit of Bali. Ubud is 30km from Agung; Canggu is about 60km; Kuta is about 70km; the Bukit peninsula is even further.
Out of the typical tourist destinations, Tulamben, for diving, remains potentially at risk, although I’m cautiously optimistic about diving Amed, and both resorts are open for business. Sidemen and Candidasa are considered safe, but I’d be prepared to cancel bookings here. If climbing Agung or diving Tulamben are must-dos for you in Bali, now is probably not the time to book a holiday.
2: How Key Is It That You Get Back to Work on Time?
An Agung eruption does not necessarily mean the airport will close: that’s dependent on whether Agung throws up ash, how much ash it throws up, how high that ash rises, and what direction the wind is blowing. (You can read my guide on what to do if a volcano cancels your flight here.) You will be able to get in and out by travelling to Surabaya on Java or Praya on Lombok, depending on which of those airports are still open, but that will take time to organise and, in the case of Surabaya, be a completely hellish journey, while you can expect flight prices to soar. None of this will endanger your safety but, having been at an airport when a volcano shut down flights, it’s a recipe for impotent rage.
Call me cynical, but I very much doubt that Ngurah Rai, an airport that can’t even deliver your baggage within a non-geological period of time, is going to seamlessly manage mass evacuations, despite what they’ve been telling journalists. Apart from anything else, there aren’t enough boats to get everyone to neighbouring islands.
So: if you’re a surgeon, a fertility doctor, a head teacher, self-employed in a sector where you need to be physically present to earn money or likely to be fired if you don’t come back to work on time, then I’d either not travel to Bali or I’d aim to fly home with two days’ holiday in hand, leaving time to get to an open airport. If you’re in a normal job, let alone a job that allows you to work from home, then, hell, I’d take the risk.
3: Do You Have Serious Respiratory Problems?
IF Agung has a large eruption, and IF the winds are blowing the wrong way, volcanic ash COULD impact the tourist areas. It’s nasty stuff and, while both adults and children can protect themselves with N95-rated face masks, if you’re struggling with serious respiratory issues it makes sense to holiday somewhere that doesn’t have a potentially erupting volcano.
4: Are You Travelling on a Shoestring?
World Nomads have been very upfront about this (you can read their volcano guidance here), but not all travel insurers have. Most travel insurers will not cover you for volcano-related cancellations or costs if you booked your holiday or bought your insurance between 20 September and 29 October or after 21 November, because the volcano was considered a known risk at those times – the equivalent of a pre-existing condition for medical insurance. However, the insurance should still be usable for other issues, such as medical expenses in the event of accidents: as always, check the Ts & Cs!
If you have a flight booked and the volcano erupts, closing the airport, you can expect your airline to put you up in a hotel and feed you, but you may well not be covered for missed connections, and you certainly won’t be covered to travel to Java or Lombok to get a different flight.
As you can see, for most people, travel to Bali is safe – even with the eruption of 21 November. To minimise potential hassles, my personal recommendations are:
Fly with an Asian Airline
Australian budget carriers are notorious for cancelling flights when volcanoes go off around Bali. And, no, that’s not because Virgin and JetStar have higher safety standards: Garuda, Indonesia’s national carrier, meets all international aviation standards, and flies when JetStar won’t. Australian budget airlines don’t have ground staff at nearby airports to handle passengers if a flight is diverted, and they don’t fly to enough Indonesian airports to be able to easily reroute the plane. That means one diverted plane will cost them a fortune in lost revenue (as the plane’s flying back empty or stranded off Bali), not to mention the reputational damage as a bunch of Bali-bound Aussies endeavour to discover the charms of Surabaya with no one to hold their hands. So, rather than risk it, they just don’t fly.
While I’m at it, it’s worth paying extra for a decent carrier like Garuda or Malaysia Airlines, because if you do get stuck, you’ll get a better hotel – especially if you fly business class.
Leave Time Around Connecting Flights
If you’re flying to Europe or the US through regional hubs like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, allow yourself a day’s layover for your return flight. That means that IF the airport is suddenly closed the day you’re due to fly out, you can hop on a boat to Lombok, or arrange a brutal bus ride or expensive car trip to Surabaya, and still make your connecting flight. At the time of writing, the wind seems to be blowing towards Lombok, rather than Java, but the ash cloud is too low to impact the airport.
Bring N-95 Masks
Will there be an ashfall where you are in Bali while you’re there? Probably not. But it’s worth being prepared just in case. When you’re leaving, donate to the evacuees, who really need them: pay a Gojek motorbike taxi to deliver them to Solemen Indonesia’s dropoff centres.
And, whew! I think that’s it! If you’ve got any questions I haven’t answered here, feel free to post them in the comments: if I can’t answer them myself, I’ll probably know someone who can.