Living dangerously in Indonesia?

Earthquake Relief Efforts

Image by DVIDSHUB via Flickr


According to the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it seems that anyone considering travel to Indonesia should immediately change their plans. For those already in this dangerous country, it might be best to take the next flight out. This is because travelers heading to Indonesia could encounter earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanoes, terrorist attacks, general crime, communal violence, shoddy local airlines, civil unrest, as well as both swine and bird flu. Not to mention the outbreak of rabies infected monkeys on Bali. 

While most foreign governments issue similarly strong warnings, Indonesia still receives over six million visitors every year. With such a contrast between perilous warnings and millions of travellers, it can be hard to understand if your trip through the Indonesian archipelago will be a life threatening venture or a memorable holiday.

Fault lines

Take the risk of earthquakes, for example. On September 30, 2009 all hell broke loose in the West Sumatran province of Padang. A magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck the region shaking buildings to the ground, felling power lines, igniting fires, triggering landslides, and buckling roadways. The official death toll was 1,195 and included foreign nationals, many of them surfers on their way to the Mentawai Islands.

After the quake, foreign governments adjusted their advisories simply by listing the details of the quake amongst page after page of other potential risks. Some went a little further and offered advice. Australia suggested travellers contact their “tour operator to check whether tourist services have been affected” and the Brits suggested that travellers “check with your tour operator before travelling”.

While such advice is sensible, it does little to help understand or manage the risks.

For a first-hand assessment of on-the-ground conditions, I called a foreign correspondent who covered the aftermath of the Padang quake. He reported the level of infrastructure damage in Padang as a destroyed “building here, a building there, but unfortunately these buildings were main buildings in the city, like hotels, schools, a hospital”. He also had the following advice for travellers; “don’t stay in tall, medium-range hotels in Indonesia, they’re the ones most likely to collapse in a quake because there’s a good chance they were not built in accordance to any building code”.

It might be best to observe such advice. Earthquakes are a fact of life because Indonesia’s 17,500 islands straddle the edges of the Pacific, Eurasian, and Australian tectonic plates. As these plates jostle against each other, they unleash enormous geophysical violence which results in powerful earthquakes and deadly tsunamis.

While the number and frequency of quakes is a serious concern, it should simply persuade travellers to take a more proactive approach to managing their risks. Among the volumes of warnings that foreign governments issue, comes some practical advice. The Americans, in reference to the Padang quake, urged their nationals to “inform family or friends directly of their welfare and whereabouts”.

What’s happening where you are?

One way to proactively manage such risks is to use Journeywatch’s new social networking feature ( Simply signup for free and you are able to post updates on your trip and plot your location on the world map. Friends and family can follow your updates and will know specifically where in the world you are. In the case of the Padang quake, consular officials from various embassies had set up temporary offices in order to assist their nationals. Should friends and family have concerns and contact your embassy, they will have a specific date and location to reference which can help put consular officials in contact with you should there be a genuine emergency.

Ultimately, earthquakes – like traffic accidents, food poisoning, and even the outbreak of rabies on Bali – are the unlikely but real dangers of travelling. Using common sense and proactively managing the risks is the best way to ensure your travels are safe. Taking terrorism as an example, while it is not possible to predict the location and time of a future attack, by looking at past trends the traveller can make an educated judgment about places that are vulnerable and then avoid such places.

If you still worry about the volume of travel warnings issued by foreign governments, the following anecdote from a recent meeting with the chargé d’affaires of a Western embassy might put things in perspective.

Amongst the usual talk of local politics, I brought up the topic of fearsome travel warnings and the chargé d’affaires smiled sheepishly and explained that they are obligated to provide a comprehensive summary of any risk their nationals might encounter. Then, with a cheeky smile, he cautioned me to be careful respiratory problems due to pollution levels and warned against getting a temporary henna tattoo, which are popular with tourists, as it might cause a rash.

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