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AIRLINES in Singapore were forced to ground flights to Bali on Monday as the erupting Mount Agung prompted the Indonesian authorities to shut the island's Ngurah Rai International Airport, with this coming just as the travel season approaches its peak.
A total of 18 flights were cancelled at Changi Airport on Monday; more could be on the cards if the closure of Bali's airport is extended beyond 7 am on Tuesday. The airport closure has already led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights by various airlines.
Thousands of tourists are stranded in Bali as scores of departing flights were cancelled, reports out of Indonesia said. Lombok International Airport on the nearby Lombok island was initially closed, but later re-opened.
Singapore Airlines (SIA), SilkAir, Garuda and budget carriers Scoot, Jetstar Asia and AirAsia were among the carriers which cancelled flights to and from Bali on Monday, with passengers generally being offered the options of postponing their travel, a refund or a rebooking to a new destination. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has advised Singaporeans to defer non-essential travel to the affected parts of Bali. In an updated travel advisory, it said: "Ngurah Rai International is closed for 24 hours with effect from Nov 27. There could be further disruptions to air travel and more airport closures."
SIA, which has cancelled flights to and from Bali on Monday and Tuesday, is offering passengers with tickets to Bali between Nov 27 and Dec 4 the option to rebook, re-route to elsewhere in South-east Asia or to request a refund.
Its budget arm Scoot has suspended ticket sales for its Bali services from Nov 27 to Dec 4.
An SIA spokesman said: "At this moment, our focus is on assisting customers who have been affected by the flight disruptions. In Bali, affected customers not residing in Bali, but who have already commenced their travel will be accommodated at hotels.
"In Singapore, affected customers who are non-residents have been accommodated in hotels or rerouted to other South-east Asian points in the SIA network."
The Jetstar Group, which cancelled all services to Bali out of both Singapore and Australia, warned of further disruptions this week if weather conditions are adverse. Besides postponing travel or receiving a credit voucher, passengers booked to fly to Bali from Singapore from now till Wednesday can instead fly to selected destinations in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Jetstar Group chief executive Gareth Evans said: "Volcanic activity is volatile and our senior pilots assess whether it is safe to fly on a day-to-day basis, with the latest forecast from Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre. When it is safe to fly, we will add additional flights to get our customers moving."
The Bali Tourism Board tried to ease concerns in a statement, pointing out that tourist hotspots in South Bali such as Kuta and Seminyak are some 60 to 70 km from the volcano and far away from the "danger zone", essentially a radius of 10 km from the crater.
Nonetheless, it is advising tourists to remain in their hotels.
Meanwhile, hotels such as the Banyan Tree Ungasan are allowing travellers to push back their travel dates.
Its spokesman said: "In view of the recent volcanic activity on Mount Agung, Banyan Tree Ungasan has stepped up its protective measures as safety and security are the top priority for our guests." The hotel is also giving its guests the flexibility of postponing their stay for a few months. Those affected by the airport closure are extending their stay at the property.
But with so much uncertainty in the air, travellers might be less inclined to visit the Island of the Gods during the year-end holidays.
Alicia Seah, director of communications for Dynasty Travel, told The Business Times: "Since September, enquiries and bookings to Bali have dropped by more than half for both leisure and corporate incentive trips."
Mount Agung, which last erupted in 1963, has been showing increased seismic activity in the last two months.
About a third of Dynasty Travel's customers due to head to Bali this month are either postponing their travel or changing their destinations to places such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Those travelling to Bali from mid- to end-December, however, are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
"We are monitoring the situation," Ms Seah said, adding that those planning to proceed with travel to Bali should consider buying comprehensive travel insurance.