Millions of tourists fly to Bali each year to enjoy the pristine beaches, admire the terraced fields and visit the Hindu temples. The island is usually full of visitors seeking the perfect holiday experience.
However, Indonesia’s tourism hotspot has fallen eerily quiet since March, with as yet, little sign of improving. COVID-19 restrictions are ravaging the tourism sector in Bali and its surrounding islands, leaving staggering unemployment the outcome for many Balinese. Locals are struggling to make ends meet and are desperately looking forward to a time when tourists will come back and help restore their collapsing economy.
In Bali, the tourism sector represents 80% of the Economy and 60% of Bali gross regional product. Taxi drivers, diving teachers, hotels and restaurants employees, souvenir shops keepers, tour guides, ferry companies, all depend on tourism. In Bali maybe more than anywhere else, tourism is essential to the locals. Unfortunately, this idyllic island, like the rest of the world, is now facing a crisis without a foreseeable end: COVID-19.
The pandemic has caused an 85% drop in the number of tourists visiting Bali this year. This has had a knock-on effect on unemployment in tourism sectors, with around 75,000 workers losing their jobs in Badung (Denpasar) regency alone. The few “lucky” that kept their jobs have had to settle for pay cuts, up to 75%. An attempt to pivot towards domestic tourism has offered hardly any respite. An occupancy rate above 40 percent is said to be the minimum threshold for hotels to turn a profit, but the rate has only hovered between 5 and 9 percent since Bali opened to domestic travelers in late July.
The crisis has also caused challenges in other sectors such as agriculture which used to supply restaurants, hotels and other touristic amenities. Facing the pandemic, the locals are looking for new ways to make a living. Many are reinventing themselves. Some started seaweed farming at the very location they used to give diving lessons. Others improvised street vendors, selling incense sticks, eggs or masks from the back of their cars. A taxi driver is now working odd-jobs in construction, hoping to for his old job to become viable again so that he can earn enough money to eventually send his son to university one day. For now, the temporary work he can find is only providing enough for the most basic of daily needs.
We already facing this situation for more than a year, now we think it is the time to get up and re open the tourism again in Bali. President Joko Widodo indicated that Bali tourism could be re-opened in July 2021 if the Covid-19 pandemic conditions were getting better. President conveyed this in a limited discussion with Bali tourism industry stakeholders, who were participating in the Covid-19 mass vaccination program at the Harris Sunset Road hotel, Kuta on Tuesday afternoon (16/3/2021). During the discussion, the President gave a signal that if the Covid-19 cases were under control, health protocols were strengthened and testing and vaccinations boosted, tourism could reopen around June-July 2021.
“As long as everyone supports it and they remain careful, in July we will be open again,” said Jokowi quoted from the video release, Tuesday. This was also emphasized by the Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy, Sandiaga Uno. Sandiaga told press that he hoped that Bali tourism can reopen in June or July 2021. “Of course, if the Covid-19 rate is under control,” Sandiaga said. Sandiaga also told the press that he is continuing to push for a five year tourist visa for digital nomads, who have become a greater tourist market around the world in the past year.
During the pandemic, work habits have changed around the world, with thousands now being able to work from anywhere they like and only needing good communication infrastructure. And Bali, according to Sandiaga, has exactly that; excellent internet facilities and services, plus an enormous worldwide popularity. He hoped that working foreign tourists will make Bali their second home, but of course, paying attention to the legality of the residence permit. Sandiaga said that he is still currently formulating a long-term visa plan with the Directorate General of Immigration, Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
“Long term visas are the main concern for more people in the digital nomadic world to consider making Bali their second home,” said Sandiaga. Sandiaga imagines that these long-term foreign tourists can work while living in the island’s beautiful natural scenery and receiving the best services that Bali offers. “Working in Bali and not far from the beach, is a great attraction for foreign tourists,” he said. “And they are supported by a very friendly culture and society.”
The ‘work from home’ trend during the Covid-19 pandemic has ramped up the changes in this market dramatically and Bali sits well to take advantage of it, as other countries such as Croatia have done recently by creating a special visa for these long-term working tourists. It could be said, the race for the digital nomad market is now on for struggling tourist-dependent countries around the world.
This latest timeline is a lot sooner than what Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said last week, who set Bali’s reopening to April 2022. Officials have been spouting different terms in the last few weeks, from “green zones,” to “COVID-19 safe travel” and “Free COVID Corridor,” all of which appear to be part of the same grand strategy to revive Bali’s tourism-dependent economy.
The proposed “travel corridor arrangement,” will be offered to countries that are able to contain the spread of the coronavirus, have high vaccination rates, and could offer reciprocal benefits, Sandiaga said in a statement. Countries that are currently being considered include the Netherlands, China, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Singapore. “But the finalization will depend on each [partner] country’s travel corridor arrangement,” he said.Several things must be achieved before the program starts, the minister said, such as low COVID-19 numbers, increased compliance to health protocols, stronger testing, tracing and treatment, and the vaccination of at least 2 million people in Bali by July.
Sandiaga also said that the steps taken to finalize their preparations for the program will be evaluated every two weeks and followed-up with trial-runs in the designated green zones: Ubud, Nusa Dua, and Sanur. Earlier this month, public health experts stressed that Bali must improve its handling of the public health crisis, with one of them noting that the situation is “not under control.” Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist from Griffith University Australia, detailed a number of steps that officials must take before considering reopening, including creating a system prepared to handle health crises that may arise among travellers.
Hand in hand with the national government, Bali administration has prepared a three-phase plan for relaxing restrictions to welcome back tourists to the island. The first phase started on July 9 when the administration began reopening local businesses and tourist spots for residents of Bali. The second phase will be carried out on Friday by reopening for domestic tourists. The third phase, which is reopening the border for international tourists, is set to start on Sept. 11. Deputy Bali Governor Tjokorda Oka Artha said the island would only reopen its natural and cultural tourist destinations for visitors, not entertainment establishments such as nightclubs and karaoke lounges. “Nightclubs are not allowed [to reopen] yet. Bali offers a lot [of other tourist destinations] like natural or cultural [sites],” Tjokorda said on Tuesday