Paradise Bali reopened for tourists to return

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From his home high atop the cliffs overlooking Bali’s resort district of Jimbaran, German expat Pak Kriss has a perfect, unobstructed view of the island’s international airport.

Composed of a single runway stretching out into the ocean, Mr Kriss notes that at its pre-pandemic peak, it handled some 700 flights a day, ushering more than 6.3 million international tourists a year to the Indonesian island.

“Then, one day… nothing,” he says with a sweep of his hands. He expected it to last a few weeks, but it went on for two years.

In 2020 the island received just one million foreign visitors, almost all before Bali and the rest of the world went into lockdown in March of that year. Then in 2021 the island reportedly saw just 45 overseas tourists. Yes, just 45 people.

Back in February, Mr Kriss watched anxiously as the first international passenger fight for 24 months arrived from Singapore.

The expat, who runs a digital marketing and web design business catering to the local tourism industry, even recorded the event on his mobile phone. Like many in Bali, he was optimistic, especially after the island ditched quarantine rules for overseas arrivals in March.

But as the computer screens in his home office call up the latest visitor numbers, he says there’s little cause for celebration.

In May, Bali saw 237,710 international arrivals, up from 114,684 a month earlier, but half the number in the same month in 2019. And Indonesia’s tourism minister has set the modest aim of Bali welcoming 1.5 million overseas tourists for 2022 as a whole.

“I think it will be 10 years before Bali is back to pre-coronavirus numbers,” says Mr Kriss.

He believes that foreign travellers are reluctant to visit more remote destinations like Bali due to a perfect storm of the war in Ukraine, high inflation around the world, and lingering concerns about Covid-19.

With tourism accounting for more than 60% of the island’s economy, driving through the once-bustling tourist centres of Kuta, Seminyak and Nusa Dua, Covid’s impact is immediately visible.

Dozens of tourism businesses, from shops, to bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and villas sit empty or abandoned, with some even reclaimed by the island’s pervasive and all-consuming jungle vegetation. And the streets once crowded with Australian, Asian and European tourists are now still eerily quiet.

Made Suryani reopened her small souvenir store close to the Club Med Beach resort near Nusa Dua in April, even though most of the other retail units beside her remain shuttered.

“Before Covid, in a good month, I could earn more than two million rupiah ($140; £116) a month,” she says. That was slightly below the minimum wage for employees in Bali.

“Now sometimes I make 50,000 rupiah in a week. I borrowed money from family to survive, and I don’t know how I’m going pay it back,” she says.

At Nusa Dua’s shopping and restaurant mall Bali Collection the area that previously held some of the island’s top restaurants is now fenced off and deserted. Of the remaining units, about 80% remain unoccupied.

“Most of these businesses are gone for good,” says Kiran Vijay, who runs a crafts and jewellery store at the development.

He says that the site’s management have been very helpful, allowing tenants to be remain rent-free for most of the past two years.

Yet Mr Vijay adds that tourist footfall is down from as many as 5,000 people a day before the pandemic to just a few hundred today. “They’re going to have to lower rents significantly to attract new tenants,” he adds.

Yet there are some bright spots. Bali’s 110,000-strong expat community, which includes lots of digital nomads, yogis and surfers, has kept areas like Canggu, Ubud and Uluwatu thriving, with villa rental prices now nearly back to pre-Covid levels.

And bookings at Bali’s five-star resorts are also surprisingly robust, with high-end hotels seeing a large spike in demand. However, the vast majority of these visitors are domestic travellers from other parts of Indonesia, primarily the capital Jakarta and Surabaya, the second-largest city.

Prior to Covid-19, many of these would have considered Bali too expensive. But with foreigners temporarily out of the picture, they’re now able to get discounted rates, and special perks like free helicopter rides exclusively available on Indonesian travel booking sites.

Many of the hotel staff are however still working on reduced salaries, some down to as little as 10% of pre-pandemic rates. But for them and the resorts, some income is better than none.

Meanwhile, many hotel employees and other hospitality workers who were laid off at the start of the lockdowns went back to their home villages to work on the family farm plots. So while some commentators thought that Bali would descend into chaos during the pandemic, life carried on, helped by the island’s strong family ties and Hindu culture.

Businesses, meanwhile, were able to temporarily suspend operations without fear of bank foreclosure, as most properties in Bali are purchased outright in cash.

Julia Lo Bue-Said is chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, an organisation that represents the UK’s independent travel agents. She says that while long-haul travel from the UK to destinations such as Bali has been “slower to rebound” compared to holidays within Europe, “the appetite is there and growing”.

Beautiful woman nude sitting from the back on beach

“Long haul will see a significant growth in the next 12-18 months, as despite the cost of living crisis, people are still eager to explore, travel and have something to look forward to, banking life long memories.”

Mr Kriss is certain that – given time – Bali will return again to its former glory. He says there is simply too much on offer in terms of natural beauty, and the friendly, open and tolerate nature of the Balinese people.

“Bali will come back strong as ever,” he says. “I have no doubt about that. It may take years, but Balinese people are patient, and optimism is part of the fabric of their society – they believe in karma.” -BBC Special Report