Reopening Bali

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Byron Black

IO – Early last year, when news first arrived that a pandemic was spreading across the globe, most of Bali’s inhabitants could barely imagine the consequences. More than half of their economy depended directly on tourism. Tourism-related services accounted for another quarter.

Once it became clear that Covid-19 was deadly and borders started to close, tourist-dependent economies like Bali came to a crashing halt. In the year prior, sixteen million tourists, out of which six million came from abroad, visited Bali. Suddenly, with borders closing in March and a complete ban in May forbidding even domestic tourists from traveling to the island, Bali tourist `hotspots’ such as Seminyak, Legian and Kuta virtually became ghost towns.

Since then, even with domestic tourists allowed to visit Bali since the end of last July, scores of hotels have closed their doors indefinitely. The average occupancy rate for hotels are below ten percent, which means all hotels that have remained open continue to bleed cash. With massive layoffs, cuts in pay and working hours throughout the tourism sector, scores of Balinese have returned to their villages, mostly in northern Bali, to practice a more traditional lifestyle, mostly relying on fishing and farming. For those left behind earning a fraction of their former salaries and on rotation every week or two, there is barely enough money to survive.

Indonesia’s new tourism minster, Sandiaga Uno, has recently opened an office in Bali since coming into office last December, and in the space of a few months he has kickstarted the process of getting Bali back on track. A former businessman, Uno has been working with Bali Governor Wayan Koster, Health Minister Budi Sadikin, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani and Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan to find the safest path for reopening Bali to international tourists.

Observing a decline in Covid-19 cases on the island after enacting stricter health protocols, there is a renewed push to reopen. The first challenge–to inoculate tourism industry workers and health workers in Bali–is a top priority for the national government, and recently started in earnest. Over 13,000 medical workers and 10,000 people in tourism-related industries have already been inoculated, and assuming the vaccination rollout is kept on track, potential visitors should gain sufficient confidence to visit Bali once the borders are opened.

In the meantime, the national government is preparing new regulations for ensuring that only travelers with vaccine certificates and proof of a recent antigen test will be allowed to enter the country. Such a ‘vaccine corridor’ is the most prudent measure to avoid tourists from infecting each other and getting sick.

Yet even with a reopening, we should not expect tourism to bounce back quickly. Economies everywhere have been hit hard by the pandemic, and with most households’ incomes and savings at their lowest in many years, there will be far less people willing to travel than before. When the pandemic subsides, it could still take several years before the travel industry fully recovers.

With such a sobering prognosis, the future state of Bali, at least in the near term, will look very different from its past. The Balinese will have to resign themselves to new realities. Reopening borders will alleviate some of the economic pain the Balinese have endured over the past year, but not all of it.