Indonesia is finally back on the holiday map. Carolynne Dear finds out how its tourist-reliant islands survived the pandemic
Stretching out in Bali.
Indonesia has recently surfaced back in the ‘real’ world, finally dropping quarantine requirements and the majority of its travel regulations earlier this spring.
Like most countries in the region, it battened down the hatches early on in the pandemic and has struggled ever since with a stop-start return to normality.
Three years ago it was impossible to imagine tourist meccas such as Bali without any holidaymakers. In 2019 alone, the island welcomed around six million visitors. A year later, tumbleweed was blowing through the once-bustling markets, beaches, bars and restaurants. Inconceivably, even the airport had closed.
In April 2020 Indonesia stopped issuing tourist visas and Bali’s airport - its vital link with the outside world - was forced to shut. Unemployment shot up to around 40% as restaurants and shops shuttered.
Locked away in my own Asian home of Hong Kong, it was difficult to visualise what was happening on the island of the gods, a destination I’d visited so many times over the previous decade. It was almost impossible to picture Kuta without the crowds and Seminyak with empty beaches. Beach clubs gathering dust and shuttered businesses. There were reports of people going hungry, of food banks and of restaurants feeding hundreds of locals. It was understood anecdotally that Bali’s expat population was helping to prop things up as it continued to buy goods and services and keep the economy creaking along.
Press releases filled my inbox of restaurant owners and hotel general managers doing their bit, not only in Bali, but all over Indonesia, to help the local population. Potato Head founder Ronald Akili created Wasted Wheels, a programme which turned two plots of hotel and restaurant land into syntropic farms (integrating food production and ecosystem regeneration).
“Food is the greatest need for the foreseeable future in Bali,” Akili said at the time. “Accessing food in Indonesia isn’t as easy as it sounds with little to no income. The beauty of Bali, however, is that the island’s connection with the land and its agricultural roots are still strong. As someone who has access to land, I feel obliged to help.”
Over on East Nusa Tengarra, luxury resort Nihi Sumba had started distributing food parcels, masks, medical supplies, soap and personal protective equipment through the Sumba Foundation. Nihi Sumba and the foundation set-up a crisis fund of US$200,000, a sum that was matched by resort owner Chris Burch, to provide testing, food aid and medical services.
Fun times are back at Wakatobi.
Wakatobi dive resort in southeastern Sulawesi offered local staff rotating part-time employment when it was forced to close in March 2020. Guides were given advances so they could provide for their families and be there for guests when the resort finally reopened.
Although initial Covid figures were low in Indonesia (by May 2020 it had recorded just a handful of deaths) it was a false spring and by January 2021 there were approximately 10,000 new cases a day. A vaccination campaign began but by the following summer delta had pushed cases to 60,000 a day.
By autumn 2021, infections had dipped and in October Bali’s airport reopened and quarantine was reduced from seven to three days. However, omicron put paid to any hopes of a reopening and quarantine shot back up to ten days.
Hopes had been raised and dashed, but by the spring of 2022 it became obvious that it was now a case of when and not if things would get back to normal.
For the hospitality industry, it has been an incredibly difficult and often frustrating period.
“The lowest point of the pandemic was actually in 2021,” admits Deasy Swandarini, general manager of Tanah Gajah, a Resort by Hadiprana, located near Ubud. “At the beginning of the pandemic, the Indonesian government predicted that Bali airport would be opened for international flights by the end of 2020. But due to the increase in cases it was postponed until early 2021. It kept on being postponed until February this year when Bali finally started to welcome some international flights. The uncertainty meant we had to develop multiple plans for different scenarios as government regulations were so dynamic, even for domestic travel.”
The impact of the pandemic has been huge. Swandarini estimates that 90% of local businesses in Ubud, including shops, restaurants and holiday properties, haven’t survived. “A lot of locals have changed their profession to home catering services, food delivery and selling produce in the market or to customers through social media.”
Many new hotel and resort properties scheduled to launch often did so, only to shutter soon after. The much-anticipated Raffles Bali soft-opened in the summer of 2020, just as the uncertainty began to hit home. Buahan, A Banyan Tree Escape in Ubud was slated to open in September 2021, a date which was pushed back until June this year. Jumeirah Bali successfully launched this spring just as restrictions eased - hopefully - for the last time.
Moving back to normality at Jumeirah Bali.
“What hasn’t changed in the last two years is Bali’s warm hospitality and its natural beauty,” says Jumeirah Bali general manager Ram Hiralal. “As tourists start to return, they will find that the island’s beaches, natural attractions and points of interest are as captivating as ever. Strong bookings over Eid holiday showed that Bali has retained its appeal and we’re very optimistic in terms of summer occupancy now that entry regulations have eased.”
“We’re very positive for summer and the next two years,” said Karen Stearns, Wakatobi’s media and marketing director. “We’ve received a great response following our reopening announcement (the resort reopened in June) and we’ve already received many bookings for next year.”
The future's looking bright indeed now that many airlines are back serving the island. Garuda Indonesia, Singapore Airlines, Jetstar Asia Airways - SG, Jetstar Asia Airways - AU, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Scoot Tigerair, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, AirAsia, Turkish Airlines and Emirates are all offering daily or multiple services each week.
Family bookings in particular are showing a strong pick-up, according to Hiralal. “Most guests are booking between one and seven nights. That said, longer stays of up to two weeks are also trending, with travellers making up for time lost to the pandemic.”
Swandarini agrees. “Summer bookings are looking very strong… The fact that Indonesia has been selected to host G20 will certainly help the tourism industry in Bali.”
And with entrance requirements now whittled down to merely producing a passport, what are we waiting for?
Read more about Bali
The Island of the Gods has welcomed a raft of exciting new resorts over the last year.