After two years, Bali is finally reopening to tourism
After a few false starts, quarantine-free travel to Bali is open again. reports Ian Neubauer.
On October 14, 2021, Bali International Airport officially reopened to media fanfare, paving the way for millions of tourists from New Zealand and other countries to return to one of the region’s favorite holiday destinations. “Foreign tourists are likely to flock to Bali in late October,” Indonesian newspaper Tempo wrote. “Bali will officially open to international tourism,” the Bali Sun said.
But with key markets Australia and China still banning outbound tourism and mandatory quarantine for arrivals to Indonesia still in place, the floodgates remained closed. “No one comes to Bali until they lift quarantine,” said Kadek Miharjaya, general manager of Mama San, an iconic restaurant in the once-bustling tourist area of Seminyak at the time.
He was right. For the rest of the year, every scheduled international flight to Bali was canceled or redirected to the capital Jakarta – the only port in the country with authorized quarantine hotels at the time. In December, it was reported that only 45 foreign tourists had landed at Bali’s international airport in 2021, down from 6.2 million in 2019, bringing to mind images of empty streets and deserted hotels on the so-called island of gods.
But nothing could have been further from the truth. Only the budget tourist areas of Kuta and Legian Beaches remained quiet, although this is a symptom of the decaying state of hotels and infrastructure in these areas. Ten kilometers north, in Canggu, Bali’s hipster, foodie and nightlife capital, restaurants, bars and beach clubs were beating on the backs of domestic tourism, with around 20,000 Indonesians visiting daily on the island during the holiday season. Their numbers have been bolstered by some 100,000 foreigners who either entered Indonesia through the back door on business visas or were here before the pandemic and never left. New Year parties were banned but people still danced until dawn, either in private villas or at beach parties on satellite islands like Gili Trawangan which were not subject to the ban .
By mid-January, the crowd was gone and the super-infectious Omicron arrived in Indonesia. To thwart its spread, Jakarta increased the quarantine to 10 days – the longest it has ever been in Indonesia. The neighboring island of Java, which briefly became the global epicenter of the virus when the Delta variant hit in July, braced for the impact, with epidemiologists predicting up to half a million new cases a day by the end of February. And although the positivity rate of those tested is still very high at 16% as of March 4, omicron bark turned out to be much worse than its bite. “Lady luck has dealt [Indonesia] a big hit of luck in that Omicron was found, anecdotally, to be much milder,” said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist at Rophi Clinic in Singapore.
In Bali, where 79% of the adult population is fully immunized compared to just 53% nationally, the test positivity rate is just 4% – safely below the 5% threshold for the World Health Organization for territories it defines as having the virus under control. It gave policymakers in Jakarta the ammunition to reopen Bali once and for all.
Therefore, this week the government dropped the mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated passengers arriving in Bali. Importantly, the free visa on arrival program will be reinstated for visitors from eligible countries, including New Zealand.
There will still be additional costs and inconveniences. Travelers must show hotel reservations that have been paid for at least four days in advance and wait in their hotel room until their PCR test results come back, which can take up to 24 time. Those who test negative will have to stay in their hotel room until they test negative. Those who test immediately negative can head straight to the beach, order a cocktail or a Bintang and bask in the glow of Bali’s famous blood-red sunsets.
But what will vacationing on the island look like during the new normal? Will tourists always have the freedom to do whatever they want in Bali, even in cases where that freedom equates to bad behavior?
The short answer is yes.
Masks should always be worn at the airport, in taxis, banks, supermarkets, temples, government offices, in public areas of luxury hotels and on public roads. But in restaurants, cafes, beach clubs, discos, etc. – the kind of places where tourists spend most of their time – one only needs a mask to enter and one can choose whether or not to wear one once inside. “It’s not that the Balinese don’t care,” Miharjaya tells Mama San. “We are all double vaccinated and we always wear masks at work. But people here have been waiting so long for tourism to return. They are much more concerned with paying their bills.
However, industry sources predict that Bali and other tourism hotspots will have to wait longer, until 2024, for global tourism to return to 2019 levels. China, the region’s largest source of tourists before the pandemic, still prohibits its residents from traveling abroad for leisure as part of the country’s zero-tolerance coronavirus strategy.
But the tide is changing. Since Feb. 3, when a Garuda flight from Tokyo became the first international flight to land in Bali in two years, around 2,000 tourists have flown to the island. On March 4, a Garuda flight from Sydney became the first direct flight from Australia to land at Bali airport in two years. It’s the same step visitors to New Zealand will likely take now that the government has finally opened borders and lifted isolation requirements for its citizens.
“The number of tourists is nothing compared to 2019, when 6 million foreign tourists visited the island,” says Ahmad Syahfitrah, director of operations of the famous Potato Head Beach Club. “But when international travel fully recovers in a few years, we’re pretty sure we’re going to see double that number because everyone is missing in Bali.”
– Asia Media Center