I traveled to Bali excited during a pandemic – it was empty
Bali without tourists: once an unfathomable concept, now the harsh reality of the pandemic for an island rooted in hospitality.
This familiar smell of tango incense with humidity greeted me as I entered Bali international airport. Momentarily, the unprecedented cloud of community grief over COVID-19 vanished, and it all felt – dare I say it? – normal, recalling my six previous visits. But a masked immigration official questioning me about the purpose of my arrival brought me back to reality.
It was late December 2020. After carefully assessing the risks with my husband, family members and even my GP, I decided to temporarily move to the Indonesian Island of the Gods on a business visa to become travel journalist. I ironically boarded my first flight in nine months, PCR negative and a copy of my travel insurance in hand. I spent points on a Qatar Airways business class ticket to maximize social distancing protocols for the 23 hour trip.
As expected, of course, this visit would be far from typical – my carry-on was cluttered not with excess sunscreen but with mini disinfectants. My travel itinerary consisted of a two-week self-imposed quarantine instead of the usual perennial, packed adventure.
What I would never have predicted, however, is that my flight, while fairly empty, would be one of the last possible options for foreign tourists to enter Indonesia. Due to the increase in COVID cases in the country, the country stopped issuing new foreign visas just two days after my arrival. Even my husband, who was planning to join me at the start of the New Year, was suddenly refused entry. Bali, notoriously on the world stage as the most popular island destination with 16.11 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2019, numbered more than 7,000 foreigners. And, according to the timing, I was one of them.
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From overtourism to non-tourism
To say that Bali is popular is an understatement. In fact, some would say more thantourism is the island’s biggest obstacle.
Ironically, Fodor himself has considered Bali as one of the tourist destinations to reconsider for 2020. The No Fodor 2020 List, published at the end of 2019 – just months before the word ‘pandemic’ became part of our common vocabulary – cites Bali’s waste management issues, water scarcity and misappropriation of culture by tourists as convincing arguments to explain why do not to visit. Bali’s Achilles heel is its global magnetism, and at the start of 2020, tourism accounted for nearly 80% of Bali’s GDP, directly and indirectly.
Bali without tourists: an unfathomable concept 15 months ago was now the harsh reality of an island steeped in hospitality.
And then the pandemic struck. In response to global health uncertainty, Indonesia initially closed its borders in March 2020, leading to a dramatic drop in tourist arrivals – 1.05 million in total in 2020 – and the paralysis of an economy based on the hotel industry. Bali without tourists: an unfathomable concept 15 months ago was now the harsh reality of an island steeped in hospitality.
A tale of two Balis
Two weeks into my stay, as I cautiously began exploring outside of my quarantine quarters in a suite at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, and I was appalled.
I had seriously underestimated the terrible daily consequences of a lack of tourism for the inhabitants of the island. Two years ago, I ventured to Bali’s Niagara Munduk Waterfall, a 15-meter show of nature’s omnipotence, only to find it was already buzzing with crowds, Instagram influencers, and a cacophony of tongues. foreigners.
And we are here today. The roads are not filled with motorcyclists mingling with the traffic. Notorious wait times at Lempuyang Temple, aka The Gates of Heaven, the former prayer site that became a commercialized Instagram phenomenon, have decreased compared to hours before the pandemic a few minutes away. That solid and reserved massage parlor that couldn’t rush me for a date in 2019? Embedded. Local entrepreneurs who previously relied on tourism had to adapt quickly and creatively.
Before COVID, I remember momentarily forgetting that I wasn’t in North America as I strolled through once vibrant Monkey Forest Street, Ubud’s central hub of international bars, restaurants, and clothing boutiques. Today, that same road lives up to its name, with cheeky primates almost apocalyptically reclaiming their urban jungle.
Welcome to the 70s in Bali
My Balinese guide and friend, Pande, summed it up perfectly: âIt’s like Bali when I was a kid. Like the 1970s. âPande had been employed as a self-employed driver for hotels before the pandemic. Like the vast majority of the inhabitants, its income disappeared once the international borders were closed. When I hired Pande, I was looking for both a bit of advice and a way to participate in a tourism industry that had been financially devastated. Unsurprisingly, the unique perspective and experience of a local guide proved invaluable.
Pande’s nostalgic commentary immediately transported me to his childhood, growing up with nine siblings and rice-farming parents in a Hindu family in central Ubud. He recounted wistfully rushing to the rice fields after class with his friends, practicing his gamelan (traditional Indonesian percussion instrument), and admire the glow of stars illuminating an island with rare light pollution.
While exploring Ubud, I asked Pande if the few bules (Indonesian for “western tourist”) reminded him of his childhood here. He laughed and told me it took until he was in high school to see a “white person” outside of the television. His answer surprised me. Were we talking about the same Ubud – portrayed, at least superficially on social media, as the cultural and spiritual hub of Bali welcoming yogis, healers and avocado toast aficionados from all over the world ?!
Many of Pande’s acquaintances who had previously worked in the hospitality business have now, out of necessity, returned to their rural birth villages to cultivate and harvest rice. Between this massive exodus of locals and the closure of international borders preventing yogis dressed in Lulu from roaming the cities, Ubud has moved throughout the pandemic.
Pande and I enjoy our daily walks in Ubud, past Balinese kids screaming and kicking around a ball in the middle of a once-busy intersection as pet chickens roam and sleepy street dogs at the Sun. One day, when a smile escapes his lips, I ask him, rather vaguely, if he is happy. âIt’s scary now,â he replies. âI don’t know when my job will come back. But I like to see my house as I remember it. I never thought I would see this again.
Bali is a haven of social distancing
Before heading to Bali, while in quarantine in my compact city apartment throughout Denmark’s second lockdown, I fantasized about congestion and motorbiking through the lush Balinese hills that tease the ocean view. Spectacular Indian below. Amid the general desolation of Bali throughout the pandemic, Canggu, Bali’s nomadic digital hub, has remained largely bustling. Whereas South Bali is where some western expats parted ways with Indonesian police for flagrant disregard of the mandatory mask ruleI hightailed it to the far side of the island as often as possible.
Even before COVID, I had heard that Bali’s unspoiled west coast, about three hours from the more populated south and accessible only by a few winding roads, was worth a visit. Visiting during an international lockdown, I spent three full days zigzagging solo through local villages and walking through misty rainforests before meeting another stranger.. You won’t find a high-rise hotel or a brand-name resort in Northwest Bali. Instead, properties like Sumberkima Hill respond naturally to social distancing, with modern villas nestled into the hillside.
Another part of Bali where nature reigns is the Sideman Valley, a largely non-touristy paradise an hour east of Ubud. Picture this: trekking through the region’s verdant valleys, meandering the bubbling Telaga Waja River on rafts and soaking in the deep pools adjacent to the vast rice fields Samanvaya Luxury Resort. As well as taking a break to absorb the power of Mount Agung, an active volcano that dominates the landscape, social distancing isn’t only easy here – it’s enjoyable too!
Even returning to congested south Bali, I found pockets of space. I treated myself to a sprawling villa at Uluwatu Surf Villas, where I had private front row access to the sunsets over Uluwatu’s famous 300 foot white stone cliffs, minus the crowds that are often synonymous with the nightly spectacle. .
Until next time, mama Bali
I stretch my legs and adjust my mask on my Qatar Airways seat, bound for Copenhagen. Somehow both anxious and liberated, a phone buzz brings me back to reality. My time in Bali during a global pandemic will likely never be recreated. For a brief moment, an island once synonymous with overtourism had a moment to breathe.
With its global magnetism, Bali’s gradual reopening plan is center stage. A unique aspect of Indonesia’s current reopening plan is to prioritize vaccinations for frontline tourism vessels, which will help establish Green zones “without COVID”Â»Which are fully operational. The eventual full reopening of Indonesia depends on the vaccination of the vast majority of its citizens.
But what will tourism look like in the future? Is this the rebirth of Bali? How will tourists interact with Bali? How will Bali interact with tourists?
My thoughts are interrupted by the cabin crew getting ready for takeoff. As our plane leaves, I watch the island’s coastline blend into the horizon until all I see is a concoction of blues fading into the abyss. Until next time, Mama Bali.