Balinese Hindu preforms dance during purifying ceremony called Melasti amid COVID-19 pandemic on the beach in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on March 11 2021. The ceremony is aims to clean souls before entering Balinese Day of Silence, marks the new year in Balinese Hindu calendar which falls on March 14. The ceremony usually attended by thousands of devotees, but during the COVID-19 pandemic only few people allowed to join the procession. (Photo by Johanes Christo/NurPhoto) (Photo by Johanes Christo / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

JAKARTA – Bali isn’t expected to lure back pandemic-wary foreign tourists in the numbers needed to restart Indonesia’s hardest-hit regional economy until the end of this year or even well into 2022.

Australia, which along with China combined for 2.4 million of the 6.3 million tourists who arrived by air in 2019, is likely to prioritize travel bubbles with countries like New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan before it considers Bali as a safe destination.

“All of these places will be well ahead of Bali,” says one Australian official. “But I also think there is an awareness that not opening to Bali until there is sufficient justification could become a source of tension (between the two countries).”

Tourism-reliant Bali and the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain have taken the biggest economic hit from Covid-19, collectively falling by -5% in 2020 compared to the national figure of -2.07%.

Despite an effort to crank up domestic tourism, the impact on Bali itself is believed to have been even greater, far worse than in the aftermath of the 2002 terrorist bombings. Wholesale job losses have driven many Balinese to return to the land to eke out a living.

To date, Bali has had more than 36,448 Covid infections, placing it seventh among the archipelago’s 34 provinces. But the official death toll of 576 in a population of 4.3 million leaves it in 13th place, still relatively low because of the open environment.

A Balinese temple priest receives a dose of Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine during a mass inoculation program in Ubud, Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia, on March 16 2021. Photo: Johanes Christo/NurPhoto/NurPhoto via AFP

Another 646 have died on the other Nusa Tenggara islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Sumba, Flores and West Timor, which over recent years have increasingly benefitted  from the overflow of tourists from Bali.

With vaccinations now under way for Bali’s front-line health and transport workers, the daily transmission rate has fallen from a spike of 400 a day during the year-end holiday period to the current level of 150. But it will have to get a lot lower than that to convince global travelers to return.

“There is still uncertainty (about when foreign tourists will return),” says one Balinese journalist, who recently lost his younger brother to Covid. “The only hope is the vaccination program. Everything is up in the air. There is still no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Like neighboring New Zealand, Australia’s policy of eradication rather than containment will weigh heavily on the federal government’s border-opening process as the rollout of vaccines steers it towards safer ground.

Even in Indonesia, Health Minister Budi Sadikin and Tourism Minister Sandiago Uno appear to be at loggerheads over when to open Bali’s doors, with Sadikin saying it may not be possible until next year and Uno discussing the creation of at least two tourist-friendly “green zones.”

Only this week, Uno was forced to call for a coordinating meeting to “equalize perceptions” before a March 27 meeting the former vice-presidential candidate has planned with 15 ambassadors to discuss the viability of a re-opening plan.

With Australians and Chinese currently staying away, the first tourists to return to Bali may well come from countries such as the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe, which have accepted a higher degree of risk in dealing with the pandemic. 

A few tourist sit on an almost deserted beach in Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia, on March 28 2020. Photo: AFP/Johanes Christo/NurPhoto

Only 1.05 million foreign tourists visited Bali last year, most of them arriving before March 31 when the island was closed for international travel. Work or resident visa holders are exempt from the restrictions, but they must undergo five nights of quarantine in designated hotels. 

It may not be good news for Bali either with Australia’s Labour Party’s landslide victory in elections on March 14, where it won 50 of the 56 seats in the state parliament, mostly on the back of Premier Mark McGowan’s tough handling of the pandemic.

West Australians make up about 70% of Bali’s Australian tourist numbers, a traditional sun-and-surf pilgrimage that dates back to the early 1970s when they led the transformation of the sleepy island into a world-class holiday playground. 

Although there is now free inter-state travel, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal Party administration will have to listen to the opinion of the West Australian government in particular before it begins the process of loosening international travel restrictions.

That’s because West Australia is a key factor in the national economy. Only days before the state elections, global credit rating agency S&P named the state the strongest  economy in the world in the past year, thanks to a mining boom and soaring iron ore prices.

While China’s ban on West Australian thermal coal, wheat and wine imports had an initial impact, evidence appears to show new markets have quickly opened to take up the slack.

A vendor wearing a face shield makes religious offerings at a traditional market in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, June 7, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

“There will be zero push from here for a border opening,” says one retired diplomat in Perth, pointing to a five-day lockdown ordered last month after the first and only community case was detected in 10 months. “If anything, they will be against it.”

Even in the unlikely event that restrictions are lifted, it is doubtful that Australians will consider Bali for a holiday as long as they have to start it with quarantine in a hotel room and spend another fortnight in isolation when they return home.

That would seem to rule out any early implementation of Uno’s planned green zones in southern Nusa Dua, the enclave housing most of the island’s five-star hotels, and around Ubud, a forested cultural center which would be difficult to cordon off.

Reached by an over-the-water expressway from the island’s Ngurah Rai airport, Nusa Dua will play host to next year’s 24th G20 summit, an event that is expected to attract more than 13,000 delegates and re-launch Bali as a safe travel destination.

Uno, who moved his office and staff to Bali last January to work on solutions to the tourism dilemma, has said the government has been encouraged by improved compliance with health protocols among the Balinese since the December spike in cases.

But while that may be true around Denpasar, the provincial capital, and in the southern parts of the island, local residents say compliance is not the same in Ubud where many people don’t wear masks except on the roads where there is a police presence. 

While all air passengers must have undergone a rapid Covid antigen test before they arrive in Bali, the same rigid restriction does not apply to those arriving by ferry from East Java. One recent traveler says he paid 50,000 rupiah (US$3.47) to get past a checkpoint at the Bali port of Gilimanuk.

Balinese Hindus carry sacred ornaments during a purifying ceremony called Melasti amid the pandemic on the beach in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on March 11, 2021. Photo: Johanes Christo/NurPhoto via AFP

East Java, which has had 134,500 infections and 8,596 deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic, is also home for many of the people who worked in Bali’s tourist industry. They are expected to return once business starts to pick up.

According to local sources, many of Bali’s now-empty hotels have not formally laid off their workers because of the huge pay-outs they can’t afford to make under the country’s onerous labor laws on terminations.

Uno does have good news, however, recently telling reporters that he hoped over half of Bali’s population will be vaccinated by July. “Bali is still the central government’s top priority in vaccine distribution,” he said. Infections, however, are the numbers that will really determine how long Bali’s Covid-19 misery continues.