JAKARTA – Travelling around sun-drenched southern Bali in these otherwise dark pandemic days, there are so many scantily-clad foreign motorcyclists careening in and out of traffic it is difficult to believe the holiday island has been closed to foreign tourism for the past 16 months.
In fact, according to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, more than 109,800 foreigners from 133 countries are still living in Bali, including 2,246 permanent residents, 29,070 holding temporary stay permits and a whopping 78,485 on visitor visas.
Russia leads the nationality list, followed by the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Ukraine the Netherlands and Canada — far different from a normal tourism year when Australia and China contribute to a significant majority of Bali’s six million annual foreign tourists.
Some of Bali’s attraction lies in the fact that the island hasn’t been hit as hard by the pandemic as neighboring Java. Even though new infections have risen over the past month from 100 to as much as 500 a day, the number of daily deaths remains in single figures, according to official data.
That may be partly because the island has the highest rate of Covid-19 vaccinations in Indonesia – a deliberate government strategy aimed at trying to include Bali in international travel bubbles. About 70% of a targeted three million people have already received at least one jab.
The latest surge, however, has prompted the local government to close beaches and restaurants, and do its best to reduce mobility, measures that have produced only mixed results on an island where the motorcycle is king.
Daily religious ceremonies are ongoing, though supposedly confined to 50 people, and persuading tourists to wear masks and maintain other health protocols is proving difficult to enforce, with the 12,000 stay-behind Australians losing their bad behavior reputation to the Russians.
More than 111,000 Russians visited Bali in 2019 looking for relief from their harsh winter. While it is not clear how many remain, police are finding they are the most troublesome to control on a range of levels.
Over half of the 157 foreigners who ran afoul of the law last year held Russian citizenship, according to police data. Among the 59 to be deported were two yoga instructors, who had held a mass yoga session in the hill resort town of Ubud.
That trend has continued this year. Authorities took a dim view of a young Russian so-called “influencer” after he posted a video on his website showing him jumping off a pier on a motorcycle, a bikini-clad girl clinging on behind him.
Another Russian influencer, Leia Se, was deported in May after posting video footage of herself wearing a painted surgical mask to dupe store guards after she and a friend were earlier refused entry because Se was unmasked.
Among others to be given their marching orders last year were two American women who tweeted about Bali being a cheap LGBTQ-friendly destination. Their crime, according to immigration officials, was “spreading information that could unsettle the public.”
Most of those who have been deported were accused of disrupting public order, overstaying their visas and misusing stay permits, including providing false information on their visa applications.
Once the center of an industry that in 2019 earned the island US$8 billion in foreign exchange, Kuta is now largely deserted, losing its title to Seminyak and Canggu as the most popular hang-outs for young foreigners along the west coast tourist strip.
When tourism returns, that’s where the action will be. But plans to re-open the island at the end of this month have died with the worst eruption in new Covid-19 infections since March last year, when the government first shut the door on the island.
Thousands of foreigners were stranded last year, but while many trickled back to their home countries on infrequent international flights, others elected to stay, facilitated by sympathetic authorities who no doubt saw it as a small way to help keep the economy ticking over.
Those that are left are a mixed batch. Apart from a small minority of long-term residents and refugee families from Covid-hit Jakarta, they may be living off trust funds and wealthy parents, struggling to make ends meet as small-scale business people or fall into the category of “digital nomads”, a whole new class of tourist involved in everything from bitcoin trading to art therapy and online hypnotism.
Bali is already a world-leading destination for digital nomads, second only to Barcelona in one survey. Regional competition comes from places like Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, where one of the prerequisites is always a fast internet. A beach helps, too.
Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno, a former vice-presidential candidate who moved his office to Bali to oversee the island’s revival, wants to eventually attract more of the nomads with a new long-term visa that would allow foreign tourists to stay for up to five years.
“Where else can we afford to rent a house with a pool and a rice field view,” asks one nomad couple in their blog, Never Ending Voyage. “Add to that beautiful scenery, an incredible vegetarian scene, plentiful yoga classes, a fascinating culture and friendly people.”
There is a small catch though for establishing a home away from home. Under current plans, the nomads would have to deposit 2 billion rupiah ($137,500) to be eligible for the visa, or 2.5 billion rupiah ($172,000) if accompanied by their families.
The minister has already invited people from across Indonesia to work and study in Bali. Among those who have already moved there are several Jakarta-based foreign businessmen, lured by the prospect of their children being able to attend international schools, rather than learn remotely as they have done for a year now.