How the holiday island of Bali survived two years without mass tourism


“If the airport closes, Bali will die.”

This dire prediction – uttered in March 2020 by one of the thousands of tourism workers who lost their jobs as the international tourism juggernaut ground to a halt – proved half correct.

On April 2, Indonesia stopped issuing tourist visas and Bali’s international airport was forced to close. By the end of the month, 41% of workers on the island were no longer employed, according to data by Statista, while the once-thronging tourism precincts of Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud became ghost towns overnight. And while many Balinese began a fight for survival that continues to this day, Bali did not die from an economic perspective.

One reason the economy kept on ticking away were the tens of tens of thousands of expats who remained. Congregated in the hipster hub of Canggu on the west coast and the surfing nirvana of Uluwatu in the island’s deep south, they drove demand for delivery, housekeeping and other services, putting food on the table for thousands of families.

Many expat chefs and restaurateurs also snapped into action to help their Balinese hosts by turning their venues into free food banks. People like Australians Brad Downes of Tropicana Churros Cafe, who fed 600 people a day, and Josh Herdman of Sea Circus, who collected enough money from expats and Baliphiles overseas to feed 3,000 people daily. UK national Robert Epstone of Solemen Bali, a charity that cares for 2,400 of Bali’s most disadvantaged people, came up with the ingenious idea of placing food donation bins in Western-style supermarkets. Scores of Indonesians also opened their businesses and homes to anyone in need of a meal.

The four months between April and September 2020 when Bali was under lockdown was a fascinating period for foreigners to pass on the island. Restaurants, bars, gyms and even beaches were closed, though a vibrant underground social scene was born where barbecues and parties were thrown in villas every day of the week. Some surfers snuck into bordered-up beaches before dawn, while others discovered secret coves that had escaped authorities’ attention. And while such behaviour may smack of white privilege, most locals – due in part to their innate distrust of the government – ignored Covid-19 protocols too.

A largely deserted Bali airport in April 2020

A largely deserted Bali airport in April 2020

Credit: Getty

In the capital Denpasar, it was more or less business as usual, only with people wearing masks, though often incorrectly because of the stifling heat. Markets kept on trading, while Hindu ceremonies also continued, albeit with smaller numbers than usual. 

Yet somehow Covid-19 infection numbers and deaths remained low. By May there were only 235 confirmed cases and four deaths, prompting calls that a miracle had taken place on the so-called island of the gods. Maybe it was because most Balinese live in houses instead of flats. Maybe it was the outdoor lifestyle or the low incidence of obesity on the island. Or maybe it was heat and humidity that had held the pandemic at bay. But epidemiologists pointed to vastly insufficient testing and warned the good times wouldn’t last.

When the lockdown ended in September, the government began talking about reopening Bali’s international airport as early as Christmas. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of tourists from Europe, the Americas and Russia made their way to Bali through the backdoor by applying for social or business visas.

By December of 2020, Bali felt normal again as hundreds of thousands of wealthy Indonesian tourists who normally holiday overseas flew in. New Year’s Eve parties were banned but thousands found a loophole again by travelling to satellite islands like Gili Tarawan and Gili Air to dance away their cares of beach parties that continued well past dawn.

Domestic tourists helped make up for the loss of overseas arrivals

Domestic tourists helped make up for the loss of overseas arrivals

Credit: Getty

Two weeks into the new year, prior health warnings came true with a record 10,000 new cases daily reported across Indonesia, including 350 in Bali. The death count on the island hit 500 and kept on rising before flattening out at the end of the month. 

At around the same time Indonesia began its vaccine rollout with the aim of inoculating two-thirds of the adult population by the end of 2021 – an enormous undertaking for a developing country with such a large population spread across a vast archipelago. As of December 31, only 41% of the target population had been double vaccinated – well below the global average of 48%. Bali, with its relatively small population of 4.3 million people has fared better, with 70% now fully vaccinated. 

The government has provided free vaccines for tens of thousands of tourists and expats, but has become increasingly intolerant of those who break its Covid rules. Foreigners caught without masks have been fined up to $100, while a Russian model who thought it would be funny to paint a mask on her face, sneak past a security guard in a supermarket, film it and share the prank on social media, was deported. 

July marked the darkest hour of the pandemic for Indonesia as a second wave driven by the delta variant saw the number of confirmed daily cases hit 60,000. In Bali, daily cases hit a record 1,500 in mid-July and by the end of the month, the death toll reached 3,000. A second partial lockdown was introduced with restaurants, bars and gyms again ordered to shut their doors, while the backdoor visa loophole was also put on hold.

Beaches remained open, however, and so did a few bars. By September restrictions were rolled back as infection rates plummeted. Beach clubs that had been closed since the start of the pandemic reopened. Curiously, phones have to be left at the door at nightclubs and bars to avoid photos of crowds of mask-less revellers being posted on social media.

On October 14 Bali’s international airport was officially reopened and quarantine was reduced from seven to three days. But with no authorised quarantine hotels on the island, scheduled flights were cancelled or rerouted to Jakarta. Nevertheless, thousands more tourists turned up in Bali, and people here scoff at media reports claiming the island only received 45 international visitors in 2021. These were presumably the mega-rich who flew into Bali on private jets and were allowed to quarantine at private villas.

Surfers and spectators at Seminyak in September 2021

Surfers and spectators at Seminyak in September 2021

Credit: Getty

Just when it looked like the pandemic was in the rearview mirror, the omicron variant surfaced and Indonesia increased quarantine to 10 days – enough to discourage any potential tourist who can holiday in Phuket quarantine-free instead. Irrespectively, the void of foreigners has been filled again by domestic tourists who have returned to Bali in great numbers. The island is now busier than it has been since the start of the pandemic. It is believed that Indonesia will drop quarantine in the next few months and the hordes will return to Bali with a vengeance.

“The amount of tourists we have now is nothing compared to 2019 when 6 million came to our island,” says Ahmad Syahfitrah, director of operations at Potato Head Desa (Village), home to the world-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. Everyone misses Bali.”

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