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‘We can’t go on like this’: A year on Bali without tourists


This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.

Bali without international travelers was an unimaginable prospect in January 2019. The Indonesian island, known for its lush vegetation, pristine beaches, and rich local culture, has been a coveted destination for visitors from all over the world, from wealthy foreigners seeking ultra-luxurious resorts to backpackers looking for a wild weekend on the beaches of Kuta. In 2019, Bali’s airport received 6.2 million foreign visitors.

Over the previous decades, the island’s tourism infrastructure—and tourism economy—has grown exponentially, transforming Bali from a secluded haven in the ’60s into a busy (and sometimes gridlocked) destination with some 4,300 hotels and 100,000 hotel rooms. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that the island (population 4.3 million) took in 53% of its revenue directly from travel in 2019; some estimates tie another quarter indirectly to tourism. Balinese workers who previously might have remained on family farms have flocked to the popular destinations of Ubud, Seminyak, and Nusa Dua to become hotel workers, tour guides, masseuses, chefs, and souvenir vendors.

[Photo: Jamie Fenn/Unsplash]

When the world stopped traveling due to COVID-19, Bali’s tourism ecosystem was devastated. By the second quarter of 2020, all but 10% of the island’s tours and travel providers had closed. Hotels that remained opened were running at less than 10% occupancy. Some ground has been regained as wealthy Indonesians have visited, but while countries’ international borders remain closed, Bali’s economic engine is in idle. (The country is reportedly planning to begin allowing international travelers to visit Bali by the end of July.)

This is the story of what happened over the past year on Bali, told through the voices of hotel general managers and owners, taxi drivers, chefs, businesspeople, and expats on the island. And it’s not only Bali’s story: Other destinations, like Costa Rica, where some 11.7% of workers rely on tourism, and Thailand’s island of Phuket have seen their sources of income dry up. As the vaccine makes its way around the globe, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. But for some people, they still seem far off.

An island on hold

Bali’s gone through these abrupt downturns in the past, but nothing compares to this. With tourism, a lot of Balinese people have prospered. A generation or two back, locals were the rank-and-file hotel staff. But then their children have taken on jobs, not only in the hospitality and cruise industries, but also as accountants, engineers, nurses, doctors, and so on. But [lately] I’ve noticed cars and motorbikes on the side of the road with ‘for sale’ signs on them. —Ernst Ludick, general manager, Amankila resort in eastern Bali

I have been a driver for more than 20 years. Before the coronavirus, my business was good, I had a lot of customers who were tourists, and I made enough money. It was enough for me. I’ve been sitting at home doing nothing, no job, no work, nothing for a year now. —Made Wirata, taxi driver based in the town of Ubud, a popular tourism destination

I was a tour guide in Indonesia from 1997 to 2019, then I got a property in a village in North Bali where guests can stay, and I’ve been managing that. I work with the tour group G Adventures; they refer people to stay at my hotel. I usually had three groups staying with me, mostly from Europe and the U.S. It was going very well. The last group that came was in March 2020. After that, no more visitors. I lost everything last April. I lost my car. Banks were being really aggressive. —Gede Sukayarsa, owner, Villa Bantes and…



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