After two years, Bali finally reopens to tourism

After a few false starts, quarantine-free travel to Bali is open once again. Ian Neubauer reports. 

On 14 October 2021, Bali's international airport officially reopened to much media fanfare, paving the way for the return of millions of tourists from New Zealand and other countries to one of the region's favourite holiday destinations. “Foreign Tourists Likely to Swarm Bali in October's End,” wrote Indonesian newspaper Tempo. “Bali Will Officially Open for International Tourism,” said the Bali Sun.

But with key markets Australia and China still banning outbound tourism and mandatory quarantine for arrivals in Indonesia still in place, the floodgates remained close. “No one is coming to Bali until they remove quarantine,” Kadek Miharjaya, corporate manager at Mama San, an iconic restaurant in the once-bustling Seminyak tourist precinct, said at the time.

He was right. For the remainder of the year, every single scheduled international flight to Bali was either cancelled or rerouted to the capital Jakarta – the only port in the country with authorised quarantine hotels at the time. In December it was reported only 45 foreign tourists landed at Bali's international airport in 2021 compared to 6.2 million in 2019, re-invoking images of empty streets and deserted hotels on the so-called island of the gods.

But nothing could have been further than the truth. Only the budget tourist precincts of Kuta and Legian beaches remained quiet, though this was a symptom of the decaying state of hotels and infrastructure in those areas. Ten kilometres to the north at Canggu, Bali's hipster, foodie and nightlife capital, restaurants, bars and beach clubs were thumping on the back of domestic tourism, with around 20,000 Indonesians flying into the island daily during the end of year holiday period. Their numbers were bolstered by 100,000-odd foreigners who either entered Indonesia through the backdoor on business visas or were here before the pandemic and never left. New Year's Eve parties were banned but people still danced until dawn, either in private villas or at beach parties on satellite islands like Gili Trawangan that were not subject to the ban.

Expect beach bars at Seminyak Beach to be crowded again | Photo: Supplied

By mid-January, the crowds had left and the super-infectious Omicron arrived in Indonesia. To stymie its spread, Jakarta increased quarantine to 10 days – the longest it had ever been in Indonesia. The neighbouring island of Java, which briefly became the global epicentre of the virus when the Delta variant hit in July, braced for impact, with epidemiologists predicting up to half a million new cases per day by the end of February. And while the positivity rate for individuals tested is still sky high at 16 percent as of March 4, omicron's bark turned out to be much worse than its bite. “Lady luck has dealt [Indonesia] a great stroke of fortune in that Omicron has turned out, anecdotally, to be much milder,” said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist at the Rophi Clinic in Singapore.

In Bali, where 79 percent of the adult population are fully vaccinated compared to only 53 percent nationally the test positivity rate is only 4 percent – safely below the World Health Organisation's 5 percent threshold for territories it defines as having the virus under control. This has given decision-makers in Jakarta the ammunition to re-open Bali once and for all.

Therefore, this week, the Government dropped mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated passengers arriving in Bali. And crucially, the free visa-on-arrival programme will be reinstated to visitors from eligible countries, which includes New Zealand.

There will still be some added costs and inconveniences. Travellers must show hotel bookings that have been paid for at least four days in advance and wait in their hotel room until the results of their PCR test come back, which can take up to 24 hours. Those who test negative will have to remain in their hotel rooms until they test negative. Those who test negative straight away can head straight to the beach, order a cocktail or Bintang and bask in the glow of Bali's famous blood-red sunsets.

But what will holidaying on the island be like during the new normal? Will tourists still have the freedom to do as they wish in Bali, even in those cases where that freedom amounts to bad behaviour?

The short answer is yes.

Masks must still be worn at the airport, in taxis, banks, supermarkets, temples, government offices, in the public spaces of luxury hotels and on public roads. But at restaurants, cafes, beach clubs, nightclubs, etc, – the kinds of places tourists spend most of their time – one only needs a mask to enter and can choose to wear one or not once inside. “It's not that people in Bali don't care,” explains Miharjaya at Mama San. “We're all double-vaccinated and we always wear masks at work. But people here have been waiting for tourism to come back for so long. They're much more worried about paying their bills.”

However industry sources forecast Bali and other tourism hotspots will have to wait longer, until 2024, for global tourism to return to 2019 levels. China, the largest source for tourists in the region before the pandemic, still bans its residents from travelling overseas for leisure as part of the country's zero-tolerance coronavirus strategy.

But the tide is changing. Since 3 February, when a Garuda flight from Tokyo became the first international flight to touch down in Bali for two years, around 2,000 tourists have flown into the island. On March 4, a Garuda flight from Sydney became the first direct flight from Australia to touch down in Bali airport for two years. This is the same leg visitors from New Zealand will likely take now that the Government has finally opened borders and lifted isolation requirements for its citizens.

“The amount of tourists now is nothing compared to 2019 when 6 million foreign tourists visited the island,” says Ahmad Syahfitrah, director of operations at the world-famous Potato Head Beach Club. “But when international travel fully recovers in a few years, we are pretty sure we're going to see double that number because everyone misses Bali.”

- Asia Media Centre