June 19, 2021

ilpuntontc

Just Do Travel

A year on Bali without tourists

16 min read
This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of...

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 Bulian Homestay in North Bali

After the Bali bombings [in 2002 and 2005, which killed locals as well as tourists], the island was quiet for a couple of months, then it gradually built back up again. But this is the first time the whole world has come to a grinding halt. This affects everyone: taxi drivers, street-food vendors, the guys that teach surfing, the ladies offering massages on the beach. —Guy Heywood, chief operating officer, Six Senses resorts, (including the Six Senses Uluwatu, in Bali) lived in Bali from 2010 to 2019, as chief operating officer of Alila Hotels and Resorts

Layoffs and pay cuts

I worked as a business development manager for a Singaporean company that owns three properties in Bali. Before the pandemic, we had a lot of tourists coming, especially from America. Then in February [2020], all of our guests started canceling. Our owner decided to cut our salaries in half, and then eventually to close all three properties. He told us that he could support us for three months, and then after that, no one would get paid, including me. We couldn’t sue him or anything like that. There are not enough worker protections in Indonesia. —Komang Agus Surya Kusuma, former hotel manager; now founder of Kayoen Bakery in the capital city of Denpasar

This has lasted for so long. We are slipping on our bank repayments and we are going through our savings.”

Made Wirata, taxi driver

This has lasted for so long. We are slipping on our bank repayments and we are going through our savings. I own my car, which is good because I wouldn’t be able to make any loan payments now. I have two daughters and a wife to support. My wife works at a restaurant and she makes less money than usual right now. Luckily, I became friends with some of my former clients abroad, and they have been able to spot me or lend me some money. —Made Wirata, taxi driver

They started paying us half our salary and let some people go. We went from 300 people to 150. Living on this salary has been hard for our family. We have cut all of our expenses except food and drink. We are still better off than thousands of people on the island who do not have any money at all after they lost their jobs. All of my family working in tourism has problems, though we have a few people who work for the government, so they can bring in some money. The local government distributed some relief to families, like rice, oil, flour, and eggs every month for three or four months. That’s it. —Igusti Agung Mahaputra, head chef at a Balinese surf resort

Managing through crisis

We have a staff of roughly 70 people across our restaurants. We kept paying everyone. It was tough. To help our farmers, we made and sold veggie boxes for people to cook at home. It wasn’t a great business model, but it was a way to keep these guys going. We had cash flow for six months, but then six months passed, and then another six months, and then another six months. Luckily, our staff is so small that we could make some moves to generate a bit of revenue. We did events on the beach, pop-up restaurants at different venues here and in Jakarta. —Eelke Plasmeijer, chef and co-owner of the Locavore restaurant group in Ubud, which includes two restaurants, a cocktail bar, a butcher shop, and food lab and testing kitchen 

We have managed to survive on domestic business. We had to impose some salary cuts for all of our [staff] and we had to seriously curb expenses. We furloughed some people, but we kind of rotated furloughs. The senior managers took the deepest [pay] cuts. The general manager went unpaid for a while, but carried on working. The rank and file had the lowest cuts. In Bali, people rely very heavily on service charge. It’s 10% of income. And if there maybe isn’t much income, it’s a double whammy. —Guy Heywood, Six Senses

 

[Photo: Kharl Anthony Paica/Unsplash]

We have a team of 30, and we committed to not letting anyone go. We also opened our staff meals up to any unemployed hospitality worker, because everyone here is unemployed. We cooked 15,000 meals last year, and we’re trying to go up to 10,000 a month now. We did a pop-up restaurant in [the resort village of] Canggu for six months, serving sandwiches and beer. We’re organizing online classes and selling groceries. We did a fraction of our usual volume last year. If we can recover some tourist trade by this September, that would be fantastic. —Will Goldfarb, chef and owner, Room 4 Dessert, a high-end dessert bar in Ubud

Before COVID-19, we were a food-rescue organization focused on tourism-related surplus food. We collected buffet food from 65 of the largest hotels across the islands, along with food from events, like weddings. When COVID-19 hit, we saw our food disappear. But we found ourselves outfitted for handling the pandemic. We had 12 drivers, multiple food-carrying vehicles, cooler trucks, customized motorbikes, hygienists, chefs. We launched our first rescue kitchen with rescued food in combination with food purchased from local farms and suppliers, which would have otherwise gone to a landfill. From there, we have grown. Now we work with large corporations, such as Nestlé, to collect foods that is nearly expired or damaged goods. In 2020, we offered 1.5 million meals to the needy in Bali. —D.J. Denton, manager, food-rescue nonprofit Scholars of Sustenance

We had almost 800 employees [across four hotels], and we let go of 90% of them. We had to. Some governments abroad have helped businesses, but we don’t have a system in place for it. Even after we let go of 90% of the staff, we still had to pay water and electricity bills, and we are not getting any help. I am basically not taking a salary. Almost 100% of my business is funded by bank loans. Because the business has done well in previous years, the bank took that into account and gave me a good deal with the repayment scheme. I’ve been able to bring 20% to 30% of my employees back as contractors with a 50% reduction in salary. All of the hotels are discounting their rooms, like 50% or 70% off. I’m telling you, you can stay at a luxury resort for $100 a night. —I Nyoman Suwamana Wahyu Putra, owner, Dijiwa Sanctuaries, which includes four hotels

Getting by (and not getting by)

I used to have 11 people working with me, but now I have only one maintenance person. I have made a new business making herbal drinks with ginger and turmeric and selling them at markets. I taught some of my former employees how to make them so that they can also sell them. I also have a chicken farm, but it’s not enough. None of this is enough. My friends who are tour guides are all trying to change jobs. Gede Sukayarsa, Villa Bantes and Bulian Homestay

I was driving around east Bali yesterday and I just started crying. I was in Ubud and seeing everything closed was so bad. It feels hopeless.”

Gede Sukayarsa, owner, Villa Bantes and Bulian Homestay

A lot of [laid-off] people are selling vegetables to try and make money. People are selling what they can: They just park their cars on the street and leave them for sale. But I don’t see anyone buying these things. I don’t see anybody who has the money to buy anything. A lot of my friends have gone back to their villages to farm or fish and sell what they can, but everyone is dropping the prices, so they are selling what they grow for very cheap. I Gusti Agung Mahaputra, chef

People are slowly returning to employment here, for lower salaries, of course. A minimum salary here is traditionally around 3 million rupiah a month—around $210. So that’s $210 for full-time, six-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day employment. Today that’s considered a good job. So if we’re talking about a lower income than this, you’re down around less than $5 a day. D.J. Denton, Scholars of Sustenance

Most of my former employees are taking or trying to take blue-collar jobs. They are doing what they can. Many of them bought things with loans, like bikes, and now they are trying to sell them. The government is helping some of them, sending, like, $50 a month for three or six months. It’s not enough, especially if you have a family. I Nyoman Suwamana Wahyu Putra, Dijiwa Sanctuaries

[After being laid off from a hotel], I asked my friends who had lost their jobs what they were doing. They were all starting businesses just to survive. On some streets there are rows of parked cars where people are selling prepared food, rice, eggs, flour. My friend had his own small bakery, so I worked with him for a few months and then started my own bakery. The business was going well until the last three months. Maybe it’s because people are running out of money. Some people have already sold everything, like their house, to survive. Komang Agus Surya Kusuma, Kayoen Bakery

A lot of people [who worked in tourism areas] have been forced back into the villages of northern Bali, where they come from. The infrastructure of those villages is unable to support the influx. So we’re dealing with food insecurity on a large scale. We are doing the best that we can to locate the people in the greatest need and support them through the donation of nutritious foods. We offer a care package with dry goods, fresh vegetables, and maybe canned meats and that kind of thing. We also have four rescue kitchens across the island, doing anywhere between 3,000 to 12,000 free meals per day. D.J. Denton, Scholars of Sustenance 

The worst thing is malnutrition setting in. So we fundraise for high-nutrition milk, and have set up food boxes in 11 supermarkets in Bali where people can drop off food. But it’s no good just to keep supplying food. It’s not sustainable. The next stage is to engage some of the people that we were feeding in the process [of creating food]. We’re working on that at the moment. We started a program of aquaponics [a self-sustaining system where people use buckets and cups to grow and farm fish at home]. Robert Epstone, founder of the nonprofit Yayasan Solemen Indonesia, which addresses poverty on Bali

Empty streets

Before when you went to Ubud or any city, the roads were very crowded. Now they are empty. I hope it gets better in a couple of months. Most of my friends work with tourists, and since there are no tourists, a lot of them have gone home to villages. They stay with their families and can’t find work. People get around on motorbikes, but a lot of people bought them on debt, and now they are trying to sell them. But if they sell them, they can’t go anywhere. Made Wirata, taxi driver

From a sustainability perspective, [the pandemic] has been maybe a little bit of a breather for Bali. There have been water shortages in southern Bali and the road system is bursting at the seams because of the amount of development. And there’s been a huge amount of pollution. The pace of development on Bali over the last 15 to 20 years has just completely outstretched the ability for the government to stay on top of the infrastructure needed. Guy Heywood, Six Senses

For some months, you haven’t even seen any taxis anywhere. People are saying this is what it was like here 30 years ago.”

Ernst Ludick, general manager, Amankila

It got so quiet, but it was actually really beautiful. Bali was getting out of hand, there was too much of everything, so much traffic. This year it became a really beautiful place. It got really green and vibrant, and you could still go to the beaches. It’s a nice place to live, as long as your business isn’t tourism. Eelke Plasmeijer, Locavore restaurants

As you drive on the many of the main roads, you’ve got these two- and three-story shop houses. They are mostly empty, and ‘for rent’ signs all over the place. And there are all these half-finished buildings. Now they’re just standing idle. Ubud used to be four people astride on each sidewalk, and the whole town at gridlock as taxis looked for fares. For some months, you haven’t even seen any taxis anywhere. People are saying this is what it was like here 30 years ago. Ernst Ludick, Amankila

I was driving around east Bali yesterday and I just started crying. I was in Ubud, and seeing everything closed was so bad. It feels hopeless. —Gede Sukayarsa, Villa Bantes and Bulian Homestay

[Photo: Christopher Alvarenga/Unsplash]

The expat equation

There’s a huge community of foreigners living in Bali. Many have clothing, jewelry, or housewares manufacturing businesses, or they run restaurants or stores. You can live reasonably cheaply and have a great quality of life. Guy Heywood, Six Senses

There has been a little utopia in [the town of Canggu], where all the foreigners that are living on the island have been hanging around. I avoid it like the plague. They’re the too-cool-for-school crowd: damned if they’ll be seen wearing a mask. The bars and clubs there have been packed. But cops are in there now, basically threatening people with deportation if they don’t comply [with COVID-19 safety protocols]. Ernst Ludick, Amankila

Canggu is basically a digital nomad’s paradise: cheap, healthy food; beautiful beaches; good waves.”

D.J. Denton, manager, Scholars of Sustenance

Luckily, the resort where I work at had some people coming for long-term stays, like three or four months, so we were able to stay open. Our landlord is Balinese, but the owner is American and tapped into the expat community in Indonesia, and can get them to take surf lessons or come and stay. A lot of those people have jobs they can do using just the internet. We are doing everything we can to keep them, just to keep them coming to the resort. I Gusti Agung Mahaputra, chef

Canggu is basically a digital nomad’s paradise: cheap, healthy food; beautiful beaches; good waves. The Indonesian government is working on creating a digital-nomad visa that would allow people to come here long-term. The government is now talking about not going back to the same amount of tourism that was happening pre-COVID-19. You can see the repercussions of it on such a small island. We have a waste problem. We were facing a water shortage. These problems have all gone down because of COVID-19. The department of tourism is now talking about the quality of tourists: somebody who will come here long-term and with a steady source of income. D.J. Denton, Scholars of Sustenance

Courting Indonesians

We’ve pivoted to appeal to a domestic audience. There’s a fair amount of money that is churning within the confines of Bali. Expats who are living [in Bali] can’t travel home or outside of Indonesia. And then, of course, you’ve got wealthy Indonesians. They might normally go to Australia or Europe or elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Now they want to spend a couple of weeks hanging out in Bali, rather than be under lockdown in Jakarta. Guy Heywood, Six Senses

There is a huge quantity of wealthy Indonesians. The rate at which they are creating billionaires is now quicker than China’s. In December, a lot of Indonesians who would have been overseas, staying at an Aman in Japan or in America, they came here instead. It’s people who have sort of [thought], ‘been there and done that,’ when it comes to Bali. But now they’ve got no other choice, so they’re coming back. Ernst Ludick, Amankila

When we reopened, we kept our usual menu designed to serve foreigners who were visiting Bali: It was all about vegetables. We got the worst feedback ever from locals, so we changed to focus on animal protein, like beef, which they like a lot more. Eelke Plasmeijer, Locavore restaurants

Local people don’t want the same food as tourists. Some farmers were growing produce like rocket [arugula] and romaine for an industry that just doesn’t exist right now. Indonesian people, we don’t eat so many salads. [Arugula] lettuce farmers are just throwing that stuff away because nobody eats it. I Gusti Agung Mahaputra, chef 

Looking ahead

We can’t go on like this for much longer, it’s not sustainable. I’ve heard that the government doesn’t want to focus on mass tourism, they want quality tourism or luxury tourism: fewer people, who will spend more. But we have a lot of cheaper hotels and stores that are struggling. I try not to stop and think about everything going on. If I stop, I just think, what are we doing? How can we go on with this? Bali was one of the best places to run a restaurant and now it’s one of the worst places in the world. Eelke Plasmeijer, Locavore restaurants

I try not to stop and think about everything going on. If I stop, I just think, what are we doing? How can we go on with this? ”

—Eelke Plasmeijer, chef and c0-owner, Locavore restaurants

Who knows how long it’ll take before things truly come back. We’ve got three green zones nominated [as COVID-19–free areas that could receive international travel in July], but [the government] hasn’t really explained the implementation of that yet. And it’s not clear who is going to come anyway. Maybe Singaporeans? We don’t expect Australians until probably next year, maybe this October. Japan and Korea: forget about it. We’re not expecting too many Americans or British tourists, who used to be our bread and butter. It’s always been a boon for a hotel to have long-haul markets as your top markets. The only time that doesn’t work is when you’re in the middle of a pandemic. Ernst Ludick, Amankila

My son just graduated from tourism school and had a good job working in Kuta. He was laid off when the pandemic hit and now has a very low-paying job in a café. I don’t know if he will be able to work in tourism. When business comes back, they will want to rehire the experienced people first. Gede Sukayarsa, Villa Bantes and Bulian Homestay

I think the travelers will come back, I’m an optimist. The problem is that there’s a price war for everything—bicycles, hotel rooms—because there is more supply than demand. I don’t know if I will go back to hospitality. Komang Agus Surya Kusuma, Kayoen Bakery