Tourism-dependent island hopes for borders to reopen

The usually bustling Batam Centre Ferry Terminal has been turned into a ghost port as the coronavirus pandemic keeps stores shuttered.
The usually bustling Batam Centre Ferry Terminal has been turned into a ghost port as the coronavirus pandemic keeps stores shuttered.PHOTO: FADLI

Quiet streets, empty tables at restaurants, and deserted malls, karaoke centres and massage parlours have become a common sight on the Indonesian holiday island of Batam, just a ferry ride away from Singapore.

Many businesses, particularly hotels and travel agencies, on the island have been badly hit by the coronavirus outbreak since March, when the first positive cases in Indonesia were announced.

Batam Centre Ferry Terminal, which previously was bustling with tourists, mostly from Singapore, has turned into a ghost port as the coronavirus pandemic keeps stores shuttered and visitors at home.

Shop rents have been slashed by half but businesses, from fashion to food, have stayed shuttered. But as long as they do not close for good, "their rents would be reduced even if they don't operate", port worker Santi, 45, told The Straits Times.

Batam is located in the Riau Islands, a sprawling province of more than a thousand islands known locally as Kepri.

The province accounts for the second-highest number of international visitors to Indonesia after Bali. Of the 2.59 million foreign tourists who visited Indonesia in 2019, mainly to Batam and Bintan, nearly half were from Singapore.

While some of those who lost their jobs in Batam have returned to their hometowns, those who stayed on have struggled to make ends meet.

Food server Riswandi, 34, said he had to move in with a friend to save costs after his workplace, a popular restaurant selling sup tulang, or beef bone soup, shut down. "I need to find a new job, but even to find work as a restaurant helper is not easy in these hard times," he said.

Ms Rida Harahap, 23, a therapist at First Choice Spa and Massage centre, said she used to serve five customers a day before the coronavirus struck, but "even getting one now is difficult". Half of the company's 40 therapists have returned to their hometowns, she said.

"Even with a 50 per cent discount for each spa and massage service, business is still quiet. I don't know how long I can last in this job."

Provincial tourism chief Buralimar told ST he hoped the two countries could reopen borders as soon as possible, with health safeguards in place, adding: "Our tourism industry will surely recover if Singaporeans visit Kepri again."

On July 2, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investments Luhut Pandjaitan called Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and they discussed the importance of keeping up positive bilateral cooperation even amid the pandemic.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a July 3 statement that "the call did not go into any specific discussions on tourism exchanges and cooperation".

"Singapore is gradually re-opening our borders in a progressive and calibrated manner, while ensuring the health and safety of Singaporeans and our international visitors... Singaporeans are still advised to defer all travel abroad," the MFA statement added.

Arlina Arshad

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2020, with the headline 'Tourism-dependent island hopes for borders to reopen'. Print Edition | Subscribe