Bali tourism operators at their wits' end as foreign visitors stay away

An almost empty beach in Bali on Nov 25, 2021. Domestic arrivals at Bali's airport during the year to October are down a fifth from the same period last year. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DENPASAR (Bali) - Mr Ide Bagus Sidharta Putra had hoped that by now, his beachfront hotel, Griya Santrian, in Sanur, Bali, would have put the Covid-19 days of empty restaurants and meagre bookings behind it.

It was not to be.

Six weeks after Bali's airport was allowed to accept international flights, not a single plane from outside Indonesia has landed, owing to tough visa requirements for foreigners that include needing a guarantor and rules forcing international arrivals to quarantine for three days even if they are fully vaccinated.

Now, even as other tourism hot spots like Phuket in Thailand show signs of recovery, Christmas in Bali is looking a lot like last year, and business owners like Mr Sidharta are at their wits' end.

"How much longer can we survive?" he said during an interview with The Straits Times in his empty hotel restaurant.

Business leaders are frustrated because of the authorities' failure to follow through on plans to reopen the island's tourism economy, which contributed US$10 billion (S$13.7 billion) for the country in 2019.

Three times since September, the government of President Joko Widodo promised to reopen, prompting some businesses to dip into savings or take on debt to stock up on food or hire staff, only to see the efforts come to nought after the government cancelled the plans.

Now, even domestic arrivals at Bali's airport during the year to October are down a fifth from the same period last year, owing to lockdowns in July and August to stem the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

About 30 per cent of the rooms at Griya Santrian are occupied, which is less than half the occupancy rate at this time of the year before the pandemic, Mr Sidartha said.

"We have done everything the government has asked," he said. "We are desperate. People can't hold on."

To be sure, tourism throughout the region is a shadow of its former self.

In Thailand, which allows fully vaccinated travellers to roam the island of Phuket while they quarantine for seven days, arrivals clocked in at just over 106,000, compared with 40 million in 2019.

People surfing at a beach in Phuket, Thailand, on Oct 25, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Vaccination rates in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are less than the global average of 40 per cent. That slower pace will mean that the region lags behind Singapore in opening borders to fully quarantined travellers, said Mr Peter Mumford, an analyst with business risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Still, reopening quarantine-free trips between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur this month will be a big step towards kick-starting tourism within the region and its neighbours, which accounts for the bulk of tourism in Asean. Singapore accounts for nearly 40 per cent of Malaysia's foreign arrivals and 13 per cent in Indonesia.

"What places like Thailand and the rest of Asean really need is the opening up of intra-Asia shorter-haul travel," Mr Mumford told ST.

"Most people are more willing to take a punt on, say, fronting up for a two-day trip to KL than flying from Europe to Asia for a two-week holiday."

Trouble is the longer Indonesian officials wait to reopen Bali to mass tourism, the harder it will be for the industry to scale up. Nearly 70 hotels have gone bust, according to data from the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Nightclub and hotel owner Gede Wiratha, whose properties include high-end beachfront club Ku De Ta, said he is worried his best workers have left to work abroad, start their own businesses or retired.

"My workers with 30 years' experience, who know the foreigners and know what a B.L.T. is, have left," he told ST.

"We're losing our best people and businesses are closing. I'm scared about what will happen if we don't reopen soon."

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