Hit by Covid-19, Indian travellers return to Bali, enduring pricey airfares and lengthy transits

Unlike Westerners, Indians endure high airfares and lengthy transits that eat into precious holiday time. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DENPASAR, Bali - At the Gateway of India restaurant in the heart of the tourist district of Seminyak, Bali, Mumbai-based Anand Kumar, 34, reasoned why he and his wife of three months chose Bali for their honeymoon.

Despite a three-hour transit time in Kuala Lumpur and high airfares, it was Indonesia’s visa on arrival – allowing stays of up to two months for a 500,000 rupiah (S$44) fee – which made the difference.

By comparison, visa applications to places such as the European Union or Australia could take months, and Mr Kumar, who said he is a software engineer, did not have so much time to wait.

“We wanted something different for our honeymoon, and we had already been to Thailand,” Mr Kumar told The Straits Times. “We had to decide where to go based on where we could get a visa.”

There were about 150,000 arrivals from India, according to the latest airport data for the 11 months to November 2022, well behind the Australians who numbered more than half a million. From Britain, there were nearly 110,000 arrivals.

But unlike Westerners, Indians endure pricey airfares and lengthy transits that eat into precious holiday time. 

Airfares the equivalent of $750 with travel time of more than 10 hours including transit are common, a survey of Internet airfares showed.

Arrivals to the Hindu majority island from India have slowly crept up in recent years thanks to religious similarities and the easier visa rules. At 372,000 arrivals, they were the third-largest group of arrivals behind China in 2019, a 5 per cent increase from 2018.

But some Indians suffered huge losses during the pandemic years, especially those who planned weddings on the island. Often involving hundreds of guests, some lost tens of thousands of dollars on their deposits, which are often 20 per cent of the costs. 

Mr Vikram Kalra, owner of Gateway of India who also organises weddings and corporate events, said that before Covid-19, wedding bookings for 300 or more guests were not uncommon. 

In 2022, he arranged six weddings for Indian clients. This year, he has nine confirmed. A client for a wedding planned for later in January increased the number of guests from 80 to 180.

“We are starting to see some recovery in demand for weddings,” Mr Kalra said. “I am increasingly optimistic.”

Still, neither Garuda Indonesia nor Lion Group, Indonesia’s biggest airlines, say they have any plans to introduce direct flights from Bali to India. Batik Air, part of the Lion Group, flies between five Indonesian centres to India through Kuala Lumpur.

By comparison, earlier in January, Mr Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s Tourism Minister, said China’s big carriers including Air China and China Eastern have requested to open direct routes from Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou to Jakarta and Bali. Tourism officials are targeting roughly a quarter of a million Chinese arrivals to Indonesia in 2023.

But Indonesian officials say they want better air links with India. An Indonesian Tourism Ministry spokesman said it is continuing to push for cooperation with India to increase air connectivity between the two countries.

At stake is a chance to diversify Bali’s market base away from Chinese travellers, who numbered 1.9 million arrivals in 2019 before the onset of the pandemic.

“India was able reach the No. 2 spot for visitors to Bali after Australia even though there aren’t any direct flight from India to Bali yet,” Mr Tjok Bagus Pemayun, chairman of Bali tourism agency, said referring to 2022’s arrival data.

“The potential is real,” he added. 

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