DENPASAR, INDONESIA - Bali's airport reopened to foreign visitors on Thursday (Oct 14) for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic early last year, as the government of President Joko Widodo struggles to restart the nation's valuable tourism industry.
However, strict quarantine rules and cumbersome visa requirements, including finding a guarantor, threaten to keep visitors away at least for now, officials said.
And as at late Wednesday, airport officials said there were no international flights scheduled to arrive at Ngurah Rai International Airport.
Visitors from 19 countries, including China, India, Japan and South Korea, will be allowed to fly directly to Bali as well as the islands of Batam and Bintan near Singapore on short-term tourist visas, said Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, who as coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment is overseeing the country's reopening.
Singapore is not one of the 19 countries on the list. In comments to the media, tourism minister Sandiaga Uno refused to say whether Bali would be open to Singapore holidaymakers before Christmas.
At stake is Bali's tourism industry, which in normal years could earn Indonesia US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) in foreign exchange.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Bali, with shuttered shops, abandoned hotels and small business owners feeling jaded after similar promises of opening up again to tourists failed to materialise.
Reopening the resort island was to "restore the economy of Bali" amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Luhut said in a press release on Wednesday.
That will take time.
Strict quarantine rules requiring visitors to stay in their hotels for five days might deter some travellers, officials here said.
"If the government sticks with a five-day quarantine, we will have no tourists," Mr I Gusti Ngurah Rai Suryawijaya, vice-chairman of Bali Hotels and Restaurant Association told The Straits Times. "We are proposing three days. That's enough."
By comparison, Thailand's Phuket, which opened in July, allows fully vaccinated visitors to roam the island while waiting for the all-clear from their test results.
Ngurah Rai Airport spokesman Taufan Yudhistira told ST there were no flights yet scheduled to arrive in the coming days.
Airport officials said Thursday the hub is offering free landing fees for domestic and international carriers to boost traffic. The island is currently registering about 7,000 arrivals by air from other parts of the country.
But testing and quarantine protocols raise doubts whether the airport could accommodate large numbers of arrivals even if they were available.
By late Thursday morning, hundreds of chairs were set out in the airport's cavernous arrivals hall where holidaymakers would be expected to wait for at least an hour for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results before being escorted to buses that would ferry them to quarantine hotels.
"We are 100 per cent ready," Mr Taufan said.
To be sure Indonesian officials had only ever planned on a slow start.
Mr Sandiaga had said in earlier comments to the media that he expected only a handful of charter flights to ferry visitors to Bali during the first few days after reopening.
Still, only visitors who are fully vaccinated and can produce a negative PCR test result are allowed to visit.
So far, Bali tourism officials say no prospective foreign tourists have made bookings for quarantine for this month. Forward bookings for November, however, total 20,000, Bali's governor, I Wayan Koster, told the media on Thursday.
Extra hassles such as scheduling PCR tests and finding a guarantor for a visa are expected to delay travel plans, officials here said.
Reopening the airport marks an improvement of fortune from only July when Indonesia was the epicentre for the Covid 19 pandemic, triggering shutdowns in Java and Bali.
Then, infections on Bali alone numbered 2,000 a day, threatening to overwhelm the tiny hospitals on the island.
The rapid roll out of vaccinations and a strict lockdown, which emptied restaurants and cleared the beaches for weeks, brought the outbreak under control. More than 80 per cent of Bali's adults are now fully vaccinated
On Wednesday, the island registered 49 new infections and two fatalities.
"Tourism can take place," Mr Wayan, the governor, told media.
"But controlling the Covid-19 pandemic is our shared responsibility."
- Additional reporting by Ni Komang Erviani in Bali