Emma Connors and Andrew Tillett, Singapore/Canberra – A plan to transport Australians keen to leave Indonesia by sea has run aground due to crew quarantine requirements and other costs, but those with deep enough pockets still have the option of chartering a boat.
About 780 Australians in Indonesia are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return, and about 350 of these are considered vulnerable.
Canberra has organised a Qantas repatriation flight next week from Bali to Darwin. Those trying to get home have few other flight options. The one commercial flight operating each week from Jakarta to Sydney is booked out until the end of the year.
Lombok-based Brendan Muir said when the asking price to get home by sea was $3000 to $3500, there was plenty of interest in his plan to take a wooden yacht from Bali to Darwin via Kupang in West Timor. Mr Muir told would-be passengers the trip would take 67 hours, and he had room for 10 to 12 people per trip.
Once he got more detail on government requirements, however, Mr Muir realised he would have to raise the price.
Paying for six crew to quarantine in Australia for two weeks on top of the additional salary costs and rigorous cleaning requirements for the vessel in Darwin meant a single trip would cost at least $50,000, Mr Muir said.
That would come on top of one-off costs including Indonesian licences and inspections.
Business owners spooked
"My price was only going to work if I could easily do multiple trips so the one-off costs were reduced by more people," Mr Muir said.
"Once I had confirmation of the extra costs per trip, it made it clear I would have to stop planning. If someone rang and booked the whole boat I still would make the trip for them," he said.
That would cost about $60,000, Mr Muir said.
Another influential factor was the Australian government's decision that everyone wanting to leave the country would have to apply for an exemption from the ban on international travel. Previously, those who could prove they lived overseas simply had to present that proof on departure.
Mr Muir said the change had spooked business owners who wanted to be able to go back if any issues arose, or they needed to reopen.
Bypassing arrival caps
Many expats in Indonesia who figured they could ride out the pandemic have changed their minds in recent months. A sharp rise in cases due to widespread infection caused by the delta variant stretched some hospitals to breaking point.
At the same time, a reduction in the number of international passengers allowed to arrive in Australian airports prompted airlines to increase the price of fares. The financial woes of Indonesia's flag carrier Garuda also reduced the number of flights to Australia.
Mr Muir's inquiries show there are ways to bypass the caps on international arrivals because these appear to apply only to those arriving by air.
There are, of course, some official requirements. Any boat making its way to Australia needs to notify the Australian Border Force it is en route. Border Force officials have to clear passengers and crew through the border.
Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family do not require an exemption to enter the country, but foreign nationals need both a visa and an exemption.
The Agriculture Department then undertakes biosecurity checks, but state and territory officials are responsible for providing mandatory quarantine arrangements and transporting people there.
The Northern Territory government has arrangements in place to transport passengers arriving by sea to quarantine with COVID-19 safeguards. Boats are met by police and customs officials at Cullen Bay and the arrival is timed so only one vessel docks at any one time.