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Bali's move to shut out foreign tourists during coronavirus pandemic sparks 'cultural shift'

ABC News - August 26, 2020

Erwin Renaldi – Indonesia's popular tourist destination Bali has postponed its plans to reopen to international visitors by September and will instead remain closed until at least the end of the year.

With COVID-19 largely spreading unchecked a mere 2.4 kilometres across the sea in neighbouring Java, Bali's Governor decided that despite the island's heavy reliance on tourism, it was too early to reopen.

The decision comes as the number of coronavirus cases in Indonesia continues to rise, officially standing at 157,800 cases and 6,800 deaths on Wednesday, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University. However the true figure is likely to be much higher.

"We cannot open the gate to international travellers until the end of 2020 as the situation in Indonesia, including Bali, is not yet safe to welcome them," Bali's Governor Wayan Koster said in a statement last Saturday.

Domestic travellers have been allowed to visit the island since the end of last month, however it has been closed to international visitors since April.

Janet DeNeefe, an Australian expat from Melbourne who owns a restaurant and hotel in Ubud, Bali said the decision to postpone the reopening was "not unexpected".

"I already imagined that September was too optimistic, given the increase in COVID-19 [cases]," she told the ABC.

"I feel sad for the local people. I think everybody was optimistic that they would get some sort of business back, but obviously we just have to wait and see what happens."

What happens to Bali when tourists leave?

The dramatic 95 per cent drop in international tourists arriving in Bali affects millions of its residents who have relied on the industry for generations.

The occupancy rate at Bali's hotels plunged to 2.07 per cent in May, according to the island's statistic bureau.

Ms DeNeefe said most of the hotels in Bali were currently closed because there was no point opening when so few holidaymakers were around to stay in them.

"We have one room that's being rented at this moment [by] an Indonesian girl... staying for three months," she said. "It doesn't really cover our operational costs, but it certainly helps."

But Ms DeNeefe said she was still keeping her business open and employing local people part time. She added many locals were trying their best to survive and were supporting each other by selling food at affordable prices.

"We are trying to grow different aspects of business that are more about simple food at a lower price," she said.

"Every little bit helps... a lot of folks just put a table at the front [of their homes and businesses] and sell little packets of rice for 20 cents."

Surviving with zero income

Putu Eka Juliawan owns a car rental company based in Denpasar and most of his clients are international tourists. "Before the pandemic, we rented out 25 to 30 cars per day, but since April our income has been zero," Mr Juliawan said.

He has been surviving on his savings for his daily needs and the Government has provided some relief through longer-term car financing. But he said having no income meant he could not employ drivers at the moment and many of them had gone back to their villages to farm.

He said he was disappointed with the postponement of Bali's reopening – a feeling widely shared by many working in the tourism sector.

"But what can you do?" he said. "We just wait and follow the Government's policy. I personally really hope that a vaccine will be available as soon as possible."

Since tourism is the main source of income for most locals, the travel restrictions have significantly impacted the island's economy.

According to a June report by Kopernik – a non-profit organisation based in Ubud – 81 per cent of Balinese households have been impacted economically, and 44 per cent have either permanently or temporarily lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Gede Robi Supriyanto, a musician and environmental activist in Bali, said the figures showed the extent of Bali's reliance on the tourism sector.

"Tourism is the backbone of Bali and the economy has fallen because we rely too much on it," Mr Supriyanto said. He said the problem had sparked a "cultural shift", with people who had lost their jobs in tourism moving back to their home villages.

"We see an increase of employment in the agricultural sector, more people doing farm work," Mr Supriyanto said. "Bali is going back to its roots," he said. "If we want to see the authentic culture of Bali, that is agriculture, we are seeing it now."

Mr Supriyanto said he saw many Balinese beginning to take care of water sources, paying more attention to nature, and repurposing their lands that had previously been used for tourism infrastructure.

The vocalist of Navicula – a band that combines environmental activism with rock music – said he believed Bali had been exploiting its environment for tourism prior to the pandemic and was now "resetting".

"People are rethinking to preserve their nature and culture, whether accidentally or forced to because of the pandemic," he said.

Mr Supriyanto said although it was sad so many people were out of work, he and many others were trying to see the situation with a different perspective.

"In a disaster like this we need to adapt quickly so every step that we are taking will turn into solutions for the problem," he said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-27/bali-delays-plan-to-reopen-for-international-tourists-covid-19/1259301