Anne Barker, Indonesia – Indonesia is drawing up a plan that could allow foreign tourists to return to Bali within months if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and return a negative test on arrival.
The central government in Jakarta is debating how to establish a "COVID-free corridor" for tourists from key countries to visit select areas of Bali, including Nusa Dua on the southern tip of the island.
Indonesia's Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno said Australia was one of several countries that he hoped could be included, along with China, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.Australia was the top source of foreign tourists into Bali in 2019, followed by China, before the pandemic hit.
Mr Uno said he had raised the idea with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, though not yet with the Australian government.
But it is unlikely Australians will be packing their bags for a trip to Kuta Beach anytime soon.
There is currently an overseas travel ban in place, and Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy has indicated that Australia's borders are unlikely to reopen this year.
Mr Uno said Perth would be the ideal destination in Australia for a tourism corridor with Bali.
"The idea is, it is from point to point. You need to designate a point – either Melbourne or Perth. Based on the data it should be Perth. It's the one with the most incoming tourists," he told the ABC.
The minister said he hoped to see foreign tourists returning to Bali within a couple of months.
"I've had requests for opening up these corridors by the end of March, early April. Let's see. I don't want to give any false hope," he said.
"I think with vaccinations, with more rigorous testing and tracing, and improved health protocols in every destination, I'm very hopeful that we're seeing a much better second half of this year."
Bali is dependent on tourism for its survival
The plan for a COVID-free corridor would see up to five areas of Bali developed as pilot programs for foreign tourism, beginning with Nusa Dua, but possibly including Kuta, Sanur, Ubud and Nusa Penida.
Nusa Dua is the first area to be considered as a "green zone" because it can be gated off from the rest of the island, making it the perfect oasis for the vaccinated.
Indonesia's COVID-19 outbreak is one of the worst in the region, with more than 36,000 recorded deaths and 1.3 million confirmed cases.
Bali was initially faring much better than more populous regions like Java, prompting the Governor to open up the island to domestic tourists last August.
But the low-cost rapid antibody test kits used to screen visitors could be inaccurate, and within a few months Bali's COVID-19 death toll increased five-fold.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in many countries, including Indonesia, appears to have inspired Balinese authorities to give tourism another try.
Mr Uno is now pushing to have Bali given higher priority as the national vaccination program rolls out across the country.
Last week, he even designated Bali's popular Waterbom water slide park as a location for vaccinations to be administered en masse.
The proposal to open Bali back up to foreign tourists coincides with worsening signs of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on Bali's economy.
Bali's provincial government has been in talks with the central government about a financial package to help tourism operators and employees survive the pandemic, until foreign tourism can resume.
Mr Uno said more than 2 million Balinese had either lost their jobs or had their working hours reduced. Roughly two-thirds of Balinese rely on tourism either directly or indirectly for a living.
There have been periods where 95 per cent of hotel rooms and villas in Bali have sat empty.
Many hotels have had no visitors for months or have been forced to close altogether. Many that have stayed open have had to slash their rates.
Rai Suryawijaya, who heads the Badung branch of Indonesia's Hotel and Restaurant Association, said around 60 hotels across Bali had been put up for sale, unable to cover staff salaries and other operating costs, or cover their debts.
"They want to sell because they can't survive in such uncertain times," he told the ABC. "That's why many owners are calling me and asking to sell their properties."
Bali's hotels struggle to see light at the end of the tunnel
One such owner is Agung Kertayasa, who runs the picturesque Amertha Bali Villas in the Buleleng regency on Bali's north coast.
In normal times, it caters to mostly German or other European tourists, many of whom visit Bali to go diving.
But in the past year tourist numbers have dropped by 90 per cent and revenue has fallen to as low as 5 per cent of what it was in 2019.
"Before the pandemic it was our best year here," he said. "We had hoped that 2020 would be even better. But then we had to deal with COVID-19."
Streets around the Amertha villas are often deserted. Shops and restaurants, once full of tourists, are now empty or boarded up.
Canadian Paul Loube has owned Luxe Villas in Ubud since soon after he and his wife arrived in Bali 10 years ago.
He said they fulfilled a lifelong dream to build a luxury, boutique hotel surrounded by rice paddies and lush jungle, with distant views of Bali's volcanoes.
But in April when the pandemic hit, they were forced to shutter the property altogether and lay off more than 30 staff, with full severance pay. "It was disastrous to say the least," he said.
Like many other owners, Mr Loube has put his property up for sale, though he and his wife had always planned to return home to Canada eventually.
If his villas do not sell, they will continue to run them until the situation improves.
While he said there were always a good number of hotels and villas for sale in Bali, he estimated the number currently on the market was about 20 per cent higher than usual because of the pandemic.
"Balinese people are suffering from no work in the tourism industry. There are just no jobs. And I think it'll be that way probably for at least this year.
"[But] once the vaccine is administered I think we'll start to see a bounce back. We're quite confident when travel resumes Bali will bounce back quickly. It's a very resilient island."