Emma Connors, Jakarta/Sydney – Indonesia believes the promise of a population with herd immunity to COVID-19 and a zero-tolerance approach to health protocol violations will be sufficient to tempt international tourists back to Bali by mid-year.
The country's newly installed Minister for Tourism and Creative Economy, Sandiaga Uno, said President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo had ordered vaccinations to be ramped up in key tourist destinations in the hope a 70 per cent vaccination rate would persuade international travellers to get on planes. The target for Bali was to have 70 per cent of its 4.3 million people vaccinated by the end of June.
Sandiaga Uno, who went from private equity whiz to vice-presidential candidate, is now in charge of reviving Indonesia's tourism sector. Other tourist destinations in Riau Islands, near Singapore, will likely get there sooner.
The Balinese economy was in dire need of support, Mr Sandiaga said. The private equity pioneer was parachuted into Jokowi's cabinet three months ago after the worsening pandemic prompted a reshuffle.
"Bali contracted 9 per cent in 2020. That has never happened before," he told The Australian Financial Review. "If you compare this to the Bali bombings, one , and two , the Asian financial crisis  and the global financial crisis , this is the toughest situation Bali has faced."
Central to the planned tourism revival will be bilateral agreements that will set reciprocal testing and quarantine requirements. Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, is leading discussion of these "travel corridors" with China, Singapore, South Korea, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Qatar.
The expectation is tourists from these countries will be tested before they board their flight to Bali and again on arrival. They will then quarantine in hotels in selected parts of Bali, gaining more freedom after a few days.
Before the pandemic hit, Chinese tourists flocked to Bali, outnumbered only by the 1.23 million Australians who visited the island in 2019.
There was no timetable for Australians to return to Bali, said Mr Sandiaga, who was the vice-presidential candidate on the opposing ticket to President Jokowi in the 2019 election.
"Last time I spoke with the Australian ambassador, he said he will let us know when the Australians are ready," he said. "But from what I've been reading, I think this will take some time.
"We respect the process. We don't want to rush things and we'll make sure that each party is comfortable before we enter a discussion on the travel corridor arrangement."
Indonesia has reported 1,471,225 COVID-19 cases, the most of any south-east Asian nation, and is still recording more than 5000 new cases each day. The number of active cases has slowly declined since hitting a peak of 176,672 on February 6. It is now around 128,285. Testing and contact tracing have also been increased.
In Bali the trend lines are heading in the right direction, but there is still community transmission. On Tuesday, 182 new cases were recorded, taking the total to 38,489. Of these, 35,881 have recovered and 1083 have died.
Mr Sandiaga said he was cautiously optimistic a corner had been turned, but a lot was riding on the vaccination push. If there was a rise in new cases, the government would put its plans on hold.
"The government is very, very focused on flattening the curve," he said. "Everyone is agreed – if the COVID number is not conducive, we won't be opening the economy. In December, we saw cases going up and we realised we had to got back to the drawing board. The signs are good now, but I don't want to over-promise."
Mr Sandiaga, who is spending around half his time on Bali, said he had been encouraged by increased compliance with mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Indonesian nationals who did not follow the rules would be fined, as would international visitors. Any foreigners picked up a second time for non-compliance would be deported.
"We hope it won't come to that – it would be very unpleasant," he said. "We need full collaboration from not only the health authorities, but from everybody. We all need to work hard, to convince travellers that it's safe."
The deputy governor of Bali, Tjok Oka AA Sukawati, said the island had 500,000 doses of the Chinese-developed Sinovac vaccine to hand and had begun mass vaccinations.
"People in Bali are very enthusiastic about being vaccinated," he said. "We welcome the government's plan to reopen Bali for tourism in July."
Mr Tjok Ace said surveys of foreign markets suggested tourists were keen to return to Bali, which welcomed more than 6 million travellers in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
Liam Hayes, the Bali director of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute, said Bali would be ready to reopen mid-year.
"COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on tourism in Bali but not on the people of Bali," he said. "They have a saying, 'gotong royong', which speaks to a code of taking care of each other, of mutual support and co-operation.
"They know the pandemic will pass. On every street there are renovations and rebuilding of restaurants and shops under way and we've been impressed by the COVID safety protocols in place at hotels and the airport."