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As Omicron spikes in Indonesia, is Bali reopening to foreign tourists too soon?

AsiaOne - February 9, 2022

Resty Woro Yuniar (SCMP) – Indonesia is sticking to its decision to open the resort island of Bali to foreign tourists despite a spike in Covid-19 cases, saying the move will boost the national economy and set an example to the rest of the country in how to live with the disease.

Jakarta's decision to open direct international flights to Bali, starting from Feb 4, was taken amid an Omicron-driven third wave of infections.

There were 37,492 new cases reported across the nation on Tuesday (Feb 8), the highest daily increase since August. The bed occupancy rate at hospitals in Jakarta has reached 63 per cent, up from 45 per cent last month.

On Monday, the government placed the Greater Jakarta Area, Bali, Yogyakarta, and the city of Bandung in West Java on the second-highest level of social restrictions. These will require malls and restaurants to operate at 60 per cent capacity and places of worship at 50 per cent.

However, officials have repeatedly hinted that they will not implement further restrictions in Java, Bali, and other islands because they deem the country to be more prepared than it was last summer, when the Delta variant spread across the archipelago and brought the health system to its knees.

Also on Monday, the government backtracked on its earlier statement that foreign tourists would not be allowed to land at Jakarta's main Soekarno-Hatta airport. It clarified that tourists could enter the country via airports in either Jakarta or Bali as well as via Batam and Tanjung Pinang in the Riau Islands, where a travel bubble with Singapore is in operation.

"Please do not panic if you see the number of cases are increasing significantly, the most important thing is the hospitalisation and fatality rates are lower [compared to the Delta-driven second wave] and remain under control," Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said.

Indonesia initially allowed foreign tourists from 19 countries to visit Bali, famous for its scenic beaches and Hindu temples, in mid-October, requiring visitors first to undergo quarantine in the capital. However, since then uptake has been sparse. Between Oct 15 and Jan 28, only 273 electronic visas, or e-visas, were issued for tourists to Bali and the Riau Islands.

Last year, only 1.6 million foreign tourists visited Bali, according to government data, a far cry from the 6.2 million foreign visitors it hosted in 2019.

Nia Niscaya, deputy of marketing at the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, described Bali's reopening as a "kind of pilot scheme".

"We have to build trust [in the market], we have to start [reopening Bali to foreign tourists], otherwise we wouldn't know what we can achieve or what needs to be improved [to restart tourism in Bali] during the pandemic," Nia said.

Asked by This Week in Asia why the government had decided to allow direct international flights to Bali during the Omicron-driven third wave, Nia said: "We are living alongside Covid-19. We have to try this, while implementing very strict health protocols. If we wait for Covid-19 [to be eradicated], we will never know [when Bali can be reopened]. This is our effort to boost the national economy, we have to try first, then we can evaluate later."

Nia said that to woo tourists to Bali, Indonesia was marketing its five-day quarantine programme as a "warm-up vacation", where tourists could leave their rooms in one of five approved hotels on the island to socialise within the groups they arrived with or take part in activities in a dedicated "bubble" area.

Three of the hotels are located in a huddle of luxury hotels in Nusa Dua. They offer activities such as morning yoga, statue painting, meditation, and cooking classes. Tourists could also choose to be quarantined in villas, where they would be free to do anything as long as they didn't step out of the villa's complex, she said. The packages cost 10 to 15 million rupiah (S$935 to S$1,402) for a five-day, four-night stay in the five hotels.

"We have 66 hotels lined up for the warm-up vacation programme, but only five have been approved so far. For hotels to be included in this programme, they must have a dedicated area [for the bubble] and their staff must be accommodated in the hotel, so they don't interact with other people besides the tourists," Nia said.

Asked whether extra restrictions would be introduced if Covid-19 cases continued to increase, Nia said the government was relying on strict health protocols and Bali's high vaccination rates to prevent the spread of the virus.

Bali, which has a population of 4.2 million people, claims to have a vaccination rate of over 100 per cent – a figure that includes non-resident foreigners on temporary stay visas. That is the second highest vaccination rate in Indonesia after Jakarta.

Even so, epidemiologist Dr Dicky Budiman from Australia's Griffith University said opening Bali's borders to international arrivals was "high risk".

"Whenever there's a potential for a spike in Covid-19 cases, what should be done is to limit mobility, both from inside and outside the country," Dicky said.

"Bali has a really good vaccination rate, but we should also assess its public's ability to adhere to health protocols, as well as the local government's ability to detect and trace cases, including their surveillance tools. If they don't have any [tools to trace cases], this [international border reopening] could be risky."

Minister of maritime and investment affairs Luhut Pandjaitan, in charge of Indonesia's Covid-19 response, said Jakarta, Bali, Yogyakarta, and the city of Bandung had been put on the second-highest level of restrictions "not because of the high number of cases, but due to [their] low tracing [efforts]."

Dicky predicted that the third wave would peak at the end of February or early March in Java and Bali, but he said that the country's health system was at "moderate risk" of being overwhelmed even though the Omicron variant had a low hospitalisation rate.

"During the Delta-driven second wave, 20 per cent of patients were hospitalised, with five per cent put into intensive care units. For Omicron, 10 per cent of the patients are likely to be hospitalised, while the rest are likely to be asymptomatic or showing mild symptoms," he said.

"But 10 per cent of Indonesians [in hospitals] is a lot. Due to a low patient-to-doctor ratio, even five per cent of the population [being in hospital] could make our health system collapse."

Nevertheless, Bali's tourism industry has lauded the reopening, welcoming it as a boost to an economy that has been battered by the pandemic for the past two years. Before the pandemic, tourism contributed about 66 per cent of the island's economy and provided about a million jobs to its residents. Bali's economy contracted 2.47 per cent last year, and 9.33 per cent in 2020.

"The government is fearless in doing this, and us Balinese appreciate that. Our businesses have been bleeding in the past two years without tourists," said I Putu Winastra, chairman of the Association of the Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies in Bali.

"The most important thing to do now is to maintain the strict health protocols and keep [the pandemic] under control. When is the right time to do it? There is no right time. We can look to Thailand, which opened Phuket when its vaccination rate was only 60 per cent of the population, but they still dared to open it for foreign tourists."

While the association welcomes the government's warm-up vacation initiative, Winastra hopes that the quarantine obligation will be removed soon to encourage more tourists to visit the island.

"The government needs to evaluate this quarantine policy, and abandon it altogether. Tourists who want to come to Bali must be fully vaccinated in the first place, and they have to take a PCR test before they come here, and take another upon arrival. If the rules to have a vacation are too complicated, it will be impossible to get more people to visit Bali."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3166252/coronavirus-omicron-spikes-indonesia-bali-reopening

Source: https://www.asiaone.com/asia/omicron-spikes-indonesia-bali-reopening-foreign-tourists-too-soo