Kornelius Purba, Jakarta – In 2021 only 45 foreign tourists visited Bali after Indonesia closed its borders almost the whole year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as other countries did the same. The situation has improved significantly this year and the resort island has steadily reopened the door for tourists. Other tourist destinations are also expecting full recovery.
In October last year, Bali began to welcome back foreign visitors from a few countries, such as South Korea, China, Japan, the United Emirates Arab and New Zealand under strict COVID-19 restrictions, but there was no direct flight to the island. That is why there were only 45 tourist arrivals in 2021, compared with 1.05 million in 2020 and a whopping 6.2 million in 2019.
Bali locked itself off from the outside world after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in 2020. Domestic tourists could not compensate for the big losses because the government also imposed tough restrictions on all citizens.
Bali is so popular in the world that many foreigners know the island a lot better than Indonesia, and sometimes think Bali is a separate country from Indonesia. The resort island is globally known as one of the world's best tourist destinations.
Indonesia has been able to manage, at least so far, the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic and is now readjusting itself to enter a "new normal" era. Many countries also have shown encouraging developments and have started to reopen themselves while relaxing travel restrictions for their citizens.
Two years of the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for domestic healthcare players, such as hospitals and doctors, due to the mobility curbs. The government data found about 2 million Indonesians sought medical treatment overseas annually, with Singapore and Malaysia among the top destinations. According to The Jakarta Post's report, nearly 80 percent of foreign patients in the two neighboring countries came from Indonesia, especially Sumatra. They spent about Rp 100 trillion (US$7 billion) on medical services there.
Meanwhile, Bali and other tourist destinations are bracing for the return of international travelers. Millions of people worldwide are eager to enjoy sand and sun, as well as green mountains. They want to break free from the strict mask-wearing policy and spend their leisure time outdoors.
On the other hand, many Indonesians cannot wait to travel abroad. The number of outbound and inbound tourists will likely surge drastically this year unless another outbreak of coronavirus happens.
Effective from March, the government has allowed all inbound travelers without quarantine from 25 countries to avail of the Visa on Arrival (VoA). They are Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, China and India, and all of the 10 ASEAN members.
The requirements are almost the same as those in place overseas, such as full vaccination plus a booster, proof of payment of hotel bookings for a minimum of four days in Bali, and the obligation to take a PCR test upon arrival.
The government expects the tourist sector to become one of the main engines of the country's economic recovery this year. Bali, as always, will serve as the backbone of the industry.
The province's economy only grew 0.07 percent in 2021 because of the heavy blow the pandemic dealt tourism. Before the pandemic struck, Bali's economic growth outstripped the national level.
Bank Indonesia's Bali representative office has predicted the province's economy will grow 6 percent this year when tourism significantly recovers. Tourism contributes nearly 60 percent to Bali's economy.
Not only Bali, other tourist destinations are expecting a returning wave of travelers as COVID-19 restrictions are slowly eased.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has decided to develop five-super priority destinations for the next few years. They are Lake Toba in North Sumatra; Borobudur Temple in Magelang, Central Java; Labuan Bajo in East Nusa Tenggar; Mandalika on Lombok Island in West Nusa Tenggara; and Likupang in North Sulawesi.
Lake Toba's attraction is based on its natural beauty and the history of its creation. Toba Caldera is one of 20 geoparks in Indonesia and is recognized as one of the UNESCO global geoparks. The lake is the result of a supervolcanic eruption that occurred 70,000 years ago and triggered global climate change. It is much easier now to reach Lake Toba following massive infrastructure development, although it may take time for it to rival Bali due to different cultures.
Bali will remain the favorite destination, and the world has proven its loyalty. On Oct. 12, 2002, terrorists exploded three bombs in Paddy's Bar and the Sari Club in Kuta and outside the US Consulate General in Renon, Denpasar. The barbaric acts killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 28 British nationals and people from 21 different countries.
The terrorists were members of Jamaah Islamiyah, which is linked to al-Qaeda. The masterminds of the terrorist attack, Imam Samudra and Amrozi, were sentenced to death and executed. Two other terrorists were killed during police raids.
Three years later on Oct. 1, 2005, suicide bombers attacked Bali again. They hit Jimbaran Beach and another nightspot in Kuta. The bombings killed 23 people, including the three perpetrators, and injured more than 100 others.
Slowly but surely Bali regained ground, thanks in part to the police's ability to crack down on the terrorist groups responsible for the two attacks and their devastating impacts.
There have also been attempts to introduce halal tourism in Bali and in other predominantly non-Muslim regions such as Lake Toba and Labuan Bajo, which is quite disturbing. Unsurprisingly, the local people have rejected the plans, not because they do not want to provide halal services for Muslims, but because based on their experience, halal policies are prone to abuse.
Now that the government has reopened Bali, hopefully there will be no more coronavirus outbreak. Indonesia is waiting for new waves of tourists to compensate for the two-year malaise.
[The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.]