In the first four weeks of Phuket’s “sandbox” experiment to reboot tourism in July, 14,000 international tourists arrived on the Thai island, generating $25 million in receipts. Crucially, that included $6.5 million in salaries for locals working in restaurants and hotels.
But over a month since Bali reopened its international airport on October 14, and Indonesia authorized the arrival of fully vaccinated tourists from China and 18 other countries, not a single international tourist has flown directly to the island on a commercial flight. The number of advance hotel reservations from international visitors is also zero, whereas a month after reopening Phuket had 110,000 room nights booked in advance.
“Our hotels haven’t received any bookings from international tourists,” the head of Bali Tourism Board Ida Bagus Agung Partha Adnyana told the Bali Sun. “I think that so far we’ve been targeting the wrong markets for Bali’s tourism reopening.”
Indonesia has been vocal during the pandemic about its desire to attract “quality” tourists and redress Bali’s image as a low-cost, mass-market getaway. One high-ranking politician, Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, even said, “We won’t allow backpackers to enter once the reopening plan for international travelers is officially put in place.”
The statement was later retracted by his office. But it is one in a long line of ever-changing and confusing messages that have seen Bali’s long-awaited reopening fail in spectacular fashion. “There is no clear statement from the government of what it is trying to achieve, a process for getting there, or simple guidelines for would-be tourists,” wrote Bali-based statistician Jackie Pomeroy on her popular “Bali Covid-19 Update” Facebook page.
Quarantine regulations are particularly confounding. A few days before Bali’s international airport reopened, Indonesia reduced the quarantine period from eight days to five. A few weeks later, it was reduced to three days – but was it three days and three nights, or three days and two nights? Nobody seems to know, including the accredited quarantine hotels in Jakarta that are hosting international tourists right now because every single international flight scheduled to fly to Bali in the past month has been cancelled or rerouted to the capital.
“I just got a phone call in quarantine that government regulations just decreased it to two nights. I get to leave tomorrow,” Richard Phelps, a U.S. national quarantining at the Novotel Tangerang hotel in Jakarta, wrote on Facebook.
“The Mandarin Hotel insisted I quarantine for four days and three nights,” added Wouter van der Sluis of the Netherlands.
Overzealous screening has made some tourists feel like prisoners. “My passport was taken by hotel employees at the airport where I paid for everything. I lost count of checkpoints I was taken through at the airport. I even have to wear a band around my wrist,” wrote Michael Barry, a U.S. national quarantining at the All Seasons Hotel in Jakarta. “Then when I got to my room I was asked for payment again. I highly suggest no one travel to Indonesia until there is no quarantine.”
Some travelers are already enjoying the privilege of quarantine-free travel. Last month, police arrested Rachel Vennya, one of Indonesia’s biggest social media stars with 6.6 million Instagram followers, and her manager, along with a military officer at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport who helped them dodge quarantine after a short trip abroad for New York Fashion Week. It followed dozens of similar incidents this year that Jakarta Metro Police believe are the work of crime syndicates helping wealthy Indonesians circumvent quarantine for a fee.
Meanwhile in Bali, tourism operators are pleading with the government to reduce quarantine again. “We appreciate the recent quarantine policy adjustment, but our tourism benchmark is Thailand’s Phuket Sandbox policy, so I hope it can be reduced to one day,” said Adnyana of the Bali Tourism Board.
Even if that transpires, the vast majority of international tourists will continue to avoid Bali. A survey by the International Air Transport Association showed 84 percent of respondents have no interest in holidaying at destinations that require quarantine. This data has been taken to heart by Sri Lanka, Singapore, and the Malaysian island of Langkawi – regional destinations that compete with Bali and are allowing quarantine-free entry to fully vaccinated tourists from selected countries. Thailand has now upped the ante, ending quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers from more than 60 countries.
Bali, which is now tracking less than 10 new infections per day and where two-thirds of the adult population is fully vaccinated, is now ready to do the same, advised Udayana University Professor I Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, the island’s most senior virologist. “In my opinion, quarantine could be avoided for tourists that have been vaccinated and tested negative before departure and upon arrival,” he said.
Dr. Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist who has helped formulate Indonesia’s pandemic response for more than 20 years, agrees, but thinks quarantine-free travel should be restricted to fully vaccinated travelers who have spent the last 14 days in countries where at least 60 percent of the population is inoculated, there is a positive test rate lower than 1 percent, and are classified by the WHO at level 1 or 2 for community transmission. Travelers from all other countries should spend a week in quarantine. “Seven days is still the best choice based on the current risk situation and research,” Budiman said.
Quarantine is not the only thing keeping international tourists away from Bali. Thailand is once again issuing free 30-day visas on arrival but visitors to Indonesia must apply for visas overseas that clearly identify Jakarta and Manado in North Sulawesi Province as the only valid ports of entry in the country.
International tourists must also download Indonesia’s PeduliLindungi tracer app on their phones, even though they can’t sign in or use the app in any way. And they must show proof of booked accommodation for the entire length of their stay in Indonesia – a surefire way to quench the wanderlust of any intrepid traveler.
Bali is desperate to reboot tourism and put people back to work in the sector that accounted for 60 percent of the island’s GDP before the pandemic. Indonesian President Joko Widowo (commonly known as Jokowi) is listening. This week he announced a plan to open a vaccinated travel lane with Malaysia, but only when the pandemic situation improves – there is no fixed date in mind.
Jokowi’s chief concern is preventing another wave of COVID-19 from building during the New Year’s Eve holiday period, when an estimated 20 million Indonesians will travel to their hometowns. Adding to the mix hundreds of thousands of carefree foreign tourists dancing the night away at Bali’s high-profile beach bars and nightclubs could add fuel to the coronavirus fire. And it would certainly send the wrong message to Indonesians, who are still being told to wear masks and social distance in their day-to-day lives.
“The central government is traumatized by what happened in Indonesia with the Delta strain in July,” said Septian Hartono, a medical scientist and data coordinator for Kawal Covid-19, an independent data initiative in Jakarta. “So they are now doing things in a very careful manner.”