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Bali has been hit hard by the pandemic, like most of the world’s tourism-based economies. The Indonesian island has faced disasters before — the 2002 and 2005 terrorist attacks, and 2017 eruption of Mount Agung, Bali’s tallest and most sacred volcano — but these disruptions have been eclipsed by the social and economic impact of Covid-19.
Although various international media outlets have reported that around 80% of Bali’s economy is drawn from tourism, it is closer to 58% according to Indonesia’s Central Statistics Agency. However, this figure is quite difficult to determine accurately, as thousands across the province — both Balinese and Indonesians from elsewhere in the country — work informally.
When the Indonesian government suspended international tourist arrivals at the end of March 2020, the livelihoods of thousands — including many foreigners who call Bali home — were immediately impacted. Some Balinese tourism workers had no choice but to return to their ancestral villages and pick up farming or fishing to put food on the table, while others pivoted to running their own small businesses online. The economic losses have been unprecedented, with Bali’s economy contracting by almost 10% in the first quarter of 2021.
But Indonesians are resilient people. The Balinese banjar system — the social architecture that keeps islanders deeply connected to their local community — as well as fundraising drives from Indonesians and expats alike, ensured the basic needs of most continued to be met. The strength of community ties, and the fact that the island was prioritized for vaccines, meant that Bali was the first province in the country to reach an 80% vaccination rate.
After months of gradually relaxing international arrival regulations — including the removal of quarantine — Indonesia’s Visa on Arrival was reintroduced in early March 2022. The uptick in inbound tourism was almost immediate: the following month, 66,685 foreigners walked through the gates of Bali’s international airport. Only nine did so in April last year.
With more surfers out in the waves, more tour groups snapping sunset selfies on Kuta Beach, and more tables occupied at cafes and restaurants, Bali’s tourism areas are well and truly buzzing again. The relief, energy and excitement among tourism sector workers is palpable. Banking on a steady recovery, dozens of new hospitality businesses have opened in recent months, from rooftop restaurants and speakeasy bars to boutique hotels and beach clubs.
Despite the relatively swift return of tourists, Bali has changed in myriad ways over the last two years. The pandemic prompted citizens and the local government to pause and reflect on the future of the island’s tourism industry — and what needs to change. Where once the focus was on mass tourism and achieving increasingly higher annual tourist targets, the conversation has now shifted to the need for “quality tourism.”
Generally, the provincial and central governments see quality tourism as tourism that contributes more to the local economy while having less of an impact on the environment and social norms. To put it simply, a “quality tourist” is one who stays for longer and contributes to more locally-owned businesses, from accommodation and food to travel services. Remote workers are a great example of a “quality tourist,” as usually they stay in one place for longer periods and use a range of local services.
With the government’s new focus on quality over quantity, it will come as no surprise to some that digital nomads and remote workers have been identified as an ideal market to contribute to the recovery of Bali’s tourism industry. Although the figure is difficult to determine, some sources state that there were 5,000 digital nomads in Bali in 2019, the highest number in Southeast Asia.
Just months after the suspension of foreign tourist arrivals, some Balinese business owners commented that digital nomads who had remained on the island were helping Bali’s economy, with one saying, “even if it’s just a little bit, we are grateful.”
Indonesia’s Tourism and Creative Economy Minister, Sandiaga Uno, has repeatedly spoken of the central government’s plan to boost Bali’s tourism sector by introducing a long-term digital nomad visa. To date, an official announcement has not been made but several officials have stated that the policy is currently being drafted, and would reportedly entitle the holder to a five-year stay.
The head of Bali’s tourism agency, Tjokorda Bagus Pemayun, recently told local media that “the implementation of a visa specifically for digital nomads is essential. The faster it can be implemented, the better considering the number of digital nomads in Bali is quite huge.” He stated that between 2020 and 2021, there were 6,000 foreigners in Bali, and the majority of them were digital nomads.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of the government’s commitment to establishing a remote worker visa is its “Work From Bali” campaign. Launched in May 2021 as an effort to support the island’s battered economy, the program entailed 8,000 civil servants across nine Indonesian ministries relocating to the island to conduct their work.
The campaign also encouraged Indonesian remote workers and entrepreneurs to base themselves in Bali, and many heeded the call. After the program’s first two months, Indonesia’s central bank reported that Work From Bali had contributed to increasing room occupancy rates and economic growth
Although initially targeting Indonesian citizens, Work From Bali — which was temporarily suspended due to Indonesia’s community activity restrictions (PPKM) — was seen as the first major step towards preparing the island for reopening, and firmly establishing it as an ideal destination for remote workers, both Indonesian and international.
A group of international academics have even suggested five steps that local authorities can take to turn Bali into a “Zoom island” for global remote workers. They include expanding internet connectivity; allowing longer-term visas; introducing incentives and specialized services; targeting millennials in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM); and aiming for a fully-vaccinated island.
As the island speeds up its post-pandemic recovery efforts, a wide range of industry members are coming together to try to make Bali’s tourism future greener. As well as reflecting many locals’ deep desire for a more sustainable tourism sector, their efforts are also responding to the increasing trend of travelers preferring environmentally and socially conscious businesses and experiences.
In April this year, Booking.com released insights gathered from more than 30,000 travelers across 32 countries and territories, which showed that 81% of travellers say that sustainable travel is important to them, while 59% say they want to leave places they visit better than when they arrived,
Under the banner of KemBALI Becik, a variety of local businesses and NGOs with government support are “greening Bali travel.” (In Indonesian, kembali means “return,” while becik is Balinese for “good.” Through its website and social media campaigns, the collective highlights businesses adopting clean energy and offering environmentally friendly consumer products. It also provides suggestions for travelers wishing to reduce their environmental impact.
The Visa on Arrival is the simplest and most popular way to enter Bali. It entitles the holder to a 30-day stay and is extendable for another 30 days. It costs IDR500,000 with payment on arrival, and is available for travelers from over 60 countries. If you’re an ASEAN national, you’re entitled to a free 30-day visa, which can’t be extended. At least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine are required for entry, and there is no testing on arrival.
For the most accessible, up-to-date information about international entry requirements, head to the Welcome Back to Bali website.
Although the island is showing early signs of a strong recovery, it’s important to remember that for two years, very few international travelers made it to Bali. With next to no income, thousands of tourism and hospitality businesses were forced to shut their doors, and many of them were unable to reopen. Now is an excellent time to base yourself on this incredible island, as your support will go a long way to getting local tourism workers back on their feet.
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