JAKARTA – Bali, the exotic Indonesian island known for its pristine beaches, lush green paddy fields and cultural diversity, has become an unexpected sanctuary for more than 1,000 tourists who have been stranded there during the coronavirus pandemic.
With over 50,000 cases of the disease and more than 2,600 deaths, Indonesia is the worst-affected country in Southeast Asia, but the illness has spared Bali to quite an extent and restrictions have been relatively lax on the island.
Local authorities estimate that a little over 1,000 tourists have decided to remain on the island since travel restrictions were imposed in March, with the majority hailing from China, although the group also includes British, Canadian, Dutch, French and Argentinean visitors.
In the beginning of the pandemic, European authorities had advised tourists to return home due to concerns that healthcare systems in developing countries like Indonesia might collapse quickly if the situation deteriorated.
However, the tourists stuck in Bali have spent the duration of the crisis in a relatively safe way and escaped strict lockdown measures like the ones imposed in Spain, Italy and even Germany.
Federico Brunello, a 37-year-old Italian-Argentine resident of Spain’s Valencia, landed in Dubai on March 13, the day when the Spanish government announced a nationwide lockdown.
As he watched governments across the world close borders and impose restrictions on visitors, especially residents of Spain and Italy, Brunello used his Argentine passport, which did not carry entry or exit stamps from Europe, to be able to fly to Bali.
“At the last minute, as the airline canceled (my return flight to Spain), I decided to buy a ticket and come to Bali. I had been here earlier and I knew that there were few cases here, I thought it would be a suitable place,” Brunello, originally a native of the Catamarca province in northern Argentina, told EFE.
“The first 10 days, when there was a lockdown in most of the countries, life here was completely normal. Later the provisions for washing hands, temperature checks (…) were started,” said the Argentine, who first stayed in Ubud and later moved to the southern resort of Seminyak.
Brunello said that he experienced the strictest quarantine-like measures only in March during Nyepi, the Hindu festival of silence when the Balinese stay at home and even the internet is shut, adding that this year it lasted for two days instead of one.
“The first two or three weeks were more difficult because the locals behaved slightly strangely with foreigners,” he said, narrating how he was turned away from a laundry and a hotel due to fears over COVID-19.
However, later the residents lost their mistrust and currently life was almost back to normal, although physical distancing norms were in place in shops and restaurants.
Although the island seemed to have escaped the disease in March and April, infections began to increase afterwards and over 1,200 cases and 12 deaths have been reported so far in a population of around 4.4 million.
The pandemic has delivered a crushing blow to tourism, which amounts to around 50 percent of the island’s economy as it receives around six million tourists annually, a third of them arriving from China and Australia.
According to official data, foreign arrivals have dropped by 54 percent in the first half of the year, with almost no footfall registered in April and May.
Bali authorities have been trying to bring back normalcy by reopening beaches, which had been closed since late March, and allowing local tourists to visit.
Indonesia is yet to announce a date for resumption of international tourism, although it is discussing the possibility of opening travel bubbles with other Asian countries such as South Korea and China.
The main problem now for foreign tourists stranded in Bali is that they cannot return to their countries due to the continued suspension of flights.
Chinese citizen Jasmine Shi arrived in Bali in February with plans to spend just a couple of weeks there, but was stranded as flights began to be canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Jasmine is still waiting to return to Shanghai, were she is the co-owner of a gym.
The 29-year-old told EFE on phone that, at first, she was stressed out by the cancellations, but got used to the situation gradually.
“Life is normal in Bali, it’s a good place to be in this situation (…) There is no isolation, there is nature, life is pretty good,” she said.
The Chinese tourist added that even though things were not ideal, she had been able to follow the management of her gym through internet after it opened.
One of the advantages of being on the island amid a slump is that prices have halved, with Brunello paying just around $280 per month for an apartment close to the beach with a swimming pool, where he can spend his evenings in peace.
The Argentine said that even though flights have been canceled, he was happy to have come to Bali, where he has taken advantage of his free time to join a distance course offering a master’s degree and by creating a webpage to show people how to travel in comfort despite spending less.
“The truth is that for me these three months have been super-productive at both professional and personal level,” said Brunello, confessing that he was born in a humble family and was told as a child that traveling was a luxury out of his reach.