As one of the world’s top travel destinations, the impact of COVID-19 on the Indonesian island of Bali has received intense media scrutiny — and speculation. After foreign arrivals and transits were temporarily suspended on March 31, by mid-April most international media coverage had shifted from stranded tourists to those seeing out the pandemic in paradise. Julia Winterflood specially for The Diplomat.
Dozens of stories detailed luxury lockdowns and quiet beachfront retreats. After Sky News interviewed a British family spending their lockdown “watching the sunset and playing in a paddling pool,” Indonesians began to push back, including award-winning investigative journalist Febriana Firdaus who tweeted: “Can we just stop publishing stories on the matter of the tourist gaze? This is so wrong at many levels of journalism.”
With 235 confirmed cases, 121 recoveries, and four deaths at the beginning of May, Bali did not emerge as the coronavirus hotspot that contagious disease experts had predicted. Rather, it had one of the lowest fatality rates in Indonesia. At the same time, however, it has been widely reported that Indonesia has had one of the lowest per capita testing rates in the world, with Bali being no exception. As Indonesia’s total number of cases increased steadily — and the much-cited Reuters report of record high burials in Jakarta did the rounds — stories of Bali’s “mysterious immunity” caused consternation for Indonesian public health experts and journalists alike.
On May 12, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo praised Bali’s provincial government for its handling of the outbreak, attributing the “success” of containment efforts to the island’s 1,493 desa adat (traditional villages). From meting out “social sanctions” like push-ups for those who violate nationwide mandatory mask use to taskforce members in traditional masks denying entry to those attempting to access closed areas, the efforts of local authorities, both creative and standard, have been widely celebrated.
After Jokowi’s stamp of success, foreign media began focusing on Bali’s timeline for reopening, but official estimates varied. Three days after Jokowi praised the Bali government and the traditional village system, the secretary of the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry, Ni Wayan Giri Adnyani, said in a statement that the Ministry was planning to “revitalize destinations” in select parts of the country, including Bali, between June and October, while partial reopening “may begin” in October.
On the same day, the head of the Indonesian Hotels and Restaurants Association’s Badung Regency chapter, I Gusti Agung Ngurah Rai Suryawijaya, told the ABC that Bali would “hopefully” reopen in July. Minister for National Development Planning Suharso Monoarfa, echoed this projection on May 28, announcing that “we expect Bali will be ready to open for business soon in July.”
Predictably, dozens of media outlets jumped on the July reopening period, while others opted for far less click-worthy October. For Gustra Adnyana, co-owner of a library cafe in Ubud, the contrasting timeframes only fueled his skepticism of the reports. “It isn’t clear lately,” he said. “It makes me doubtful of the accuracy of the media.”
As the squall of articles on when tourists could return to their favorite resort island intensified, so did the severity of adjectives used to describe the impact of COVID-19 on Bali’s economy. As James Guild writes in New Mandala, “some of the more sensationalist [news items] tend to privilege the perspective of foreigners or use somewhat alarmist language to push a narrative of impending disaster.” He also notes discrepancies in reports of the percentage of tourism’s contribution to Bali’s GDP. Al Jazeera pegged it at 80 percent, while Coconuts Bali quoted the deputy chief of Bank Indonesia’s Bali office, who put it between 54 and 58 percent. The latter is in line with the Central Statistics Agency’s 2019 figure of 55 percent, which Guild cites.
“For me,” he writes, “this idea that Bali will die without tourists comes uncomfortably close to a White Savior narrative, implying that local people have no choice but to hunker down and endure this crisis until foreigners start showing up again to rescue them. Such framing strips Indonesians of their agency in rising to meet this challenge, something they are quite capable of doing and have done many times before.”
Community-led initiatives to help the nation’s most vulnerable groups withstand the pandemic — such as Donations for Transwomen Bali and Pasar Rakyat Bali — receive significant local coverage, but expat-founded charities tend to attract more international media attention. A similar sentiment was expressed by Shane Preuss in The Diplomat, who pointed out that “what the Australian media has missed is the resilience of the Indonesian people.”
He also points out that in the 2019 Legatum Prosperity Index, Indonesia ranked fifth in the world for social capital and first for civic and social participation, with the highest levels of volunteering of any country. In the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) World Giving Index Indonesia also ranked first for frequency of donating and volunteering.
Meanwhile, Eve Tedja, an associate editor of a gourmet and lifestyle publication, believes that when it comes to local perspectives, foreign media coverage of COVID-19 in Bali is “very lacking.” She contends that “if there is more coverage about real issues as opposed to Bali’s ‘mysterious immunity,’ maybe journalism can become the motor to create the necessary change.” Tedja feels that the “only genuine voice of Balinese perspectives” is independent community-based journalism portal Bale Bengong, which “allows us to speak our often unheard and most often, reluctantly voiced, opinions.”
At the end of May, Bali Governor I Wayan Koster quashed speculation on when Bali would reopen, stating there were no plans to restart the tourist industry in the near future. As reported by Kompas, Koster has insisted his government is putting the health of the island’s population first. After a recent increase in local transmissions, bringing the total number of confirmed cases as of June 10 to 608 with 409 recoveries and five fatalities, he has reemphasized the ban on large gatherings of any kind, ordered tourist sites to remain closed, and urged residents to be more cautious.
The Indonesian Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry has declared that when travel restrictions are eased, Bali will be the pilot location for the Ministry’s Cleanliness, Health, and Safety (CHS) program. The program will be rolled out across the archipelago’s top travel destinations as part of Indonesian tourism’s transition to the “new normal,” although Bali’s Deputy Governor Tjokorda Oka Artha won’t be using this term. “In the context of Bali, I don’t call it the new normal, I call it the new era of Bali, which will change the paradigm of tourism in the future,” he said during the Indonesia Tourism Forum teleconference on May 15.
So what do Balinese want their island’s “new era” to look like?
Many are concerned about environmental sustainability and preserving the natural beauty of their island, which, prior to the pandemic, drew increased volumes of tourists annually. In 2019, international arrivals grew 3.6 percent from the previous year to 6.3 million, according to the Central Statistics Agency’s Bali office.
Putu Evie, a dancer, dance teacher, and member of Trash Hero Indonesia, believes the CHS program’s hygiene and sanitation protocols will need to address the issue of waste and single-use packaging. “The public still believes single-use plastic is the answer to maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, so there must be a change in mindset first. Whether we want to or not, with this pandemic, we must learn to confront this problem.”
Although the island has long suffered from alarming amounts of plastic waste on land and in its seas and waterways, confronting the crisis has only become a major government focus in the last two years, according to Andre Dananjaya, a co-producer of Pulau Plastik, a collaborative campaign tackling single-use plastic in Indonesia.
Environmental preservation is also a priority for Ayu Gayatri Kresna, a traditional chef in Bengkala Village, North Bali. She feels that the island “needs to consider returning to quality tourism, where guests appreciate and participate in preserving the sustainability of nature, culture, and traditions.”
Cultural tourism should be one of the foundations of Bali’s new era, says Jero Mangku Istri Alas Arum, who was ordained as a Hindu priest at the age of eight in Batur, northeast Bali. “There is a cultural and spiritual sanctity that we must maintain in Bali. When this is protected, tourism will be sustainable.”
Ida Bagus A. Gangga, a member of the Desa Adat Dawan COVID-19 taskforce in Klungkung on the island’s southeast coast, believes there should be equal focus on the health and safety of the population as there is on the environment. Similarly, I Gusti Krishna Aditama, who works for a national character-building association, says “the environmental aspect needs close attention, because this is where we work and live. If the environment is destroyed, where will we live?”
In a similar vein, hotelier Bagus Ari Saputra asks, “Do we want Bali to essentially be a playground, or theme park, where people from the outside come in and have fun in a plastic space designed for their entertainment, or do we want it to be something that serves the people who live here, who in the end are responsible for managing the development on the island and the preservation of its culture and natural resources?” Bagus admits, however, that “in the end, money talks, and custom decides which places proliferate or prosper, so it will always be a dance between local landowners, developers, and business owners on the one hand, and the tourists who come here on the other.”
Wulan Saraswati, an author and Indonesian language teacher for international students, believes “we need to stop looking at Bali only as a source of foreign exchange, as if Bali only comes from foreigners who bring money. Why don’t we also look at the other potential that lies within Bali itself?”
After the massive decline in tourism caused by COVID-19, which many say is worse than the downturn after the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2017 Mount Agung volcanic eruptions combined, Koster has declared that developing other sectors of the economy, such as agricultural exports, will now be a government priority.
This is welcome news for 24-year-old specialty coffee farmer and processor I Kadek Ari Darsana in Pelaga, Central Bali, who has also worked as a tour guide. “For young Balinese who are worried about the stability of a career in tourism, I think farming is an answer.” Ayu Sudana, also a young specialty coffee farmer and processor, shares his optimism: “Coffee is a great option as no matter what happens in the world, people will still drink coffee.”
As the island’s tourism industry remains dormant, I Made Ady Wirawan, head of Udayana University’s School of Public Health, notes the most likely tourists will be Balinese themselves. “This is a good time for Bali to prepare itself.”
When the island does reopen, he urges that “the new era or new normal must be in parallel with government efforts to increase capacity in testing, treating, tracing, and isolating cases.”
Julia Winterflood is a writer, editor, and translator based in Indonesia.