How is Bali without the beach? Tourism during the coronavirus pandemic.

What is Bali and is Bali Beach the only thing?

Most people don’t know much about Bali and truth be told there is no need to. What most of us know about Bali, Indonesia, is that is a major tourist destination where everybody can have fun. Going deeper than that are probably the fans of the “Eat Pray Love” movie. But yes, we are superficially educated by our smartphones that show us beautiful sandy Bali beach, toned surfers, wild night-life parties and eventually some nice looking buildings (ancient Hindu architecture) behind the palm trees. So that is the Bali we know about. And perhaps that is the truth.

What is the real Bali?

Bali is a special place in Indonesia and for everybody travelling in Asia. While the rest of the country is predominantly Muslim and some small islands are mostly populated by Christian believers, Bali residents are of the Hindu faith. History tells us that Buddhism and Hinduism arrived to Indonesia early AD and it got mixed with local beliefs. Only later Arabian traders brought Muslim ideas and most people in Indonesia got converted. Bali remained Hindu to this day though there is a flood of people from Java and the nearby islands that now moved here to work – and eventually build a home.

Bali Indonesia
Boats on a sandy Bali Beach in Indonesia

So yes, Bali Is a perfect combination of beautiful nature and unique culture. This inspire and awes travellers and some even decide to stay. Recently the fun industry was introduced and the tourism developed exponentially. Tourism grew all over the world but the fame and uniqueness of Bali outperformed its competitors. Its proximity to Australia made Bali a second residence for many of the Ozzies  that opened shops and small businesses. Weekend and week breaks to the island became popular after airlines (especially low-budget ones) made it possible to fly cheaply. And there are the local tourists as well. Indonesians love Bali because it’s different. There are better beaches and better diving places in other parts of Indonesia but nowhere you’ll find what Bali has to offer as a whole.

Taking the Bali beach away

Now, with this coronavirus pandemic locking down people inside their houses, it’s hard to keep this monolith up and running. When you close the tourist attractions, such as temples and parks and beaches, there is nothing magic about Bali any longer. It becomes the normal quiet Indonesian town with the occasional motorbikes rolling around the once full of traffic streets.

By closing the access to the beaches the authorities killed the spirit of Bali. Yes, they did not have a choice, probably. But one realises that this place is special due to people and less due to attractions. When you take away all the attractions and isolate everybody, Bali becomes ordinary.

What remains when attractions are closed in Bali

What remains is the fear. And it’s not the fear of the coronavirus but a fear of not having food for tomorrow. These are dire times and the longer it takes the worse most locals will be affected.

There have been only a few cases of the Covid-19 confirmed in Bali. Perhaps authorities are trying to keep the statistics down or perhaps we were lucky here and the hot weather helped. Compared to Jakarta, Medan or other crowded places in Indonesia, Bali is a bit more relaxed. People don’t live in huge slums but most have their own houses and there is still space to keep social distance if needed.

The real pain however, is the lack of jobs when tourists are leaving in troves. Most people in Bali are working in tourism – some say up to 90% of the workers are employed in the tourism and hospitality industry. This is a disaster in the making. If the restrictions are not lifted soon these people won’t have any means of surviving. These are not business people and investors, these are people that work from salary to salary and if that breaks they won’t have any savings or resources.

Services running in Bali during the coronavirus epidemic

The local government knows that by enforcing a full lock-down would kill some of the most vulnerable. Hence it kept all businesses open. What it closed was the tourist places. There is not a way now to get to the beach, never-mind surfing. The only ones allowed near the water are the fishermen.

There is a quite large expat population in Bali and they do contribute to the welfare of the island. Though it is becoming harder for the foreigners living here as well. Most of their income does usually come from tourism, content making and digital enterprises. At some point, rather soon if the current situation does not change, they will have the make a decision if they can afford to stay in Bali or return to their home countries.

With a handful of tourists still coming to the island, most large hotels closed down or are hibernating due to high maintenance fees. Some budget hotels are trying to survive by making enough to pay the electricity and minimum staff – hoping that the normal will return while still possible. 

Apart from hotels a 99% of the services for tourists are shutting down due to no customers. If they are still open would only prove that they don’t have anything else better to do. They just keep the doors open by way of inertia but there is no income coming in. From the thousands of massage shops in Bali only a few still operate yet there are no clients to be seen. One alternative now is to order massage therapists online on the app. There are quite a few registered on the Android or the web version of the Massage App software – though not at the numbers of the massage offers available in Jakarta or Surabaya.

Restaurants that cater to tourists are opening only a few hours a day. They consider themselves lucky if they get a few orders. Outside the tourist areas such as Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and others, many warungs (traditional family restaurants) are open for business though with a limited menu and shorter hours. One look at food delivery, and transportation (e-hailing) apps shows a shorter than normal list of restaurants available for deliveries.

Can Bali Beach return to its glory?

Of course this depends on when this storm will subside.This is a “the sooner the better” case and it better be soon. It took a long time to build its reputation but now its fame is far-reaching. But now everybody knows about this paradise. And the infrastructure will be here even though it requires maintenance. All they need is tourists, of course. I think there are big hopes and the locals are bracing themselves for a rough ride. If there is no change in the status quo, the next few months will be telling as tears and holes start showing into the fabric of the community.

How can Bali plan for the future?

The first question they need to ask themselves is how to make the island self-sustainable. Is it possible? Yes, there are rice paddies, select agriculture and a small fishing industry but most products are brought in from outside the island – mostly Java. But Bali Beach is what people want. Without the tourism sector would the locals have a minimum income for subsistence? 

People, and the government need to develop alternatives. Something to keep them afloat when the tourism faces uncertainty. It’s true that some locals that owned land and properties got rich from the tourist gold rush. But a large majority are workers at the bottom of the pit. And the government does not have the means to help them. They have to make it better than only exploiting the Bali Beach. Start planning now and hope that is not too late!

April 16, 2020